Corsica and Sardinia December 20th – January 19th
When we first thought about taking the route south through Corsica and Sardinia, our motivation was to avoid cycling down through Italy which we had heard was not very cycle friendly with busy roads and crazy driving. I don’t however think we chose the easy option as the last few weeks have been tough with tortuous climbs and steep descents and the added excitement of strong headwinds, rain, mist and the return of the cold extremity.
Our map of Corsica looked like an anatomy lesson of the gastro intestinal system with intestine like roads from north to south. In fact when we planned our daily route we categorised the roads as either large or small intestine. The small intestines are almost pleasant with gradual ascents and smooth effortless descents that required little use of the brakes. One could Sashay round the curves with a stylish lean into the bends hoping that any following motorist might be impressed by our balletic cycling skills. In reality they were probably just fed up that we were in their way but we sometimes get a friendly pip and a wave. The large intestines are a different kettle of fish and are heart poundingly hard work. The gradients are steep, the summits seem never to get any closer and the descents require careful control to avoid flying off the road like Mary Poppins into the valley below.
Having said all of the above, we are not complaining as the journey has been fantastic and Corsica in particular is heart achingly beautiful.
We spent Christmas in Lama with Janet and Paul and rented an apartment next to theirs which was perfect. The village itself is perched on the side of a valley, full of cobbled alleyways and impressively crumbly houses and fantastic views of Corsica’s vast mountain range.
Corsica has a strong national identity and we enjoyed conversation with Jean and Alex two friends of Janet and Paul who are fiercely proud and protective of the island and consider themselves to be Corsican and not French. As the wine flowed, feelings and passions grew but it was hard to take them too seriously when they were wearing Christmas cracker hats.
Our route took us down the west side if the island along quiet roads that often clung to the sides of the hills. We looked down onto an azure sea and craggy coastline with sandy beaches that are often inaccessible other than by boat.
We had a moment of intense excitement when we met our first cycle tourer. His name was Sebastian, a French man who is cycling all of the French departments. He told us of Tony who he had met the day before who intends cycling to China in a few months time but at the moment is living on Corsica. We took his details intending to get in touch but imagine our surprise when on the following day a cyclist stopped us and said ” you must be the Wall to Wallers”. It was Tony!
It’s always great to meet like minded people on the road who understand what we are up to and we hope to meet Tony again as he can’t fail to catch us up.
New year’s eve found us camping on a picnic site by the side of the road watching a beautiful sunset and going to bed at 7pm. We were woken at midnight by what sounded disconcertingly like gun fire but must surely have been fireworks. We drowsily wished one another a happy new year and went back to sleep so it will not go down as the most exciting new years eve for us but it was different.
As we got further south the scenery altered and the beaches became more accessible. We enjoyed some lovely beach side picnics but still resisted going for a swim.
Our route took us through Corsica’s capital Ajaccio which excitingly is the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. We stayed one night and attempted to leave after rush hour. This was not easy as there didn’t seem to be any alternative to the rather narrow and scarily busy dual carriageway . Worryingly as we headed towards it an air raid siren started to wail. Both of us looked around for a table to dive under but no-one else looked in the least bit concerned so we cycled on wondering if it was a general warning that we were on the road. When we arrived at the start of the main road, still looking for alternative routes, a cyclist went by with his arms folded. That was it, heads down, bums in the air, grim but determined expression and we were off and in no time safely out of the city. I am sure that on the league table of scary roads that one would have a pretty low score compared to some we will come across and I do need to toughen up and stop singing ” I will survive” at the sight of heavy traffic.
We were heading now for Bonifacio from where we would get the ferry to Sardinia. The road down was quiet and beautiful and one morning we got up particularly early and cycled through the dawn.
It was strange to leave France after all this time and there was again a feeling of trepidation at new territory and a new country. Neither of us can speak Italian even though on some of those ascending large intestines we had tried to distract ourselves by learning some useful phrases. We could now confidently count to ten, ask for two beers and where is the nearest WC?
We would be fine.
We landed on a bright sunny day in Santa Teresa Gallura and immediately it all felt very Italian. The south of Corsica had struck us as a little dour and serious at times and here seemed somehow “lighter”. As we were struggling up the hill from the port we asked two ladies the way to Centro and they looked like traffic police as they enthusiastically gesticulated the way.
It was a national holiday on the day of our arrival -Epiphany which for some strange reason seemed to involve witches roaming the streets. We entered the main square to music, children running around in excited circles , stalls and balloon sellers and so settled down to a pizza in a pavement cafe and watched the noisy world go by.
When leaving the town we didn’t know whether to turn left or right as we had left our research rather late and knew nothing of Sardinia. We chose left and headed towards the Costa Smeralda bought by the Aga Khan in the 1950’s when he created a millionaires paradise on its beautiful rocky coast. We spent our first night camping in a tiny cove and rather hoped that we would wake to see Tom Cruise walking his dog. Alas, that didn’t happen and we headed south into a demoralisingly strong headwind.
