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Sunday, July 22, 2012, in Arbatax, Sardinia, Italy

Hi all. We’ve made it to Italy, and are making our way down the coast of Sardinia. Last week, we were in Bonifacio, Corsica, still in France.

Bonifacio is old. There’s a cave shelter that once was the home of Lady of Bonifacio, dated to 6570 BC. Ptolemy recorded the place in Roman times. The town was officially founded in 828 AD by the Tuscan count named Bonifacio.

More than 3000 lives (of the 4000 residents) were claimed in 1528 when the plague reached the town, but bugs weren’t the only attackers. In its Italian heritage, the city has been part of Pisa and Genoa as well as Tuscany. The Genoans, in fact, used it as a tax-free port for the Ligurians, after it cleaned out the local population. The garrison that the Genoans built, believed to be impregnable, held off the Spanish Aragonians in 1420. But it wasn�����t enough to dispel the Turkish warrior Dragut, who was victorious in his siege of the city in 1553, allied with the French. Calvi had withstood such an assault, but Bonifacio fell, in a Romeo and Juliet sort of way. Their strategic weapon was a faked message that convinced the natives that there would be no help arriving from Genoa – before Genoa arrived – and Bonifacio surrendered. The Genoans recovered control in 1559. Present-day French sovereignty of Bonifacio came about through the Treaty of Versailles. It isn’t easy to be a strategic port.

Part of the survival strategy must have been to build and live in places that pillagers just couldnt reach. The haute ville (upper town) resides behind a citadel that rests on a foundation of 200-foot high stone. Locals refer to the steps from the harbor to the town as the grimpette or “little climb”. I confess to being a bit of grumpette myself on the way up. The vertical drop isn’t the problem; it’s the constant slipping on what looks like a very hard stone pavement. Short stairs are distributed about four meters apart, and between them are sloped rocks worn slippery by tourists. In some places, there are railings; in the others, I railed on my own. There’s nothing like taking a tentative step up a fortification and having your supporting foot slip out from under you. I suppose that I wouldn’t make a very good invader.

Apparently another way to elude the enemy is to build your house on the outside of the cliff. There they are, visible from the sea, a dozen or so medieval buildings, only one room in size on each level, but climbing several levels up the rock. Need I mention that limestone, as rocks go, isn’t exactly diamond-hard? You can carve it with your fingernail and some persistence. One of the houses slid into the sea in 1966, killing its inhabitants. So even though Bonifacio is often, and aptly, described as “stunning”, the word that shows up even more often is “precarious.”

We live at sea level, of course, most of the time, and Bonifacio offers restaurants, bakeries, and even two harborside supermarkets at boat level. But we thought that the upper town would contain the supporting infrastructure for people who really live there.

Apparently whoever really lives there has a car to drive somewhere else. We’d mistakenly thought that the upper town would have a barber, or a hardware store, affordable restaurants with local specials, or a supermarket that didn’t bother with boar pate and fig jams packaged for shipping, but we were as wrong as we could be. The restaurants up there were more expensive than the waterfront (although to a menu there was a “Corsican plate” starter of ham and cheeses) and the shops were filled with pink coral jewelry and items with the word “Corsica” printed or sewn on. Instead of being the real town, the upper town served as a gift shop for the harbor.

We did have a lovely view of the port from a hotel on the mountain, peering at the channel through rifle openings in the fortification that constitutes the property limits of the hotel. One of the megayachts that had been on our same journey through Corsica was tied up at the commercial harbor. It didn’t look as giant from this far above it, but we did get a good view of the onboard heliport.

In 2012, future bad weather has shaped our arrivals at harbors, but present bad weather hasn’t interfered with our departures. Weather kept us in Bonifacio for two nights, and a third to wait for the seas to subside. But Bonifacio was the first destination we’d visited all season from which we had to pull ourselves away reluctantly, and we did that in large part because the docking price in season is just very, very high. At least we were able to be there during a weekday when the traiteurs were open.

