FROM PALAU TO TEMPIO
by Thomas Forester
London 1858; 1861
Longman. Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts
From Palau to Arzachena
The halt at La Madelena was only a step in our route to the main island. We had still to cross a broad channel, and landing at Parao, on the Sardinian shore, horses were to be waiting for us. This arrangement, kindly made by Captain Roberts, required a day’s delay. We were to proceed to Tempio, in the heart of the Gallura Mountains, under guidance of the courier in charge of the post letters.
Ferried across the channel in less than an hour, we found the horses tethered among the bushes. House there was none, which must be inconvenient when the weather is too tempestuous for crossing the strait from Parao. We took shelter from the heat under a rock, making studies of a group of picturesque shepherds, and amusing ourselves with some luscious grapes, — baskets of which were waiting for the return of the passage-boat to La Madelena, — while a pack-horse was loaded with our baggage.
The outfit for this expedition was more than usually cumbersome, as it comprised blankets and other appendages for camping out, if occasion required. The cavallante, however, made nothing of stowing it away, cleverly thrusting bag and baggage into the capacious leather pouches which hung balanced on each side of the stout beast, with a portmanteau across the pack-saddle. When all was done, the cavallante mounted to the top of the load, where he perched himself like an Arab on a dromedary. […]
After leaving Parao, and calling at a solitary stazza or farm, the track we pursued led through a wide plain watered by the Liscia. The river made many windings among meadows clothed with luxuriant herbage, and fed by numerous herds of cattle, and sheep, and goats; forming a pastoral scene of singular beauty, of which my companion’s sketch, here annexed, conveys a good idea.
The valley is bounded by ridges of no great elevation, partially covered with a shrubbery of myrtle, cistus, and other such underwood, among rocks and cliffs worn by the waters into fantastic shapes. We occasionally crossed spurs of these ridges, commanding extensive views of the Straits of Bonifacio, with the mountains of Corsica in the distance on the one hand, and the nearer island of Madelena on the other.
Nearly all the province of Gallura, washed by the Mediterranean on three sides, consists of mountainous tracts, with valleys intervening, similar to this of the Liscia. There is scarcely any cultivation, and they are uninhabited; almost all the towns and villages of the Capo di Sopra lying on the coast. On these plains a few shepherds lead a nomad life during the healthy season, being driven from them by the deadly intemperie prevailing in summer and autumn.
Until lately, the whole district was notorious for the crimes of robbery and vindictive murder, for the perpetration of which, and the security of the offenders, its solitudes and natural fastnesses afforded the greatest facilities.
Continuing our route we crossed some park-like glades, with scattered forest trees, and fringed by the graceful shrubbery, the macchia, common to both the islands of Corsica and Sardinia.
At some distance on our left (south-east) appeared a beautifully wooded hill, with a chapel on the summit, Santa Maria di Arsachena, one of the sanctuaries held in great veneration by the Gallurese. To these holy places they flock in great numbers on certain festivals, when the lonely spots, often hill-tops, surrounded by the most wild and romantic scenery, witness devotions and festivities, to which the revels form the chief allurement.
There is a still holier place further to the south of our track, the Monte Santo, and I think its lofty summit, with a small chapel scarcely visible amid the dark verdure of the surrounding woods, was pointed out to us. It over-hangs the village of Logo Santo, well described as the “Mecca of the Gallurese.”
The sanctity of the place was established in the thirteenth century, the tradition being that the relics of St. Nicholas and St. Trano, anchorites and martyrs here A.D. 362, were discovered on the spot by two Franciscan monks, led to Sardinia by a vision of the Virgin Mary at Jerusalem.
A village grew up round the three churches then erected in honour of the Saints and the Blessed Virgin, with a Franciscan convent, long stripped of its endowments, and fallen to ruin.