The coastline was nice but our road often took us inland into rather barren, scruffy countryside. The towns we passed through had on their winter coat which made them quiet and closed up. It was all very touristique and we decided we would head into the mountains.
Our guide book told of a town called Orgosolo which is famed for its murals . There are hundreds of them and most of the available gable ends, fronts and sides of the houses are covered. It seems the murals date from the 1950’s and 60’s when Orgosolo was renowned as a bandit capital with vendettas and feuds between local farmers and shepherds. The murals depict and immortalised the feuds which resulted in countless murders and kidnappings and one grissly statistic told us that between 1900 and 1954 there was on average of one murder in the town every two months.
Despite that information we headed uphill and immediately things changed. Everywhere was privato, with barbed wire fencing and padlocked gates. As the afternoon wore on we realised that it was going to be very difficult to find somewhere to camp and sure enough darkness fell and we still could not find anywhere off the road. It was time to ask. We passed a farm with lights and a car pulling in so we nervously pushed our bikes up the drive and met Francesco the farmer surrounded by 19 cats ( he later told us there were 19, we couldn’t count them.) When we asked if we could camp we rather envisaged a little patch of green in the corner of a field but he just waved us towards his yard which was strewn with old machinery, smelled heavily of pigs and was already occupied by two large dogs, thankfully tied up but looking hungry and desperate enough to eat us for supper. Of course we couldn’t at this point turn around and say that it just wasn’t good enough so we chose a spot behind a JCB and then were invited to join Francesco and his workers for some wine. They were very friendly and kind.
We had coffee with Francesco the following morning and through sign language and the odd common word we learnt a little of his life on the farm with his 19 cats , 5 dogs, numerous hens, pigs , sheep and cows and the fact that one of his daughters is a manager at Zurich airport.
We trundled on uphill all the way to Orgosolo and on entering the town did find it had a slightly sinister air. Many of the roadsigns had bullet holes in them, and as we pushed our bikes up a very steep hill looking for a b and b we saw a group of children staring, fixated into a garage. As we passed we saw the decapitated head of a cow laid neatly to one side looking out while two men enthusiastically butchered the beast while the children looked on.
That evening we went out to find something to eat and heard what sounded like gunfire but turned out to be children with firecrackers. We were nervous.
The murals however were fascinating and we enjoyed wandering and discovering them around every bend.
Pete and I decided to become trainee Orgosolo bandits……
Every time a car passed we expected it to stop and angry men jump out and shout “stand and deliver” . Had they done so, all they would have got was a loaf of stale bread and half a jar of peanut butter. It would however have been an excellent opportunity to get rid of Pete’s long John’s.
Unlike the Corsica map and it’s digestive system, the Sardinian map appeared to be covered in a rash. On closer inspection the spots were monuments and there were many. Our guide book told us that these were Nuraghi that date from 1800-900 BC. and are conical roofed towers. There are 7000 surviving on the island but it is thought that there are another 3000 to be discovered and excavated. We had trouble finding them just from our large scale map but Paschal the b and b owner in Orgosolo gave us detailed instructions on how to find one that would be on our route south. We found the entry gate tied up with string, pushed our bikes down a rutted track, forded a stream, through another rickety gate, along another rutted track and we were there, all alone with history and bronze age man. Fantastic.
The weather now started to deteriorate and as well as being very cold, the clouds came down and it started to rain. We had one very soggy nights camping and then set off in heavy rain. I have to confess to the blog that I was miserable and that life on the road is not always cheery. I had a meltdown which is usually defined by tears, self pitying whining and words such as “I can’t go on”.Pete is of course calmness and kindness itself and while I wanted to throw myself onto the ground,which I didn’t do because of the puddles, he takes the matter in hand, looks at the map, finds a town with a potential b and b, tells me to pull myself together and off we go and within the hour a stove and a cup of tea has appeared.
I think I was tired and luckily there is only one boat a week to Sicily and so we are having an enforced rest in Cagliari before getting the ferry on Friday to Palermo.
What does a typical day look like. Well there isn’t one of course but I thought I would keep track of one day and share it in a little bit of detail.
0730 we shuffled off our sleeping bags. We were aiming for 6:30 but Chris was still gently snoring and I didn’t have the heart to wake her.
On the beach
8:15 Tent packed away, bikes packed and unusually because of where we were we didn’t leave straight away. We normally like to be off and away once it’s light but we were more or less on the beach so didn’t feel we had to rush off. We sat on the rocks and ate some breakfast. Tuc biscuits and cheese. It was Sunday and we didn’t feel very optimistic about finding bread later on for breakfast. The cheese was Mont d’Or. Definately traces of white mould but some cheese is meant to be mouldy – isn’t it? It tasted fine. I think… Fired up the stove and washed the whole lot down with a huge mug of coffee.
09 15 Breakfast things away and push bikes back onto the road and away. Our first full day in Italy. Apparently we’re on the Costa Smeralda which was bought in its entirety by the Aga Khan because he liked it so much and now in summer, celebrity status is required before you can even get a reservation in some hotels!
