A Day in Sardinia

We started the day worried about rain and distance. The day’s ride would be longer than any previous one on this trip and the forecast called for rain all day.  It was windy and cloudy as we left Hotel Luci del Faro in Calasetta, an isolated rural village on the north end of Sant’ Antioco Island, Sardinia. On the second to the last day of a 10-day bicycle trip six long time friends from Arlington, Virginia were making our way to the island’s only city, Sant’ Antioco where we would cross a bridge that had connected Sant’ Antioco to mainland Sardinia since Roman times.  Our route would avoid main roads and travel along the rugged southwestern coast of Sardinia ending at a resort hotel 40 miles south.  Our moods seemed almost as damp and dreary as the day.  I was in the middle of the line of fully loaded bikes visible only because of the colorful raincoats of the six riders.

As I topped a slight incline and turned onto the cobblestone road into the city, I heard a clunk. I stopped immediately. One of my bike spokes broke earlier on the trip, with no spares I wanted to make sure that I hadn’t broken another.  Mike and Gary rode up behind me; they looked and the spokes seemed to be intact so I started again.  After a few pedal strokes, the bike lurched to a stop with an even louder, more ominous, grinding racket. Mike looked and found that the derailleur was in the spoke. He gingerly removed it waiting for my husband Rich, our go-to mechanic, to arrive and put it back together.  Rich inspected the bike and found another broken spoke and as he tried to reinsert the derailleur (the gear changing mechanism or transmission of a bike) he realized the socket was stripped. He gerryrigged it so that I could ride without gears, and we went in search of a bike store. Fortunately, Mike remembered seeing one when we passed through the city the day before. It was on the other side of the city but eventually we found EuroMoto. The shop was dark, we could barely snake our way to the counter avoiding the abundance of bicycle and motor scooter parts, accessories and clothes.  A young woman behind the counter asked if she could help us.  We began to explain our predicament but she signaled us to wait, went into a back room, and returned with a mechanic. Using Margaret’s Italian and Rich’s gestures and mechanical know-how they explained the problem to the mechanic. The mechanic, Gianluca, was confident that he could replace the spokes in an hour. We decided to find a Supermercado and buy our lunch supplies—tomatoes, fresh bread, sharp Pecorino cheese, cookies and wine.

As promised, the spokes were replaced in an hour but after putting the wheel back on Gianluca realized that the gears weren’t shifting correctly, probably the reason for the broken spokes. Over the next hour and half he essentially rebuilt the derailleur using spare parts he had on hand.  While he worked, we hung out on the sidewalk outside the shop, kindles and iPads were unpacked and read, and we chatted and watched Sardinian daily life pass by.  The aroma of coffee was replaced by baking pizzas as time elapsed.  Underlying our relaxed appearance was increasing worry that we had before us a long, possibly wet ride.  Anne suggested that to make the best use of our time, we could eat our lunch in the waterside  park a few blocks away.  We left Rich at EuroMoto.  I rode his bike and we set out our lunch on a damp picnic table.  Ten minutes after we started eating, Rich appeared on my fully repaired bike greeted by a chorus of applause and hallelujahs.

We took off, anticipating a downpour at any moment. We crossed the bridge out of town and took a short cut through the salt flats on the mainland—a  “secret”  alternative to the much busier main road shared with us two bicyclists from Alaska we met earlier at the Supermarcado.The wind had finally turned to our advantage, at our backs and ferocious.  The Mistral from the northwest is the dominant wind in Sardinia, especially in winter and spring.  In planning our 10-day route, we chose to ride from north to south to take advantage of this generally reliable strong tailwind. Instead we confronted eight days of headwinds hammering us from the south and southwest.  Flocks of bathing pink flamingos were our only companions through the salt flats.  A large salt mine with mountains of salt and loading equipment loomed in the distance, salt ponds, some strangely colored red by algae, lined the narrow, bumpy road.  We missed a turn at the salt mine, ended up on a rough gravel road and had to back track.  Even with that, the route was faster and more pleasant than riding on the main road.  We were making good time, propelled as much by the wind as by our pedaling.

After traversing the salt flats, we returned to our original route.  The terrain was rolling, hills covered with grain and yellow and white wildflowers rippling in the strong breeze.  The rain held off and the sun occasionally sneaked through the cloud cover. We turned inland and after stopping to confer about the next turn, Rich and I took off.  We flew down the road, the friendly wind carrying us along. When we got to the next turn, we stopped to wait for the others to catch up.  I was mildly irritated that they hadn’t followed us and wondered what conversation I was missing out on.  We waited.

“Where could they be—we weren’t that far ahead.”

“Do you think something happened?”

“Maybe somebody had a flat tire or a problem with their bike.”

I texted Gary. To be honest, we were reluctant to backtrack given that it meant  riding uphill into the wind. When Gary didn’t reply, we rode back.  As I approached the group, Mike flew past me and didn’t stop. Despite my shouted  “…what happened? What’s going on?” Irritated at his brush off, I thought, “What’s up with that?”   As we cycled up to them, Margaret, Anne and Gary looked grim.

“What happened?