On the occurrence of the festivals celebrated at these holy places, the people of the neighbouring parishes assemble in multitudes, marching in procession, with their banners at their head; and the sacred flag of Tempio, surmounted by a silver cross, is brought by the canons of the cathedral and planted on the spot. The devotions are accompanied by feasting, dancing, music, and sports, the people prolonging the revels into the night, as many of them come from far, and the festivals occupy more than one day.
That Christian rites were, from very early times, blended with festivities accordant to the national habits of the new converts, with even some alloy of pagan usages, is understood to have been a policy adopted by the founders of the faith among semi-barbarous nations — a concession to the weakness of their neophytes. Our own village wakes and fairs, with their green boughs and flags, cakes and ale, originally held in the precincts of the church on the feast-day of the patron saint, partook of a similar character as the festivals of the Gallurese; but with us the religious element has been long extinct. […] What a living picture we have in the festivities of the religious assemblies at Logo Santo and Santa Maria di Arsachena, of the feasting and music, the songs and dances accompanying the rites […].
From Luogosanto to Tempio: a romantic glen, haunts of outlaws
After following the course of the Liscia for about an hour, we struck up a lateral valley, the water of which stood in pools, separated by pebbly shallows, but overhung by drooping willows, and fringed with a luxuriant growth of ferns and rank weeds.
The hills were covered with dense woods, intersected by rare clearings and inclosures on their slopes. Here and there stood a solitary stazzo, as the stations or homesteads of the few resident farmers are here called. We observed that they were generally fixed on rising ground. At some of these the courier stopped, his errands consisting not in the delivery of letters, that office appearing to be a sinecure in this wild track, but in leaving packets of coffee, sugar, &c., and, in one instance, a cotton dress, — commodities none of which had probably been taxed to the Customs at La Madelena.
The valley narrowed, and its water quickened into a lively trout stream, gurgling over a rocky bed, bordered on one side by thick underwood, feathering down to its edge. The myrtles here were thirty feet high, and, blended with the tall heath (Erica arborea), the branching arbutus, the cistus, lentiscus, with scores of other shrubs, formed thickets of as exquisite beauty as any we had seen in Corsica. The stream on its hither bank washed a narrow margin of grass beneath the woods. Here we rested our horses and dined.
Wayfarers in such countries generally select the right spot for their halt. This was a delightful one, and we fared well enough on the contents of a basket provided at La Madelena.
Such rough al fresco meals, the uncertainty when you Avill get another, even when and where your ride will end, the living in the present, with fresh air and sunshine, and perpetual though gradual change of scene, with the absence of all care about the future — these form the charms of such travelling as ours.
Again in the saddle, we soon afterwards entered a forest of magnificent cork trees, festooned with wild vines, relieving the sombre tints of the forest by the bright colours of their fading leaves. It hung on a mountain’s side, and the gloomy depth of shade became deeper and deeper, as, after a while, the dusk of evening came on, and we began to thread the gorges which led to the summit of the pass.
Salvator Rosa himself might have studied the wild scenery of Sardinia to advantage. If I recollect right, we are informed that he did. Nor would it require much effort of the imagination to add life to the picture in forms suited to its savage aspect, — to conjure up the grim bandit bursting from the thickets on his prey, or lurking behind the rock for the hour of vengeance on his enemy. Such scenes are by no means imaginary.
