The road is silver and jumping with water, a shimmering aquatint of slick, sinuous curves. Treacherous patches as smooth as mercury lie where the camber levels out, and the tyres glissade across them with a thin zipping sound before regaining the purchase of the rougher asphalt with a dull roar. The hillsides are smoked with rain, thickening and dispersing as the clouds lower down their flanks, tissues of mist that are slowly torn away to reveal folds of wet valley. Small, battered farm buildings hunker down against the weather, red tiles shining, gutters cascading with twisting streams of tinsel, drowned by the rain.
The minimalist titanium spiderweb of my Scandinavian glasses offers no protection against the onslaught of droplets, and I experience the curious sensation of raindrops bouncing off my eyeballs at high speed. It stings my face like a dozen needles. I narrow my eyes to a squint and try to scan the road ahead, finding the line for the curve, avoiding the standing water which could carry us sideways over the cliff, and shudder as another rivulet of rain trickles down my neck. I’ve got the big shivers, a tremor beginning, rippling outward in fluttering muscle. The world is a blur through my smeared lenses, my shoulders hunched, face set in a grimace, roaring round the bends in low gear, with hands as white, dead and cold as a pair of flounders on a slab.
There’s a small track off to the right which I scan quickly, processing in a kind of mental shorthand – synaptic telegrams dispatched to save energy, warmth: no good, soft sand, bike’ll fall over. Another bend, double hairpin, click down to first and don’t touch the brakes, lean it over first this way then that, left eye is closing now, right one is down to 25% vision, find a layby urgently, don’t take your hands off the bars however much it hurts. Gurning mightily, jaw working like a ruminant, one eye shut, I make out twin tyre tracks off to the right and a heap of abandoned construction equipment, and steer towards it, clunking down through the gears like a learner with my non-functioning fingers, jolting the back brake because I can no longer remember left foot from right. Roll to a halt, into neutral, try again, into neutral, green light on, ignition off, sidestand down. Time to stop.
We were woefully unprepared for bad weather. We had left Santa Maria de la Palma in bright sunshine earlier that morning, and the forecast had been set fair. After a few days of temperatures in the high twenties there was no reason to expect a sudden change. As a result I was wearing a Haglofs Gore-tex jacket as a windbreaker – 15 years old, but reproofed earlier that summer – jeans and Blundstone boots. No gloves. K wore a couple of jumpers like an Indian aunty, jeans and trainers. Nothing more. Fortunately I had packed the Outward Bound hoodie as an emergency layer in the top box, so she put that on. We had passed numerous German tourists on big BMW touring bikes in the previous days, and laughed at their stiff-legged gait as they sweated in all their armour while waddling around sunstruck towns. Now the laugh was on us. The Indian style of bike touring makes no concession to protective equipment – even helmets are only used on main highways. But now I found a serious flaw with my helmet, as it lacked any kind of a visor. Riding with my huge sunglasses on this wasn’t a problem; I had ridden through the Himalayas with the same setup, over 18,000-foot passes. But as the day darkened I had to take them off and swap to my regular, non-tinted glasses, which offered minimal protection.
All the way south along the coast road from Alghero to Bosa the weather had been overcast, though there was a glimmer behind the clouds and occasionally sunshine broke through. The road was superb – bend after bend as it curled around the headlands with views of the open sea beyond. We took it fast, the 700cc Honda engine powering smoothly through each bend. It was a great bike, the NC700 – a little stolid and unadventurous, perhaps, but stable and forgiving of my elementary mistakes. We did some quick overtakes of caravans and other four-wheeled objects, and I noticed that above 90kmh my eyes started watering significantly, so after that we kept the speed down a little.
