omething sui generis lures travelers to Sardinia. The island reveals an untamed spirit as you cross sprawling mountain ranges, endure disjointed infrastructure, and discover bucolic hamlets hoping to capture something that the Romans, Greeks, and Arabs couldn’t. It’s a recipe that drew D.H. Lawrence to scribble his thoughts in a journal during a three-day jaunt through Sardinia aboard a steam train in 1921, and intrigued me enough to leave home and follow in his footsteps 86 years later.
Lawrence came to Sardinia in search of simplicity. The English writer had grown weary of industrialization which he believed had dressed mankind in a dull, modern uniformity. He looked to Sardinia as one of the last vestiges of human individuality, guarded under tightly wrapped black sheepskin tunics and colorful stocking caps by Sardinian peasants. He determined it was a population without self-consciousness, where the concept of Christian grace had yet to strike a people reluctant to abandon their primitive, feral defenses. It was an island where people were not curious about what they didn’t know, a place entirely “outside the circuit of civilization.”
In 1921 the only way for Lawrence and his wife Frieda to reach Sardinia from their adopted city of Palermo was through an exhausting three-day ferry trip in deplorable conditions to my adopted city, Cagliari. The couple spent two days in the island’s capital ambling through farmer’s markets. They passed their nights at the Scala di Ferro (steel staircase) hotel (a few blocks from my apartment) where a plaque immortalizes their stay.
From there, Lawrence could have shot up Sardinia’s western coast on the State railway, but curiosity led him to pierce the mountainous backbone of the island aboard a narrow-gauge track weaving 80 kilometers from Mandas to Sorgono.
Laid in 1888, the line was later dubbed the Trenino Verde (“Little Green Train”) by the World Wildlife Federation because its twin-car engine trundled through switchbacks, plunged into ravines, and clambered up some of the island’s most sparsely populated expanses on its climb to 800 meters (2,650 feet). The fact that engineers were able to suspend bridges over the route’s treacherous gorges and plow through the Gennargentu mountains at a time when the island’s only industry was cheese production and its bourgeoisie wandered through the capital barefoot is remarkable. But the fact that 120 years later the Trenino Verde still chugs along the same tracks and Sardinia remains bound to the same dual-gauge railway system is mind-boggling.
Maybe Lawrence was right. Is it possible that one of the world’s most visited countries still contains pockets that were “left outside time and history?” With his trail etched into a rollercoaster route that was still navigable, there was only one way to find out. So I stuffed €80 into a paperback copy of “Sea and Sardinia” and packed a backpack with a camera, journal, and toiletries, curious to see if Lawrence’s Sardinia was still out there.
But I’m not off to a good start. As my train wheezes to a standstill, I’m told the 80-kilometer trip from Cagliari to Mandas would be diverted yet again. “Construction” seems an unlikely excuse on a Mediterranean island before dawn — particularly when the only creatures awake are a flock of flamingos feeding in a nearby lagoon and a woman unlocking the doors to a café. With 30 minutes to wait at Dolianova before the connecting bus to Mandas, there’s plenty of time to wipe the sleep from my eyes, ponder Lawrence’s first sentence in “Sea and Sardinia,” and try to bring it all into focus with a cappuccino. He writes: “Comes over one an absolute necessity to move.”
The bus from Dolianova speeds through a circuitous route, and we roll into Mandas unfashionably early. The Trenino Verde’s starting point appears to be little more than a cluster of bleak cinderblock homes hugging a winding street.
When Lawrence and Frieda spent the night here, she asked a local what there was to do. “Niente,” he replied. “At Mandas one does nothing. At Mandas one goes to bed when it’s dark, like a chicken. At Mandas one walks down the road like a pig that is going nowhere.”
The town has retained its customs well. Everyone in Mandas seems to be on a depressed recess. Women huddle together in front of boarded up shops while men parked on benches wait in silence for something, anything, to steal their attention. It’s enough to turn me back toward the train station.
Inside, a railroad worker directs groups of backpackers in Italian and German. He explains that the route from Mandas to Sorgono is only available by reservation. Since I didn’t call ahead, I’d be bound to the line’s more famous 160-kilometer route penetrating the lonely Ogliastra province and finishing at the coastal town of Arbatax.
