On the beautiful, wild Mediterranean island of Sardinia, 71 years after his death, D.H Lawrence’s presence was felt during the commemoration to mark the 100 years of Sardinia’s railway. The same train he took way back in 1921 retraced his steps. It also carried some of Lawrence’s fans, railway engineers and the mayors of the towns in which Lawrence visited.
In his famous book ‘Sea and Sardinia’ Lawrence describes his nine-day-trip to Sardinia. About two days of which were spent travelling by steam locomotive through the wildest parts of the island.
He set off by steam engine from Cagliari, one of the major port cities on the south coast, to Mandas, 50 miles in the interior. The locomotive offered first and third class quaint wooden carriages. Lawrence chose the latter for the following reasons:
“It is much nicest, on the whole, to travel third-class on the railway. There is space, there is air, and it is like being in a lively inn, everybody in good spirits.”
80 years on my husband John and I too left from Cagliari to the same destination but we didn’t have a choice of seats. “The train has only one-class seats.” John informed me as we clambered onto the ‘Little Green Train.’ At precisely 6.45am we rambled away from the busy city with its numerous level crossings and honking cars and began climbing into the hills.
It was amazing to see so much open space dotted with splendid varieties of greens everywhere. The silver-green leaves of the olive trees bowing under the weight of their not-quite-ripe olives. The pea-green strawberry trees proffering their red ripe fruit and the enormous dark green prickly pear bushes bursting with vicious looking thorns. As we progressed, immense blankets of hazel thickets and myrtle shrub formed the fierce looking undergrowth. Lawrence wrote:
“It’s extraordinary how scrubby and uninhabited the great spaces of Sardinia are. We ran on through the gold of the afternoon, across a wide, almost Celtic landscape of hills.”
Our train pelted along the narrow tracks, braking at the last moment it screeched around the loopy bends. Gathering speed constantly it puffed its way up and over the steep slopes and then dived down gathering speed for the next slope. Our hearts had just enough time to settle in their correct places and beat at the normal rate when we saw the first bridge. On the left an enormous granite mountain and on the right the most deepest precipice you could imagine. We rambled over eyes closed, gripped to our seats and took a deep breath only when we had safely reached the other side. “Apparently nothing much has changed in 80 years!” I exclaimed opening my eyes. Lawrence wrote:
“It is a queer railway. I would like to know who made it. It pelts up hill and down dale and round sudden bends in the most unconcerned fashion, not as proper big railways do, grunting inside deep cuttings and stinking their way through tunnels, but running up the hill like a panting, small dog, and having a look round, and starting off in another direction. This is much more fun than the tunnel-and-cutting system.”
It was interesting to observe the other passengers in our carriage. The noisy gesticulating group at the back were most certainly locals. They remained untouched by the beautiful scenery and were quite amused watching our expressions change from wonder to horror when we noticed yet another bridge or precipice.
Set apart from them were a middle-aged couple. He was dressed in brown corduroy trousers and waistcoat, white shirt, black boots and cloth cap; typical attire of the Sardinian shepherds. He carried a brown leather rucksack slung over his right shoulder. She wore a long brown silk pleated skirt, an embroidered white blouse adorned with a gold filigree brooch and a brown silk scarf over her head. They sat close together silently observing the scenery.
The other group at the front of the carriage were most certainly Germans. Cameras and rucksacks dangling over their shoulders, they absorbed every moment. Thousands of camera clicks rendered their journey immortal. Lawrence travelled with locals returning from market:
‘Just across the gangway was an elderly couple, like two children, coming home happily. He was fat, fat all over, with a moustache and a little not-unamiable frown. She was a tall lean, brown woman, in a brown full-skirted dress and black apron, with a huge pocket. She wore no head covering, and her iron grey hair was parted smoothly. They were rather pleased and excited about being in the train.’
Looking out of the window we saw a row of nude cork-oak trees stripped of their cork. Heaps of this bloody red cork were scattered along the low dry stone walls which separate the fields and pastures. On the mountain sides we could see women in long blue skirts and white head coverings gather grapes for the wine harvest. They filled up enormous reed baskets, heaved them onto their heads and then tipped the load onto little blue three-wheeled vans.
“There don’t seem to be many men working the land,” John observed. They were most certainly leading their flocks of sheep and goats into the mountains to find the best pastures. Occasionally we noticed a solitary figure amongst the undergrowth or sitting under the shade of a tree keeping an eye on his livestock.
We finally arrived at the station in Mandas and clambered out of the carriage tired and with aching bottoms. “We’ll bring a cushion each next time!” John said to me as he massaged his thighs.
No wonder Lawrence found his short visit to Sardinia so enchanting, we were utterly spellbound by its remarkable railway and beautiful scenery. “Goodbye beautiful Sardinia,” we shouted as we departed, as Lawrence had, by sea. We stayed on deck and watched as the island slowly disappeared from sight. The sweet bitter smell of wild myrtle and heather shrubs tenaciously lingering in our nostrils. Yes, arriverderci bella Sardinia.