Even now, numbers of the fuoriusciti find shelter in the fastnesses of the Gallura; the remnant of bands once so formidable that they spread terror through the whole province, bidding defiance alike to the law and the sword. Only within the present century the government has succeeded in quelling their ferocity, but not without desperate resistance to the troops employed, eighty of whom were destroyed by a party of the bandits in a single attack. […]
Some of the mountainous districts were in so disturbed a state that we were cautioned not to approach them; and every one we met throughout our journey was armed to the teeth. For ourselves, we felt no apprehensions, and took no precautions. In the first place, we were not to be easily frightened by possible dangers; and, in the second, we knew that a peaceable guise, in the character of foreign travellers, was our best protection. The violences of the fuorusciti are, it is well understood, mingled and tempered with a strong sense of honour. I imagine, indeed, that they originate for the most part in that principle, developed in vendetta, though degenerating into rapine and robbery. Outlaws must find means of subsistence as well as honest men, and are not likely to be very scrupulous as to the mode of obtaining them. Among such characters there will be miscreants capable of any crime, and therefore there is always danger. But, still, the virtue of hospitality to strangers, so inherent amongst the Sardes, as in most semi-barbarous races, is not extinguished in hearts which are hardened against every other feeling of humanity. […]
I prefer relating a story which may leave on the mind pleasing recollections of the Robin Hoods of the Sardinian wilds […], was related to me by a friend long resident in the island, as having occurred in his own experience. My friend […] who is universally esteemed and respected by all classes of the Sardes throughout the island, has been thrown by circumstances into communication with the better sort of outlaws, and occasionally been the medium of communication between them and the Sardinian authorities, to their mutual advantage. He has thus acquired considerable influence over those unhappy men, enjoying their full confidence, without which the circumstances I am about to relate could not have occurred.
It appeared that, not very long since, my friend had kindly undertaken to conduct an English party from La Madelena to Tempio, the same route on which we are now engaged. The party consisted of an officer and his lady, and I believe some others. The lady was fond of sketching; attractive subjects, we know, are not wanting, and the indulgence of her taste caused frequent delays on the road, notwithstanding my friend’s repeated warnings of the ill repute in which that district was held in consequence of its proximity to the haunts of the banditti. Of all things the tourists would have rejoiced to have seen a real bandit, but, probably, under any other circumstances than in a wild pass of the Gallura mountains.
So when the shades of night were closing in, as they do very soon after sunset in southern latitudes, and the party became apprehensive that they should be benighted in those dreary solitudes, there was considerable alarm: – what was to be done?
My friend, having politely suggested that he had not been remiss in pointing out the consequences of delay, replied that they must make for shelter in some stazzo, which they might possibly reach. Accordingly he led the way by a rough track through dusky thickets, and after pursuing it for some time, great was the joy of his companions at discovering a house, where they were received with great hospitality, and the promise of all the comforts a mountain farm could offer.
The ladies had thrown aside their travelling equipments, the table was spread, and, congratulating themselves on having found such an asylum, the party sat down to supper, in all the hilarity which their escape from the perils and inconveniences of a night spent in the forest was calculated to promote. The occurrence was regarded as one of those unexpected adventures which give a zest to rough travelling.
While, however, their gaiety was at the highest, it was interrupted by loud knocking at the house door, and hoarse voices were heard without, demanding immediate admittance. A short consultation took place between my friend and their host, who agreed that no resistance could be offered, that the door should be opened, and they must all submit to their fate.
Then the banditti rushed in with fierce gestures; truculent men, with shaggy hair and beards, wrapped in dark capotes, with long guns in their hands, and daggers in their belts and bosoms. “Spare our lives, and take our money, and all that we have,” was the cry of some of the travellers. Nor were the bandits slow in falling upon the sacs and malles, and beginning to rummage their contents, without, however, offering the slightest molestation to any of the party, who stood aghast witnessing their movements.
So far from it, suddenly, as if by a concerted signal, the outlaws, relinquishing their booty, threw off their dark mantles, disclosing all the bravery of the picturesque costume of Gallurese mountaineers, and grouping themselves round the table, leaned on the slender barrels of their fusils with a proud expression of countenance which seemed to say: – “We are outlaws, indeed; but we hold sacred the laws of hospitality and honour.”
The travellers found that they were safe, and, recovering from their panic, finished their supper with renewed gaiety.
The outlaws withdrew, but shortly returning, some of them accompanied by their wives and children en habits de fête, the evening was spent in the exhibition of national dances, with songs and merriment. This formed the concluding scene in the little drama which my informant had got up for the gratification of his friends.
Travellers might naturally wish to see specimens of a race so unique and so celebrated as the Corsican and Sardinian bandits, if they could do so with impunity […].