1000 Stopped to look at some guerrilla knitting. Actually the trees looked a bit shawn and nude so perhaps someone thought that they should dress them for decency’s sake. Chris got asked if we were looking for something. “Bread” she said, in her best Italian. – Blank looks. Popped into a lovely church with a full sized copy of the Turin Shroud on the wall.
Gorilla knitting? Modest trees?
1015 Back on the road
10:40 Are these prickly pears?
1100 stopped to pull tiny hair like splinters out of my hands. They might have been prickly pears. They certainly left some prickles behind.
11 10 Stopped to take off coat. Strong headwind and uphill.
11:45 Stopped at a bar for a coffee and use of facilities and a water top up. Small bar half a dozen men drinking a pre prandial lots of smiles and bonjournos.
12:15 Stopped to check Chris had remembered to pick up her jacket when we left the bar – she had – it’s an age thing.
12:45 Stopped again – jacket off.
13:30 Needed to stop for lunch but couldn’t find anywhere. Approaching a fairly large town and there is a huge out-of-town shopping area but nowhere to sit and cook on the stove so pushed on into the town where we found a gelateria! And it was open! Chocolate ice cream! Worth waiting for.
Worth waiting for
1430 Found a park and tucked ourselves away out of the wind. Couscous and beans for lunch followed by a couple of quizzes. Chris won both!
1530 Off again.
1700 Dusk. Stopped to check out a possible camping site – far too scrubby so moved on and then almost immediately found a track off into the bush (or is it brush?) Found a fairly flat bit. The wild pigs had churned it up a little but what they could do, we could undo. We flattened it out, threw the larger stones to the one side and pitched our home for the night – out of sight of the road. Not the best but a pretty good campsite.
1730 It’s almost dark. A mug of muesli for supper – It’s easy to make in the dark. Cover up the bike saddles, lock the wheels together wish them good night.
1800 Into the tent where we immediatly become invisible, a bit of diary writing a bit of reading and a slow drift off to sleep.
2000 gentle snores once more.
The rain had held off.
53 kilometres cycled.
4 hours and 20 minutes in the saddle.
What do you eat?
Tuc crackers have a remarkably high calories to weight ratio. So do crisps. But crisps have a terrible volume to weight ratio. When everything has to be packed into two small panniers – my front panniers are the larder – air is the enemy!
Couscous is fantastically easy to prepare – boil water, add couscous (preferably pre-seasoned) leave to one side and cook up some kidney beans. Throw in some fresh ginger, an onion, maybe a pepper and by the time that’s hot the couscous is ready
Of course it can depend a bit on the weather. Cooking is not much fun when it’s getting dark or cold – or both… But when it’s warm and sunny and there’s a bench – or even better – a picnic table…
Pasta is good too – a bit too long a boil time, though it will finish cooking perfectly well off the heat. And Uncle Bens – not something I like to admit to, but rice with some nuts or tuna stirred in, ready in two minutes – what’s not to like!
Bread! It’s the staff of life – isn’t it. Well, I think it is. The French- maybe they agree a little – all boulangeries now seem to be ‘artisan’ and bread with some flavour (other than salt) is available but French bread doesn’t cut the mustard when compared with the Netherlands or Germany. As for Italy! The bread is mostly air – with salt. And of course it’s white. And to heap injury upon insult there’s often none left on the shelves! We even tried the Sardinian flat bread ( pane carasau) – about a half a milimetre thick it’s crispy and tasteless. I supose there might be calories in it but I think the energy used to open the packet would easily outweigh any nutritional value…
We did try making some bread. Puris maybe or rotis… It was edible. In fact I do ourselves an injustice – it was delicious! With lots of peanut butter…
Mixing the dough
Fruit. Oranges and clementines are in season. We pass orchards of orange trees. And they’re in the shops!
A plastic box with a clip down lid – fantastic filled with olives, walnuts, onion, tomato and some chopped cheese – well something has to make the bread palatable…
Ice cream. 30 miles from England to France and the ice cream improves a good bit. Only 19 kilometres seperates Sardinia from Corsica but the the words ice and cream take on a new meaning! Strawberry ice cream tastes of strawberries! Chocolate ice cream tastes of, well… chocolate. What is it the Italinans know about ice cream making that we don’t?
Drinking chocolate. What can you ask for when, freezing cold you stop at a ‘bar’ in France. Coffee is a served in a thimble, strong and black. Cafe au lait? – luke warm and too much caffine. Not warming. A cold drink? A Fanta? Not warming either. We needed a hot mug of tea and a bun. We took to ordering hot chocolate. All the way through France we were given luke warm milk with a spoon or two of half stirred in sweet brown powder. But in Italy… Hot chocolate you could stand a teaspoon up in and it tasted of – chocolate! Heaven…
So we don’t necessarily eat at the right times or in the right order but we do eat well!
The elephant. Chris and I have both been reading travel books. Cycle travel books. And I think we’re both a little daunted. We’re thinking of the whole elephant again. And it looks a little indigestable. A little scary. Chris keeps giving him a good talking to… I’m just trying to concentrate on what’s for supper.