And so, we left a little of our heart in Bonifacio, and apparently we also left one of our fenders. When it was time to leave, we simply didn’t have six fenders aboard. There are several possible reasons that the fender was gone, none of them plausible. Maybe it rolled off of the deck while the boat was standing still. Maybe it broke its stainless steel clip and slithered off of a lifeline. Maybe someone took it. Really, there were few plausible explanations, but the fact was that we were leaving Bonifacio one fender short. Our spare was stored, but flat. We’d have an errand in Sardinia.

If you want to get away from everything, Sardinia is among the best places to get that accomplished. Sure, there have probably been people there since 350,000 BC. But the island spent a lot of its history being passed around from one conqueror to another and then ignored, and it wasn’t until after World War II that anyone paid much attention to it. In the 1960s, the Aga Khan bought an entire coastline for development, now the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast).

Our plan was to return to Porto Garibaldi, on the island of Caprera, where we could anchor and spend our lunchtimes eating in the Club Med village. Caprera is one of the Maddalena Islands, an archipelago off Sardinia’s northeastern shores. The wind was light, but we could sail, even if it took all day. A few communities speckled the mountains. The houses were all from the same palette of beige exteriors and terra cotta roofs, but some were grand, and some were respectable, but plainer. The lawns of those homes that bothered with irrigating their grass were the color of a pool table; the more natural growth was the color of day-old broccoli.

Sometime during our journey I checked the Club Med web site and learned that the Caprera village was closed. This put a big crimp in the idea of visiting, and we cruised further down the east coast of Sardinia until we found our anchorage in a bay called Arzachena, at a town called Cannigione.

This was a lower-key resort than many on the Costa Smeralda, which would be a plus for us. Though the good-sized marina would probably be reasonably priced, the sprawling, protected outer harbor was uncrowded and tempting. The sea, flat from calm winds, looked saturated like blue slate. We anchored and took the dinghy into town.

Art made a beeline for the marine store, which was surprisingly well-stocked. After a stilted conversation in Italian only, we learned that the proprietor couldn’t inflate a fender, not only the spare we carried, but even the flat ones he sold. He suggested that we consult the fuel dock.

A young woman at the fuel dock spoke some English, but that was the only improvement towards fulfilling our mission of replacing our missing fender. Definitely a tourist town, Cannigione seemed so laid-back to me that I was sure that there wouldn’t be a tourist information center, but I was wrong. We asked our usual questions, for a map, a silly request when the town spans a few blocks in two directions, and for events, which were not likely. The woman did tell us that there would be a market alongside the harbor that evening, beginning at 8:30. We returned to the boat with plans to come back into town. It was cool in the cockpit, even in the afternoon sun.

We returned to town at 8:30, though we weren’t expecting much from a market other than a crowd strolling by. The 8:30 time turned out not to be when people would be strolling after dinner, but when the vendors began to set up their folding tables. The merchandise was of a higher quality than we’d expected, pastel-colored ceramic light covers, handmade jewelry, and books of plain paper with covers made of Sardinian cork. There were fewer people than we’d expected, but we were probably too early. Across the bay, the mountains looked etched by shadows, bathed in a reddish light.

Most of the restaurants looked fairly empty for summer, except for one pasta place on a side street. There, tables covered the street in front of the restaurant and in front of the adjacent Laundromat. Every seat was filled, and most tables had long plates of seafood pasta or large bowls of mussels in front of every four or six people. There were probably about thirty or forty people sitting at these tables. And there were another thirty or forty waiting for them to finish, standing alongside on the street in a polite line. Someone in a black apron came outside periodically with a carafe of white wine, and he’d pour the wine into the plastic cups that were in the hands of the people waiting for tables.

We’d already been ashore twice, walked through town twice, visited the marine store twice, and couldn’t bring ourselves to stay in town another day, so we decided to move on. We pulled up the anchor and motored out. After motoring for a few hours, we put out the sails and drifted most of the day. The mountains that had seemed red to me in the evening now had a golden shimmer. Occasionally there was a community of homes; colorful umbrellas on the nearby beaches were as dutiful as a starched uniform. Still, Sardinia did not look overdeveloped by any means, and the sensation of slow motion on glassy seas surrounded by craggy mountains was hypnotic. Our distance was thirty miles, and for most of it we traveled at only about three knots. But if it’s really the journey, not the destination, then we had a very successful day.