While the passengers in Lawrence’s day were predominantly shepherds and farmers, their grandchildren have built autostrade, and the Trenino Verde is preserved as a summer tourist line — the longest and most visited in Italy. Diesel engines have replaced steam locomotives, cutting the jaunt to a cool 10 hour round-trip and reducing the number of coal fires sparked in the surrounding countryside. Harsh riding conditions in third-class cabins have been softened by vinyl seating. The stench of goats and wool that dogged Lawrence has been swept away.
The rumble of the train engine is interrupted by a shrill whistle and we’re off. Rolling away, I notice an inscribed plaque mounted to the train station’s façade: “‘[Mandas] was so like England, like Cornwall in the bleak parts, or the Derbyshire uplands.’ – D.H. Lawrence, 1921” — a fitting farewell to a town without pretension.
So far Lawrence’s Sardinia reminds me of a giant miniature golf course. A series of towering windmills and massive granite obstacles cause the train to shoot through tunneled shortcuts, only to be spit out in unfamiliar locations facing watered bunkers.
We weave through undulating rows of cork trees before skirting the northern bank of Lake Flumindosa. The train slows to a halt with a puff of smoke and we pile out of the cabin, cameras loaded. The cactus-studded bluffs surrounding the lake reflect on the water’s surface.
Then, the twin-car climbs on, dragging itself up mountain ranges with a string of smoky gasps before pulling in to the station at Sadali. As if on cue, the cabin’s 15 Austrians abruptly rise from their seats and descend from the train in a loud exodus. Curious to see what all the hullabaloo is about, I join the mass on the platform as a whistle sounds on the train.
“You are here for Is Janus, yes?” a park ranger asks me expectantly in English.
“Perhaps,” I reply, though I have no idea what she’s talking about. But as another whistle takes the train away, the choice suddenly becomes clear, and I shuffle in line with the Austrians toward a waiting bus.
I gather from a pamphlet picturing jutting stalactites that Is Janus is a cave, though once on the bus I can’t seem to keep up with the tour guide’s explanation in German — or her brisk pace once she’s off it. I trail the group from the driveway into the surrounding woods where I see it coiling down a dirt path in the distance. With no fifth gear built into my sandals for high-speed chases, I turn around in frustration.
I’m almost at the clearing when a billowing cloud of smoke distracts me. I follow the trail past the bus and a stone restaurant where I come across a man with a sea of white hair squatting by a row of smoldering juniper logs. Impaled pig limbs revolve around a spit that he rotates patiently by hand. It’s porceddu at its finest — the kind of roasted pig that cookbooks can’t quite duplicate, and that come only from rural Sardinian villages. He doesn’t seem to notice me until I speak and he responds in a deep, scratchy muffle. Dyed gums and blotchy stains on his chin and swollen lower lip suggest cancer of the mouth, though I do my best to avert my gaze.
The roaster explains that he used to be a shepherd before his declining health forced a more sedentary lifestyle. Boasting roughly three sheep per person, Sardinia has long been economically dependent on farming, and shepherds remain emblematically viewed as noble guardians of the island’s social fabric.
“We were signori,” he says emphatically. In his formative years, he used to don a heavy wool shawl, called an isullu, and carry everything he needed for two weeks in his pockets. He and his flock would often pass nights together in a cone-shaped hut covered with sticks, called a pinnetta. To escape the winter elements, he would lead his herd into Is Janus, a nearby cave that retains a 13.8-degree C (57F) year-round temperature, and soot-lined walls from generations of shepherds.
A wave of regret passes over his face. “No one wants to live in the country anymore,” he says. He explains that the island’s migration towards technology has changed a way of life, and that younger shepherds today feel a need to sacrifice traditional practices for efficiency.
In the past, droughts signaled a certain death for sheep. Now many shepherds drive their flocks to watering holes in pick-up trucks. Stray lambs were once recovered through whistled calls, but now GPS tracking saves time, and breath. And there’s no need to build a campfire inside a cave when your home has central heating.
I compliment his roast to soften the mood and receive an appreciative nod. Since retiring, the shepherd works part-time at the nearby stone restaurant, and is often called to cook porceddu for tourists as part of packaged deals. He shifts his focus from the juniper logs to his watch.
“If you wait 30 minutes, you’ll see a group of Austrians.”
My morning cappuccino has worn off, and I head back to Sadali with heavy eyes. I hear the sound of surging water well before I see it as I descend from the bus toward signs advertising Sadali’s “centro storico.” Dug deep into a gully, the 900-person hamlet borders one of the largest natural springs in Sardinia — a wet oasis on an island that averages only one inch of rainfall during its seven-month summer. A nearby moss-covered waterfall creates a soothing soundtrack for a nap.