Bosa Marina was windswept and out of season. Palm trees whacked dully back and forth in the breeze along the promenade, and few people were about. We found a cafe open and sat outside with cappuccinos and a couple of paninis – the usual prosciutto and cheese, and tomato, basil and mozzarella. Although we’d planned to continue down the coast to Oristano, given the change in the weather we decided to cut inland and head through the mountains before returning to Alghero. By the time we left the cafe the sky was darkening, but I hoped it might be clearer conditions in the mountains, following the brightness to the east. We rode through the backstreets of Bosa until spotting a sign for a place that was familiar from the map: Montresta. The road climbed steadily upwards, and round one bend revealed the imposing bulk of Malaspina Castle draped along a spur overlooking the town.
The last few buildings fell away behind us and the landscape changed to a rather desolate hilly scrub. We roared our way round the bends, climbing steadily the whole time, until we passed a sign saying Altitude: 550m. We had climbed half a kilometer in perhaps quarter of an hour. It felt colder too, and I kept an eye on the ominous clouds that were looming off to my right over the hilltops. Montresta wasn’t far – perhaps 20km – but on these hairpins our average speed was 40kmh at best. The occasional farm buildings we passed looked like miniature castles themselves, with a rough-hewn, walled-in look and strategically small windows. Occasionally, small, battered-looking Fiats came hurtling down the road towards us, doing double the speed limit (which are all ludicrously low in Sardinia), disappearing round the bends with a twin dab of brake lights. But soon we had the road to ourselves. I hit a large pothole which caused the bike to jump sideways, and heard a groan from behind me. “TK?” I called out: Thik hain? Alright?
“Oof! Yaar,” came the answer.
I felt the first spot on the back of my right hand. Snatching a glance off to my right on a brief stretch of straight road I saw bruise-grey clouds advancing down the hillside across the valley from us. Then I had to snap out of it and concentrate on the next bend, following the metal ribbon of the crash barrier which had an ominously large dent in it. I clicked down into second and raised revs, until the limit point at which the barrier disappeared around the corner matched our own speed, neither advancing nor retreating – the perfect speed for the bend. Information, Position, Speed, Gear, Acceleration. I noticed small dark spots begin to appear on the road surface, and felt more droplets. “Rain coming,” I called over my shoulder. But it might just be a small shower, I reasoned, and we were getting closer to Montresta with every kilometer. Soon, though, a thin, steady drizzle began, and I had to periodically wipe the lens of my glasses using only my left hand to clear them. Then, suddenly, it got heavy, a curtain of falling silver water. I was taking the brunt of it on my chest, and acting as a shield for K, but the Gore-tex was holding up well. It was my vision that was the problem – I just couldn’t see properly, and on each of these tricky bends I needed every ounce of concentration. I was also becoming very cold. I remembered the words of the police biker who taught the advanced motorcycle training in Suffolk: “No matter how much training you have had, or how good a rider you are, you are only as good as the next second of the next minute of the next hour of that particular day. A second’s lapse in concentration could be your last.” It seemed prescient.
After powering through for longer than was probably wise, I could hardly see the road any more. That was when the layby came up with the construction equipment, so we rolled into it. There was no shelter at all, and the rain had settled into a thick downpour. I was concerned about K in the Outward Bound hoodie; if it soaked up the water, with an ambient temperature of around 12 degrees, moving at speed on the bike she was going to quickly become hypothermic. Spotting a ditch partly covered by branches we headed towards it. On the far side the hill fell away and we clambered down a few feet over a low wall to take shelter under some foliage. It was not the most scenic of spots. Discarded tyres lay around, with occasional pieces of plywood and other debris. Across the valley, I could make out small fields intersected by drystone walls and a little farm building. In the distance a dog barked, the sound muffled by the hiss of the falling rain and the drops pattering on the carpet of leaves around us. K’s teeth were chattering.
“Right, we’ve got to keep warm!” I announced.
“Oh god, it’s gone into military mode again,” she said.