No such thoughts as those suggested by the occurrences just related occupied our minds while we ascended the defile which penetrates the mountain chain intervening between Tempio and the valleys terminating on the coast.
The savage character and the traditions of the locality might have inspired them, but we were under the protection of the courier, a privileged person — probably for good reasons, — and, besides this, as I have already said, under no sort of personal apprehension.
Our attention was divided between the stern magnificence of the gorge, the more striking from its being now half veiled in darkness, and the difficulties of the ascent which, as usual, increased step by step, until, at last, winding stairs cut in the rock surmounted the highest cliff’s and landed us at the summit of the pass.
On emerging from the gloomy defile, there was a total change of scene. We found ourselves on open downs, apparently of great extent, with a flood of light shed over them by a bright moon, and two brilliant planets in the south-west, pointing like beacon lights to the position of Tempio. An easy descent of the sloping downs brought us to the level of a vast elevated plateau, extending, with slight undulations, and broken by only one rocky ridge, to the vicinity of the town. When at the summit of the pass, we had still eight or ten miles to accomplish.
Late as it was, the ride would have been highly enjoyable, in that pure atmosphere, with the vault of heaven blazing overhead, and the stillness of the night broken only by our horses’ hoofs, but for the weariness of the poor beasts after a long day’s journey and the toilsome ascent of a mountain pass, and the ruggedness of the tracks along which we had to pick our way. Welcome, therefore, were the lights of Agius, Luras, and Nuches, villages standing some little way out of the road, at from two to three miles’ distance from Tempio. These places, Agius in particular, were formerly notorious for robbery and vendetta, notwithstanding which the population, which is chiefly pastoral, has always maintained a high character for kindness, hospitality, industry, and temperance.
Our path lay now through very narrow lanes, dividing vineyards and gardens, extending all the way to Tempio.
19th Century Paintings, Drawings and Lithographs (captions translated freely)
Michel Antony Shrapnel Biddulph, Valley of the Liscia, ca 1858 [figure and original captions are in this book of Forester]
Philippine de La Marmora, “The ancient church of Our Lady near Tempio [Luogosanto]”, 1854-1856, IN Luigi Piloni, Memorie sulla terra sarda: tempere inedite di Philippine de la Marmora (1854-1856), Cagliari, Fossataro, 1964.
Simone Manca di Mores, “The Sardinian dance in the square of the church”, ca 1861-1876, IN Simone Manca di Mores, Raccolta di costumi sardi, Cagliari, Della Torre, 1991.
Salvator Rosa, figure in this book.
Alessio Pittaluga, “The Gallura shepherd”, ca 1826, IN Royaume de Sardaigne dessiné sur les lieux. Costumes par A. Pittaluga [lithography engraved by Philead Salvator Levilly], Paris – P. Marino, Firenze – Antonio Campani, 1826, rist. Carlo Delfino 2012.
Giuseppe Cominotti, “Greeting from Tempio”, 1825, IN Francesco Alziator, La raccolta Cominotti: raccolta di costumi sardi della Biblioteca Universitaria di Cagliari, ed. De Luca 1963 e Zonza 1990.
Giuseppe Cominotti, “Country conversation”, 1826, IN Francesco Alziator, La raccolta Cominotti op. cit.
Lorenzo Pedrone, “The Gallura shepherd”, ca 1841, IN Luciano Baldassarre, Cenni sulla Sardegna, illustrati da 60 litografie in colore, Torino, Botta, 1841; Torino, Schiepatti, 1843 (rist. Archivio fotografico sardo, 1986, 2003).
Manca di Mores, “Dance to the sound of the launeddas”, ca 1861-1876, IN op. cit.
Postcards and Photos, Late 19th/Early 20th Century
coll. Francesco Cossu
map by google earth
Matteo Merlin – Flickr; Antonio Concas – Flickr; Martin Croonenbroeck – Flickr; Aurelio Candido – Flickr; Immacolata Ziccanu – Flickr; Vittorio Ruggero – Flickr; Hans Leysieffer – Flickr.