“Mike took a bad fall.  His bike slipped off the pavement edge, when he tried to correct he fell and went slid across the pavement. It was bad, there was a pretty deep cut on his elbow and his knee, hands and ankle were really scrapped up.”

Anne continued,  “We convinced him to take some ibuprofen but he really should have stitches on his elbow.”

Mike had large band-aids, gauze and ointment so he cleaned up as much as possible, got back on his bike and took off.  I now understood that he was probably mad at himself for falling and or embarrassed.  This kind of thing didn’t happen to Mike.

After catching up to Mike, we cycled for 30 minutes or so and then stopped in the sleepy village of Sant’ Anna Arresi.  Mike wanted to stop at a Pharmacia to stock up on bandages and tape and perhaps get some medical advice.  Regrettably, it was 3:45 and most stores are closed for siesta between 1 and 5.

Anne said, “Why don’t we just wait until the Pharmacia opens, this is the last real town before we get to the hotel.”

I piped in, “Actually, why not bag our reservations at the hotel on the coast and stay here in Sant’ Anna Aressi for the night?  It looks like there are plenty of places to choose from.”

Mike would not hear of changing plans on his account.  Instead, we all agreed to stop at a gelato shop for a short break before continuing and skipped the pharmacia.

The rest of the afternoon’s ride was difficult with more elevation gain than we expected, but the coastal vistas were stunning.  Deep blue water and rolling white caps crashed into pristine white sand beaches and rocky granite outcrops.  A double guardrail protected us from the sheer cliff.  The hills were a “maquis”, a thicket of shrubs, oaks, junipers and cypress grew at a permanent 45 degree angle because of the prevailing wind.  As the sun dropped toward the water the smell of the sea mingled with the rich greens and herbs.

Margaret and Anne didn’t appreciate the wind even though it was at our backs…for them it was too heavy and made riding feel unsteady and a bit out of control.  I, on the other hand, thought I would not have made it up the hills but for the wind’s lift. As evening approached, there was worry. Had we taken a wrong turn?  The road and terrain became more desolate and the only hint of life were soaring hawks and falcons and an occasional sheep.  In exhausted silence we followed the steep cliff side road.  No markers or signs for the Hotel Baia delle Ginistre (Bay of the Broom) reassured us.  Then suddenly, after cresting one last hill we saw the hotel buildings and gardens stretching down to the Mediterranean.

A tall, gray haired woman, in gray slacks and sweater, wearing darkly tinted glasses, appeared to be waiting for us as we approached the hotel.  She showed us to three rooms overlooking the gardens and the sea. Although she spoke only Italian, she described the rooms, the keys and the gardens at great length.  Margaret translated important details.  The gray lady told us about breakfast, time and location.  Since it was almost 6 PM, we asked about dinner, where the hotel restaurant was and what time it opened.  The hotel website advertised, “At the resort you will find a self-service restaurant, a rooftop à la Carte, a piano bar and a poolside bar during the day in the square amphitheater.”  Evidently, that is only during the high season, which would begin in a week or so. Our guide shook her head vehemently and said, “No, no cena (dinner)!”

Taken aback we asked simultaneously, “Where’s the nearest restaurant?”  Then, “How far is it from here.”  We all understood when she answered, “oh…cinque-diecito chilometros” (5-10 KM).  Once again, our spirits fell.  The long day’s ride had depleted our supplies; we didn’t have any food, not even nuts or fruit.  Only Gary, who is diabetic, had few rolls he’d kept from breakfast and a candy bar in case his blood sugar was low. I felt particularly bad since I had booked the hotel…why hadn’t they said there was no food on the premises?  Perhaps we could buy some of the breakfast food for our dinner I thought desperately.

Our dismay was evident. There was no way that we could walk or ride our bicycles to the restaurant on the winding coastal road that we had just traveled.  We talked among ourselves and then the woman came over to us and said to Margaret “…un veicolo che uno degli uomini potrebbe guidare al villaggio”, that is “I could lend you a vehicle that one of the men could drive into the village”.  We practically fell to our knees thanking our new friend, saying, “si,certo, si, grazi, grazi!”  Relieved, we sat in the empty hotel restaurant, the gray lady served us beer and wine (except for Mike who was cleaning his wounds and re-dressing them) and discussed the day’s events as the golden red sun fell through the once threatening clouds into the sea.

Showered and somewhat revived, we left for dinner in our borrowed vehicle, a bright blue miniature Piaggio van with a puzzling advertisement on the side: “Figlie Del Silenzio” “Daughters of Silence”. Gary offered to be the designated driver (given the winding, unfamiliar roads) and we piled into the mini- station wagon, Anne folded into the very small rear compartment. Following the “gray lady’s directions we reached the only restaurant in the small fishing village, Trattoria da Gianni di Giovanni Loi, tucked into a bay with windows facing the water.

The only customers in the restaurant, we feasted on fried calamari, cuddle fish and black tagliatelle, grilled vegetables, pastas and wine. We watched the glimmering moon rise illuminating the black sea.  Anne raised her glass and toasted:

“…here’s to all the things that could have happened today but didn’t…Sue’s bike wasn’t permanently disabled, there were no cars going by when Mike skidded across the road, we didn’t go to bed hungry…and it didn’t rain!”

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