“Yass!” I jumped up and down a few times, under the dripping trees. “Come on!” We jumped up and down a bit. I began harrumphing various marching tunes, of which the British are historically favoured with a great abundance. “A Life on the Ocean Wave” with the band of the Royal Marines – the record of which we used to have as children when we lived in Eastern Europe. As kids we just enjoyed marching up and down in time with the beat. It only occured to me retrospectively that playing British Military Music for hours on end in the living room with the secret police’s microphones hidden behind the wallpaper was in fact a not-terribly-subtle two fingered salute at the Communist regime. “Tipperary” – the most extraordinary song, really, written by two Brits (one of Irish descent) before the First World War, which became widely adopted by all the troops in the Trenches – including the Germans. And one night in Frankfurt in 1990 I met a man from East Germany walking his way west after the wall had come down, sitting on a park bench with a couple of other guys, sharing a bottle of vodka. On hearing that I was British he pulled out a harmonica and started playing “Tipperary”, and then we all joined in, between swings of the bottle, serenading bemused passers-by: a young Brit (of Irish descent) and three old German guys, singing a British wartime song, drinking Russian vodka after they had escaped from Communist East Germany. Historical ironies.
But in the ditch in the rain the tunes in my head all kept turning into Colonel Bogey, from “Bridge on the River Kwai”. Marching on the spot we began whistling it tunelessly, flapping our arms. I had pins and needles in my fingers from the cold. The only lyrics I remembered were the kind familiar to generations of British schoolboys:
Hitler has only got one ball
The other is in the Albert Hall
His mother, The dirty bugger
Cut it off when he was small
Himmler had something similar
But poor old Goebballs
Has no balls at all.
Just then, we heard the sound of an engine. A big bike. Then another, then a third. BMWs. You could tell by the clunking gear changes. They slowed, perhaps on seeing our bike in the layby, but then carried on along the road. I wondered aloud what exactly three touring Germans would have made of pulling up in a layby somewhere in the mountains of Sardinia in a downpour and hearing “Hitler has only got one ball” being bawled lustily from a nearby ditch. We stopped singing. We had to – we were laughing too hard.
A Sardinian friend had assured us that it only ever rained for an hour at most, at this time of year. One hour and fifteen minutes later, under the tree, we considered the full momentous import of the weather having disobeyed her. To one side we had a dismal view of the soggy hillside under the downpour; to the other, through the boughs of the hedgerow, we could just see a glimpse of the road and the slim silver bars of rain. It fluctuated in intensity, noticeable by the changing sound as it fell; it would become lighter in patches, raising our hopes, the patter of droplets more noticeable on the canopy of leaves above, and then it would strengthen again into a thick, steady hiss which drowned out the individual droplets. A pale sun sat behind stubborn wads of grey cloud, growing no brighter. We had run out of songs, exhausted our comedy routines, and now just glumly watched and waited, occasionally giving theatrical shudders. We were getting too cold.
The problem was, getting on the bike again we would be colder still, the minute we started moving. It was a judgement call. I gave the rain another ten minutes to stop, and when it showed no inclination to slacken off whatsoever, I looked at K and said, “Alright, let’s give it a go.”
We clambered back up the hill and through the gap in the hedge with a few feeble, bedraggled squawks, and stood in attitudes of general misery by the bike while we got helmets on again. Mercifully the engine started. Shooting a parting glance at our miserable ditch, I clicked into first and we nosed our way out of the layby and back onto the road.
The rain had eased a little, it seemed. I could see better now, and it didn’t sting as hard on my face. My hands were a problem though – my fingers seemed to be moving in slow motion. I had a strange burning pins-and-needles sensation in both, and when I went to pull in the clutch it seemed to take my hand five seconds or so to carry out the decision after I’d made it. Not a good sign. I looked hopefully ahead for signs of Montresta, but there was nothing – just mile after mile of wet scrub. Stiffly we rode around the bends, on and on, until I made out the shape of a farm off to the left. Then more sog and dismal heath. A few kilometers further on we rounded a bend and I blinked in disbelief: there below us, spread out across the hillside, were dozens of little pale-yellow houses with red roofs. Then a church. This was it! Montresta.