As we sailed south, we passed the center of Aga Khan’s development efforts, Porto Cervo. On our previous pass through Sardinia, we chose this capital of this A-list retreat for a visit. We couldn’t afford to stay in the marina, but there was an anchorage inside the harbor, and we settled in. There was a sort of planned-community mall ashore filled with shops selling scarves, jewels, and sailing wear that cost more than the suits I used to wear to work. The architecture of the mall was unremarkable and new, and the houses in the area were large and well-tended, but looked like the sort of development tract Joni Mitchell used to sing about. We discovered pretty soon that just because we could live over the equivalent of a subway grate in this pricey resort, we couldn’t afford to eat or shop there. A few days later, we’d had enough of the luxury and moved on. The boats are bigger now and the shops are probably more luxurious. We would skip Porto Cervo on this visit, but it was clear that Porto Cervo wouldn’t notice our absence.

Apparently Sardinia, and particularly this harbor, is a favorite place for people who really could be anywhere on earth. We saw Le Grand Bleu, one of the largest pleasure boats in the world, a boat we’d last encountered in 2002 in Trogir, Croatia. This boat is 104 meters (341 feet) long, with a crew of 35. To put it in some sort of perspective, it carries a few amusements on board for passengers to use when they’re in harbor. One is a 70 foot sailboat (our boat, considered roomy, is 54 feet long) and another is a 65 foot motoryacht.

For sailing fans, we also passed the yacht Aglaia, one of the ten largest sailboats in the world. At 66 meters (216.5 feet), it doesn’t sound to me like something two people could handle on their own. In fact, there are nine cabins just to handle the eleven crew members. Normally, sailboats this giant divide up the sails between several masts, but Aglaia is a sloop, with a single mast of 82 meters (269 feet).

Our anchorage for the night was Port Brandinghi, a sheltered place, though our weather would be uneventful. Onshore, we could see some homes and a beach, but not much else. We’d dawdled so much that there wasn’t much daytime left once we were anchored, and we settled in.

It was a short sailing day to La Caletta, the first place on Sardinia’s coast that we’d visited before. Sailing in the morning was leisurely, but the breeze soon picked up and the experience sailing into the wind, heeled over to starboard, was exhilarating.

Sardinia, especially south of the Costa Smeralda, is remote. The communities that exist are small; the homes are probably empty most of the year, and the beaches are endless and uncrowded. Most of the coastline is rugged and empty. It’s an island paradise. La Caletta is one of the few towns that could reasonably merit a harbor and a marina.

On our previous visit to La Caletta, we’d been surprised by the new, nearly empty marina that had apparently been built and essentially abandoned. We had concluded at the time that the money had come from some development project funded elsewhere, and that the town was happy to take the capital but unwilling to bear the ongoing expense. The marina buildings were fine and functional, but the flower boxes that had been planted were filled with dried-out blooms. No staff had been around to help us on the docks, and the dockage was free and largely ignored. But the tourist-center brochures had been professional and colorful, and I thought at the time that this place might come into its own in ten years. I had no idea that I’d be back in eleven years.

The marina which was once empty is now in operation. Each side of a long pontoon has a different proprietor. The price for dockage was in line with other Sardinian marinas in August, very high. But the outer dock inside the artificial harbor was unassigned to either of the two marinas. If space was available, you could tie up there for free if you were willing to do without marina services such as water and electricity. The opposite side of the harbor was in the process of constructing pontoons that would double the number of berths. I reread my journal, which said exactly the same thing, eleven years earlier.

