When I went to Sardinia in 1962 it wasn't yet a tourist destination, and now I consider myself fortunate to have lived there before the tourists started arriving. I had gone from my native England to the northern city of Sassari to teach English, and Sardinia was special, exotic even. For all my problems and complaints at the time, I still feel I know it better than travelers there today.
It was the restrictive "southern mentality" that most depressed me. I naturally hoped to find a Sard girlfriend, but that turned out to be impossible in a society where women always had to be chaperoned and young couples were unable to go out together unless they were engaged -- and even then they risked having a father or brother standing at their wedding with a shotgun to make sure of it!
In the evenings, when I sometimes went to the movies, the city seemed deserted, for the only women on the street were wives with their husbands. Men, of course, normally went with prostitutes, who had been moved a few years previously into an abandoned monastery -- with cells now serving a different purpose.
Most of southern Italy was similar, but the Sards were proud of being different from "il continente" and the island had an atmosphere of its own. Sard is a language only distantly related to Italian, although it has so many dialects that people from different villages are often forced to speak Italian to be understood.
This was the case in Sassari, where I found a pensione with students studying at the university. Two of them, a brother and sister, came from the infamous "bandit village" of Orgosolo, and they invited me to their home, assuring me that visitors would be quite safe. (In fact an English couple were shot there shortly afterwards: a case of mistaken identity.) Their mother, I discovered, had been murdered as a result of the family vendettas that were endemic in Orgosolo. Once guilty of murder there was no choice for the perpetrator except to become a bandit and take refuge in the "sopramonte," the mountains of the interior.
The area was considered so dangerous that the day I visited with some friends the bus was accompanied by a motorcycle escort of carabinieri, the national police. We went up into the mountains too -- escorted by carabinieri from the local garrison.
All that has changed. While once I complained of the strict sexual mores, I was nevertheless shocked when I returned in 2004 to see young people kissing in public, which would have been unheard of in the 60s. Now that the new ways have become generally accepted, Sardinia has become ordinary: beautiful but no longer unique. Or is this no more on my part than nostalgia for a life that was, frankly, somewhat squalid?
Of the many things that I regret, two stand out. The major entertainment of the day, as elsewhere in Italy, was once the passegiata, when men and women -- chaperoned, of course, or with friends -- would parade up and down before dinner on Sassari's central square, the Piazza d'Italia. I was looking forward to this, for who knows, perhaps I might even meet someone who still knew me? Alas, the passeggiata no longer takes place, although friends (who now have cellphones) arrange to meet in the cafés instead.
I also tried to buy a bottle of Sardinian Silver: the wine made from the local vernaccia grape that I used symbolically for the title of my recent novel. But it too has disappeared, as has its counterpart, Sardinian Gold.
When I returned after an absence of 42 years, I naturally expected changes, but I was astonished by their magnitude. Where once were isolated beaches and empty fields one now finds crowded resorts, marinas with expensive yachts, and a proliferation of cafés and shops. This was particularly striking in Olbia, where a new, larger, town, has arisen alongside the old. There, as elsewhere, a huge new port has been built.
In Porto Torres too, where there used to be a single pier accommodating one small ship arriving once a day, there are large docks and a constant coming and going of car ferries. New freeways make travel easier, but there is a great deal more traffic. Sassari and Cagliari are large, modern cities (albeit still with their old towns), while Orgosolo is a rather ordinary village, known more for its painted murals than its previous atmosphere of fear and suspicion.
My novel Sardinian Silver is a work of fiction, but very much based on my experience of the island in 1962. It is, however, not an autobiography, and the characters I knew then are fictionalized. It gives a picture of a place that no longer exists, but with a quality of its own worth remembering.
The other thing I regret: farmers would often approach people then wanting to sell land, at incredibly cheap prices. Alas, I refused--and lost my one opportunity to make a great deal of money. For extracts from my novel see: http://www.sardiniansilver.com.