[ 22:37 sunday 3 may – asinara, sardegna, italy ]
seated on a rock in the mirror-flat sea several feet from the shore. i leapt here from the white sand beach of cala sabina, ghostly pale under the half moon. the limbs of the bay stretch in from either side, silhouetted against the star-spattered sky. the nearest artificial lights twinkle on the coast of sardegna twenty-five miles away. i can make out the town of porto torres by the concentration. the only sound is the gentle shush and heave of the water moving against the rock and sand.
this island of asinara is one of the most strange and beautiful places i’ve been. it’s ten miles long and five miles wide with a human population of no more than forty. in 1885 the freshly-minted italian government designated it as a high security prison and relocated its community of five hundred shepherds and farmers across the water to sardegna’s nurra peninsular. shortly afterwards a quarantine station was opened for mariners with contagious diseases.
during the great war austro-hungarian prisoners of war were interned on asinara. five thousand of them died here. the ethiopean imperial family was incarcerated on the island during the italian occupation of their country from 1936 to 1942. during the 1970s the facility was used to intern high-level mafia criminals. with poetic irony certain of the judges leading the prosecutions against these same figures also took up residence on asinara for their own safety. in 1991 the island was designated a national park. in 1997, after one hundred and twelve years, the penitentiary facilities were closed down and people started being permitted to visit under strict controls.
what remains is an environment of astonishingly pure nature punctuated by grim abandoned penal structures. the combination is jarring, emotionally confusing.
just two days ago, sitting in the trampery, i decided to escape from london for the weekend and impulsively acquired a return flight to alghero in north-west sardegna. i made no plans for what i’d do once i arrived. claudia kindly sent me a message with a few suggestions. as soon as i arrived i became curious about asinara. in alghera i asked people if there was somewhere i could stay on the island. a lady in the council office said she thought visitors could stay in the old barracks.
so i rented a car and drove fifty miles to the tip of the nurra peninsular where i stood looking across to asinara. there was no sign of a quay or ferry so i drove back south to the nearest town, stintino, and picked my way down to the compact harbour. i learned that there was one boat each morning crossing to the southern tip of asinara. someone also had a mobile phone number for one of the people working at the barracks on asinara. it took several attempts to get through but when i did i was told i could stay.
not wishing to spend the night in stintino (which felt one-dimensionally touristic) i continued south and arbitrarily took a side road to a tiny hamlet with the fabulous name of noddigheddu. this consisted of seven single-storey stone houses arranged around a green. one of the houses was abandoned and the roof had caved in. an elderly lady called giovanna had two rooms where people could stay. i dropped my bags and continued down the dirt track to the coast. just before sunset i was walking on the long deserted beach when thirteen flamingos appeared magically and noiselessly in the azure sky above me, wheeled slowly around where i stood watching, then returned the way they’d come.
this morning giovanna plied me with sardo biscuits and told me some of her family history. her great-grandfather had been a farmer on asinara, part of the community forcibly depopulated by the state in the 1880s. after breakfast i drove back up to stintino and down the track to the quay. the boat was waiting for me. i leapt aboard and we were away across the sparkling water. arriving at fornelli i hitched a lift up to cala d’oliva at the north of the island and dropped my rucksack at the barracks. then i set out on foot and spent the rest of the day walking. except for the three staff at the barracks i haven’t seen another soul.
this is a tough landscape of granite outcrops and hardy low shrubs populated by wild donkeys, goats and birds. about five miles north from the barracks i crested a hill to find a jaw-droppingly beautiful view spread in front of me. a shallow white-sand beach with turquoise sea breaking against it, low woodland behind the beach, a headland extending to the east surmounted by a crumbling genoese watch tower. this was cala d’arena. i picked my way down through the scrub and reached the beach. there was no sign anyone had been there in weeks. the only footprints were from birds and donkeys. the detritus washed up over the winter remained undisturbed.
my excitement at the opportunity to explore and photograph was in conflict with my reluctance to disturb the pristine environment. i trod lightly and sparingly with my heart in my throat. i remembered the excitement in kirmo’s eyes when we walked through ancient untouched forest in lapland. after exploring the beach and the lagoon behind it i picked my way along the rocks to the watch tower then came back over the scrubby headland to the beach. i discarded my clothes and swam in the chill clear water. my first swim of the year. the current was quite fast at the edge of the beach so i did not go out far.
later on, back at barracks, i was served dinner alone in the mess. nobody else is staying. then i walked out to the rock where i sit and write now. tomorrow i want to hitch a lift down to cala reale to explore the cluster of old prison buildings there.
: c :