We arrived during the quiet hours after noon and before evening, when towns are closed up tight. There wasn’t any VHF radio traffic asking the marina for places or for docking assistance. It wasn’t clear that the “marina services” we’d pay dearly for were in service at all. And there was a long empty spot on the outside wall. The metal bollards, unclaimed by any marina’s ownership, were covered in rust, but still serviceable.

It was early afternoon and the winds had picked up considerably. The artificial seawall wouldn’t provide a lot of shelter inside the harbor. Luckily for us, the wind would push us into the dock, facilitating tying up if our fenders kept us from smashing up first. Also, a handful of sailors from other boats on the pontoon were waiting for us, ready to take our lines and make my life a lot easier. I was very grateful that they were there and that they were helpful. Sometimes, you pull into a berth, obviously wishing that someone would help, and people sit on their own boats steps away, just watching you as if you’re some sort of afternoon demolition derby. But here, they were almost lined up, and docking was quick and safe.

The way we cruise doesn’t align with the goals of most people who visit Sardinia by boat. On the one hand, there are the megayachts. They leave the harbors in the morning, anchor somewhere cooler as the land heats up during the day, and then they return to the dock in the evening, where the passengers, showered and refreshed, go out for expensive dinners and luxury shopping. On the other hand, there are the liveaboards and the vacationers of more modest means, and their idea of paradise is swimming and snorkeling during the day, and finding harbors that everyone else has missed.

We have some commonalities with all of these travelers, but we can�����t afford the megayacht life (and I’d prefer lunch out to dinner most days), and we are drawn to human activity and culture and, well, crossing mundane errands off of the list, as much as other boaters are drawn away from it. We’re traveling in Italy, after all, so we have to be in civilization in order to hear Italian language, eat Italian food, and see Italian people. We get a kick out of hearing a six-year-old down the dock somewhere speaking Italian in a way that I can only dream. Art says that he can tell, just from the kid’s pitch, that he’s talking with his hands. So we’re happy to sail to a quiet anchorage, but less likely to stay there for a second day, just sitting aboard and looking around in well-deserved admiration of the natural surroundings. We’d rather be in a town somewhere, while the townspeople are escaping on their own vacations to somewhere remote.

In this way, La Caletta is a perfect place for us to stop. It’s a resort town, but most of the visitors are Italian and the gift shops sell painted plates and swimming toys rather than Hermes scarves and Mephisto sandals.

We waited until the shops opened in the afternoon before we went into town. Neither of us remembered a lot from our first visit to La Caletta. The main street targeted the tourist trade, although it seemed strong on bars and weak on restaurant choices. We’d have to wait for the next day to review our lunch options. We took a quick look through the supermarket and went back to the boat.

The afternoon winds kept getting stronger, and were pounding the boat into the dock. A Swiss boat came in, and we tried to replicate our neighbors’ kindness by helping the new boat dock. A family was on board, a man, a woman, and two girls. The father manned the helm, managed the bow and stern lines, and tied off fenders. The woman sat in the cockpit and watched, as if this were a movie newsreel that she had to sit through before the main feature started.

In time, the marina requested that all of us on the outer dock move one way or another to make room for two large boats that were coming in. They helped us slide our boat forward along the dock, something that I didn’t enjoy in the howling afternoon winds. We realized after we left that this adventure shredded the covers of our two large fenders. Replacing them would cost more than half what we would have paid for a marina place. Penny wise, pound foolish.

The generator, which had been fixed in Cannes, at least enough to run, wouldn’t start. Having a broken generator on the French coast, where you go from marina to marina, is a sort of theoretical problem. Having no generator as you anchor your way down empty Sardinia is another story. Art used the engine to charge the batteries and put another repair on his list.

After dinner, we decided to wait until 9:00 to go back into town. Our previous evening experience in Cannigione had taught us that when the festivities are supposed to start at about 8:30, the vendors are still constructing their displays and the streets are empty. In La Caletta, we didn’t know what the right time was, but it must have been later than 9:00. Tables lined the street, which had been closed off to cars. About half the tables were selling purses, sunglasses and African carved masks and sculptures, with African proprietors speaking some language to each other that wasn’t Italian. Other tables sold candy and plenty of the local nougat, or beaded jewelry, or kitchen utensils of natural materials such as boards of olive wood or woven baskets or cork trays. The inflated and colorful rides awaited children to come use them, but the children weren’t out yet. We wandered around in sparsely peopled streets until 9:30, and went back to the boat. Later, Art heard some singing, and wondered if we should instead start our evening walk no sooner than 10:00.