I awake to the head-splitting alarm clock of chain saws tearing through rock. It seems that construction is underway on a new square. A snooze button is not an option, so I scramble towards surging water and natural earplugs.
I spot an elderly woman bent over a basin at a series of outdoor spigots. She scrubs her naked body with soap but isn’t fazed in the least by my presence.
“Excuse me, is this water drinkable?” I ask, holding an empty bottle.
“The sign reads ‘Not Potable,’” she says still fixed on her clothes, “But I’ve been drinking it for the last 92 years.” That’s good enough for me.
Sardinians boast one of the longest life expectancies on Earth. With five of the world’s oldest people living around Ogliastra, scientists have descended on the province in recent years, eager to unlock the secrets to longevity — which my 92-year-old drinking partner is quick to crack.
“Diet?” she snaps. “Rich people diet. Physical labor is the key that unlocks your bones. If you don’t work, you lose the key, and lock what’s inside forever.”
The woman has come to these spigots to wash her clothes for as long as she can remember. Before plumbing, she and her sisters would fill their jugs at the waterfall and haul them up the hill to the house where she still lives. Today, most people in Sadali have washing machines, and only the elderly still come to the spigots.
The woman waits until I finish my water before excusing herself. She wraps herself in a scarf and stuffs her laundry into a pail which she balances on her head. In an instant, she’s off.
I remain the only American aboard the Trenino Verde on its evening run. As we climb past Seui, scattered sunlight seeps through a blanket of clouds and seems to paint a canvas of sweeping valleys below with impressionist brushstrokes. The rolling pastures of the Campidano gradually tilt into the Gennargentu mountains until the sea reveals itself in the distance from Arzana. We plunge down a snaking decline with newfound energy before braking at Lanusei.
From the cabin, the town appears to be a jumbled collection of terracotta tiles and satellite dishes nestled into the side of a mountain. But I have heard of it, so I get off. From the station, the only way to go is up, and I’m soon thankful that I packed a light bag.
Lanusei was crowned the capital of the newly-created Ogliastra province in 2005. Since then, a wave of debonair self-importance has swept through this 6,500-person farming enclave. Racks of postcards spill out of stores. Scaffolding covers the main church as it undergoes a facelift. Elderly women hide under shawls and ankle-length skirts while their daughters wear Armani mini-skirts and sheepish expressions. There’s even a youth hostel.
I stop to catch my breath on a bench and ask for directions from a guy sporting a backwards New York Yankees hat.
“Oh, you just arrived to this giant metropolis?” he says with a smirk, asking where I’m from. I smile, saying I have, and that I’m American. And that’s how I met Mauro.
Mauro is a 33-year-old part-time forest firefighter, but he quickly doubles as my Lanusei tour guide. During an hour-long stroll covering the town twice, Mauro expresses a fascination of America rooted in what he sees on MTV, the idea of a multi-ethnic society, and the concept of stores that never close. Limited work options around Lanusei force Mauro to collect unemployment checks six months of the year — all of which have gone towards a fund to buy a camper. The goal is to one day ship it to New York and relocate with his unemployed wife.
In many ways, Mauro embodies a younger Sardinian population at odds with its past. The historical lack of industry that drew Lawrence has helped keep the economy noncompetitive. Sardinians are hemmed in by some of the lowest median wages in Italy — hovering at roughly €1,050 a month. Couple that with a 50 percent unemployment rate for those under 25, and it’s a dreary scene on a sunny island — enough to make Mauro and many others look to emigrate. This helps explain why the Sardinian population is steadily shrinking, and why 18 English language schools have sprung up in Cagliari during the last ten years.
It’s dark. I thank Mauro for my tour of Lanusei and head towards the youth hostel, hoping to hear from him if he ever gets to New York.
The train screeches into its pink-coated terminus the following afternoon. Mauve bougainvillea droop over a marina and the sound of power drills stirs a flock of seagulls. With an hour before the return to Mandas, there’s plenty of time to refuel at a café. I open the book from my backpack, order a cappuccino, and realize that if you get off Sardinia’s little green track and listen closely to the people along the way, they seem to agree with Lawrence: “Comes over one an absolute necessity to move.”