The town looked abandoned. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and everyone was very wisely staying indoors, given the weather. We rode up and down narrow winding streets, past a pharmacy (shut), past the church, looking for a cafe, a pizzeria, anything. Coming down one street we saw two enormous murals covering the wall of a building. It looked like Belfast. Just opposite, up a slope, there was a sign that said “Bar Cafe”. I squinted at it and saw the door was open. We roared up the hill towards it and pulled in next to two or three small cars parked outside.
From within came the din of a rapid-fire Italian commentary which emanated from a large TV on the wall. Several men sat around talking in raised voices to make themselves heard over it. At the appearance of two sopping wet bikers leaving individual puddles in the doorway, all conversation stopped. Slowly everyone turned to stare. There was an oddly sectarian feel to the place – and not just because of the murals outside – rather like walking into a pub in a small town in Northern Ireland as an outsider, where you don’t really know the rules or the background. I stepped over the threshhold, announced “Salve” (as opposed to the more distinctly Italian “buongiorno”) to the room in general, and squelched my way over to the bar. Only the blare of the TV continued. The waitress was pointedly pouring out two shots of something transparent, took them over to the men at one of the tables, and slowly conversation resumed. On her return to the bar she favoured me with a glance for the first time, and inclined her head at me. What did I want?
I had no idea. Something hot and wet. “Due té, per favore,” I said. Then I saw a row of biscuits and cakes off to the right under the glass counter, and made out a brand name on one of them. “E due Fiesta”. I had no idea what a Fiesta was, but it looked more edible than a small car. She found a couple of mugs, and two Lipton yellow teabags. It clearly wasn’t the sort of place many people dropped in for tea.
I had a sudden thought. “Um, té con latte, per favore.” I got an upward jerk of the chin in acknowledgement, and then she said something in Sardinian I didn’t catch. “Dov è…” I think I caught. Where?
“Outside,” I pointed. OK. She’d bring it over. Although it was cold, there were umbrellas on the terrace, and we could smoke out there.
The tea came in two tall china mugs with lids, and the Fiesta turned out to be some kind of orange spongecake covered in chocolate. It was very good. The rain fell steadily, pattering on the umbrella above, with the view from the terrace dominated by the house-high mural opposite. It was based on the Sardinian flag – a St. George’s Cross which usually has the head of a Moor with bandaged forehead in each quarter. Originally a sign of the Crown of Aragon, which the Kingdom of Sardinia became part of in 1326, the quattro mori are thought to represent four major victories by the Aragonese against the Moors in Spain, and the cross of St. George, itself a Crusader symbol, supports this. But interestingly the design changed subtly over time, and during the Savoy House Domain from the mid-18th century, the Moors were turned to face the other way, leftwards “to the luff” – a nautical term meaning mast – and the bandage on the Moors’ foreheads changed position, moving downwards to become a blindfold. Whether this was an error by a copyist or a deliberate protest is unclear, but the blindfolded Moors remained on the flag until as recently as 1999, when a special regional decree changed the design back to the original, returning the blindfold to the forehead as a bandage, and changing the orientation of the Moors’ heads to facing “away from the luff” once more.