The second day was a replica of our first day, almost no wind in the morning, and a roaring onshore breeze in the afternoon. I really didn’t want to have to move again, and luckily, we didn’t have to.

We left La Caletta in mid-morning, before the winds came up. As I scrambled around the decks, putting away fenders and lines, a Coast Guard inflatable roared by me. Then we got out of the harbor, and the Coast Guard boat overtook us from behind, and alerted us to stop. Why they couldn’t have done that in harbor was beyond me, but I was determined not to get as cranky about being stopped as I had been in Cannes.

The sea was a little bouncy, and the Coast Guard rejected my offer to come aboard. Instead, they asked for our boat’s papers and our passports, which they grabbed using the sort of fishing net that people use to maintain a swimming pool. They took the papers inside a tiny cabin on the boat, and after some time, returned them using the net, like a mesh version of a bank pneumatic tube. We went on our way and so did they.

Sardinia’s visitors congregate on the northern half of the island, with its many coves and umbrella-bedecked beaches. It’s a far more remote place as you travel south. The mountains closest to the sea are patchy with green scrub; the next layer is colored a deep slate, and the layer beyond that appears to be a starched white.

It’s magical to sail by Sardinia’s sheer perpendicular cliffs. Near our destination, we passed one that soared into the sky like a fifty-story building (or more, as it made our 80-foot mast look like a visiting toothpick), yet they’re softened by the stubble of green brush that manages to make a home on its summit.

We passed by Santa Maria Navarrese, the town we’d visited on our last pass through Sardinia, partly because of the price of dockage, in favor of a more commercial place, Arbatax. I can never decide whether it’s a better bet to visit a place that guidebooks don’t even mention, or visit a place that the guidebook recommends that you skip. My guidebook gave Arbatax a tepid endorsement, mentioning the Spanish tower overlooking a lovely bay, and the narrow-gauge train and ferries that use Arbatax as their terminal.

I liked the Wikipedia entry about Arbatax that told me “The red rocks are the most photographed but least impressive feature in Arbatax. The least photographed but most impressive feature must be the wonderful view from the lighthouse which sits above the village.”

As we approached the harbor, a mutilated rock formation rose out of the sea just offshore. These weren’t the so-called “red rocks”, but they were captivating. Local pleasure boats used the rock formation as a day anchorage (and possibly an overnight one in the right weather). Several boats tied up alongside the steep rocks, no doubt with pitons the way they do in Sweden. This made Art a little homesick for cruising in Sweden, though we’d never tie up next to a rock anywhere.

The harbor at Arbatax is protected by something I see in many Mediterranean breakwaters, concrete pieces that are shaped almost like giant children’s jacks. No doubt they tumble into each other’s crevices and make a sturdy connection against the winds and seas. But there’s always something playful about them to me.

We had called ahead to reserve a place in Arbatax. The marina price was reasonable for Sardinia (something like what we’d pay in Cannes at this time of year), and the woman we corresponded with was fluent in English. The harbor was huge, with a long dock for freighters. The town is in the process of building commercial facilities for paper and pulp and for natural gas exploration. There are enormous metal structures in progress around the harbor, including a yellow tinker toy of a structure that could well be the landing platform for alien space invaders. Next to it stands a spike that shoots into the sky and tapers at the top. All in all, it looks as though they’re about to launch a space shuttle.

Someone came out in an inflatable and directed us to a berth where another dock hand awaited. His English was flawless, and we docked without incident.

We will spend a few days here (possibly enough time to fix the generator and fill our fender), and when the weather is right, we’ll go on to Sicily with an overnight sail.

Love, Karen (and Art)