In the mural on the house opposite, the artist had painted the portraits of two women over the upper quarters of the flag. One wore a high-collared blouse and had her hair done up tightly in a bun, in a style which might have been early 20th century. The other’s hair cascaded downwards, her eyes were half-closed and she held a microphone, as if to make a speech or to sing. Both had very striking features, and looked strong, proud and fiercely independent. There was a small caption beneath the picture: “Omaggio a Grazia Deledda & Maria Carta”. Grazia Deledda was a writer from Nuoro who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1926, and whose novels described life on the island. Maria Carta was from Sassari, and was a folk singer, songwriter and actress (she played the mother of Vito Corleone in the film Godfather II), who also brought traditional Sardinian music to a wider audience around the world. Above the mural was the inscription:
A SAS FEMINAS SARDAS
EROICAS FEMINAS DE TALENTU
ASOS SARDOS AZZIS DADU FAMA ET GLORIA
SU TEMPUS NO CANCELLAT SU MEMORIA
DE CANTU AZZIS LASSADU IN TESTAMEN
TO THE SARDINIAN WOMEN
HEROIC WOMEN OF TALENT
TO THE SARDINIAN PEOPLE YOU GAVE FAME AND GLORY
TIME SHALL NOT CANCEL THEIR MEMORY
OF THE SONGS YOU LEFT AS A TESTAMENT
It was a strange mixture of defiance, independence and pride. I realised that my initial perceptions of sectarianism weren’t entirely wide of the mark, but were prejudiced by my own cultural baggage. This wasn’t a divided community like Northern Ireland. Who was the enemy here? It felt like there was one. Italy? The next village? Outsiders generally? I didn’t know. A few days earlier, talking to a young Sardinian man in a restaurant, I had rather clumsily asked whether, as a European Union citizen, he felt Italian first or Sardinian. “There’s no question!” he replied forcefully. “I’m Sardinian first, always!” The others round the table nodded in agreement. “90% of our problems here are because we are colonised by Italy, stuck onto this banana republic run by mafia and idiots like Berlusconi, hanging off Europe. Look at Scotland. If they can have a vote on independence, so should we.”
I had noticed, too, that many street and place names were written twice, often with the tiniest difference between them; perhaps only a single letter. One was Italian, the other Sardinian. It was an assertion of ‘otherness’, but still subject to Italian approval. The road the cafe was on was called Carrera de s’Alighera, in Italian, and beneath it, with just one letter different, Carrela de s’Alighera in Sardinian. The Italian was in capital letters. I knew that in Corsica, the neighbouring island to the north which was part of France (and which had that same Moor’s head on its flag), they had long had a pro-independence movement that bordered at times on outright insurgency, with bombings and kidnappings. Could the same happen in Sardinia, or had Europe’s own internal boundaries shifted somehow to incorporate more semi-autonomous stances, as the continent turned inward on itself against perceived threats from outside?
So there were undertones here. I couldn’t argue with the premise of the mural – indeed I found it heartening that the contribution of these daughters of Sardinia was being lauded, in a place – Mediterranean, southern Europe, or whatever – where an outsider might reasonably assume that the role of women was very much relegated to second place, as indeed it was just a few hundred kilometers to the south across the Mediterranean in North Africa. The mural posed something of contradiction in many ways; a positive message, delivered in a manner and style which seemed slightly ominous in this dismal hilltown in the rain: something insular, clannish and tribal. I noticed that there was still plenty of space on the flag for more portraits.
My tea had grown cold. K had found a cat to play with on a doorstep. The rain seemed to showing signs of abating a little – there was a brightness off to the west, and even a watery patch of blue: “enough to make a Dutchman’s trousers”, as my grandma used to say – a phrase that I think originated with the wide-legged trousers the Dutch sailors wore during the Third Anglo-Dutch war off the Suffolk Coast in 1672. Looking at the sky they were more skinny jeans than bellbottoms, but it was vaguely promising. I headed in to pay the bill, and we readied ourselves for another cold, wet ride. Turning back onto the main road we had gone several hundred metres before the presence of a roadsign on the other side of the road reminded me that in Sardinia – as in the rest of Italy – they drive on the right. The first time I’d made such a mistake on the trip. I told myself to focus – it would be stupid to make a slip-up now. But I was deeply cold, and kept getting muscle spasms in my back. It wasn’t far to the next town, Monteleone, and perhaps we could stop there again for another tea.
The rain, though, hadn’t gone away at all – it had just retreated to round the next bend. We got soaked once more. But there was no way I was going to stand under any more trees to wait it out – I had run out of marching songs, for one thing. I remembered all the times that I had pushed my limits, gone way past the comfort zone, into a place where there was nothing left but to endure, and hang on and I felt a flicker of residual warmth at the thought: these are the times that you look back on, I thought. Not the easy days when nothing much happened, but these times when it got rough, and somehow you got through. Wait until you are sitting back in your flat in London, with the heating on and a cup of tea at your elbow, looking out at the lights of the city, warm, comfortable and dry – you’ll look back on this and laugh. Just another adventure. So we just gritted our teeth and hung on. “I take you to such interesting places!” I laughed over my shoulder, and got a kind of gibbering “Brrrrr” in reply.
Monteleone was larger than Montresta, by the look of it. A small one way street nosed down the hill into the town, and we spotted a neon sign saying Bar Tabacchi with a few parking spaces nearby. The rain was falling in stair-rods again, so we jumped off the bike and ducked in through the door. The warm fug hit us and my glasses immediately steamed up. Four men in their 60s sat at tables near the entrance, and the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different to the previous place. “Ay ay ay,” one cried. “Molto aqua! Sta freddo!”
“Molto freddo,” I smiled, looking molto freddo. Very cold. “Motobike e aqua not very bene”.
I ordered a pot of tea from the girl behind the bar and we went to a table a short distance away to drip quietly on the floor. On the television overhead a kind of talent show was taking place, of syrupy Italian love ballads together with videos that looked like ice cream adverts. The tea arrived and I wrapped both hands around the cup for warmth – my fingers were numb apart from the prickling and burning pins and needles.
The door opened again and two more bedraggled figures came in. Cyclists. They clipclopped across the linoleum in their special shoes, then the woman spotted our pot of tea, and said to her companion: “Look – they do tea.”
“Super. I’ll get a pot.”
They came and sat at the table next to us.
“Lovely day for a ride,” I said.
“Isn’t it. We’ve come 70km in this.”
“Are you British?” I asked.
“Scottish,” announced the woman in a distinctly English accent.
“Looks like you got a bit wet yourselves,” said the man. His accent was definitely Scottish – the softer brogue of the far north. We swapped general Anglo-Scottish pleasantries about the weather for while, talked of cycling in London, the night ride from there to Suffolk known as the Dunwich Dynamo, and how, fun though motorbikes might be, the world would be a great deal better off without the internal combustion engine.
A patch of glowing sunlight suddenly appeared on the wall opposite. We all stared at it, basking in it. The rain had stopped! Hastily we packed up, bade farewell and fair riding to the Scots, and set off once more. The road was steaming gently in the sunshine, and we followed a convoy of small cars up and over the escarpment. Coming down the other side the wind hit us, and I began shivering again. Then, suddenly, the sea came into view. The curving coastline made the shape of an old man lying on his back in the waves, his rounded head at Capo Caccia, the swell of his belly forming the hills further inland, and his feet pointing towards Alghero – dark rocks set against a shining sea crumpled like tinfoil. I remembered the Poor Knights Islands off New Zealand that resembled a knight in armour lying down in the deep blue Pacific, and also Cabeça do Velho in the middle of Mozambique – the old man’s head, surrounded by bushland and visible from the town of Chimoio; dusty, fought-over, blown apart Chimoio, a liftetime ago. Now there were elephants again in the bush around Cabeça do Velho, I had read, and Gorongosa National Park had been nominated as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. The world turns, heals itself.
We entered the outskirts of Alghero in fairly miserable shape, damp, chilled and shivering. The road into town led through backstreets in a neighbourhood that looked run down and impoverished, like a suburb of Tunis or Tripoli. Huge potholes lined the streets. I thought about the course of a life, the countless, random experiences that make it up and the threads running through it that connect us to each other, the people who we love, and whether we meet them through mere chance or some larger design. But mostly I was thinking about what to have for dinner.
My back was spasming again and I groaned periodically – I had trapped a nerve somehow. Halting for a red light just outside a petrol station I became aware of a noise behind me: high, clear notes. K was singing. I couldn’t quite place the tune. “It’s singing!” I exclaimed tiredly, delightedly, and received a rather soggy pair of arms wrapped around me in a hug in return. The light changed to green, I did a shoulder check and accelerated away.
It was “What A Wonderful World”.