Sunday, 29 December 2013

Sardinia: jewel in the crown of Mediterranean Mining Heritage

It’s twilight and the full moon, the colour of rich cream, rises like a paper lantern in a purpling sky above the medieval skyline of Cagliari, a port in the south of the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, famously described by novelist, D. H. Lawrence, as being ‘lost between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere’. A warm, salt laden breeze blows in from the sea as Martin and I climb one of the steep cobbled streets above the old fort, past the Baroque façade of the Cathedral which is bathed in honey coloured light. There is something almost Moorish about the maze of narrow streets, dark and hemmed in by tall ancient buildings constructed of limestone with shuttered windows, and hole in the wall shops selling mouth watering local delicacies. We enter one to buy a bottle of wine produced from the Carignano grape which we later savour on the roof terrace of our apartment overlooking the twinkling crescent of lights along the Via Roma facing the sea. The night is warm and still. Across the bay and the vast lagoon beyond, we can just discern the inky black peaks of mountains. Tomorrow we will be heading there to meet a Sardinian friend in a small village called Narcao.

Our car rounds another hairpin bend. Its early morning and the winter sun, low in a brilliant blue sky, is blinding. It’s hard to make any speed along the narrow roads that weave their way through the long spurs of the craggy mountains, shaped by eons of weathering, which sport scrubby heath-like vegetation interspersed with jagged cactus and prickly pear which tumble chaotically down towards the coast. We stop to feast upon local cheese, sausage and bread, all impossibly fresh, purchased in a little village of whitewashed houses with deep red ceramic roof tiles clustered around an ancient church on a hill, its lower slopes thickly vegetated with gnarled olive trees and deep green trees heavy with oranges. Mid-morning we pull into the central piazza of Narcao in the Province of Carbonia-Iglesias, according to the Lonely Planet guide, only worth making a detour to in order to see a collection of murales and which flashes on the map just once a year due to its international blues festival. At any other time of the year it is hard to believe that very much happens in this sleepy backwater.

Our friend, Paolo, greets us warmly and we retire to the sunny terraza of a local café. Over espressos, he explains that there is far more to Sardinia than just its magnificent beaches. It has a veritable cornucopia of industrial archaeology and a mining heritage of international significance and importance. In September 1998 UNESCO, the Italian government, the Sardinian Autonomous Region, the Sardinian Mining Authority (EMSA) and the University of Cagliari and Sassari, signed the Carta di Cagliari to acknowledge the international importance of the Geological, Mining, Historic and Environment Park of Sardinia, which in October 2001 was set up by ministerial decree. The park is made up of a large number of individual sites, several of which are run by Igea SpA, a company of the Autonomous Region of Sardinia that specialises in the remediation and restoration of former mine sites, while others are reliant on Municipalities or independent associations. In 2007 the park, containing eight distinct areas and covering 2,770 km2, joined the UNESCO Global Geoparks network as the Geological and Mining Park of Sardinia. Considerable effort has been invested in providing visitors with new and interesting perspectives of the island’s mining history and heritage, exemplified at the nearby Parco Minerario di Rosas, just off the main road into Narcao. It’s the reason we are here. 

Mining activity in the Rosas area dates to around 1832, the year a businessman from Iglesias discovered a mineral deposit rich in lead and zinc in the Rosas Mountains. In 1851 a mining concession was granted by Vittorio Emanuele II to the Società Anonima dell’Unione delle Miniere del Sulcis e del Sarrabus and this company began to exploit galena and smaller amounts of zinc and iron. Nearby Narcao mushroomed as people poured into the area, the mines employing whole families including young boys who worked underground and women and children who dressed the ore at the surface. But after a promising start, progress was blighted by civil lawsuits, frequent changes of ownership and periods of inactivity during the turbulent years of Italian Unification. It wasn’t until the late 1880s that a consortium of local businessmen headed by Giorgio Asproni, a mining engineer and Director of the Montevecchio Mine, the most important in contemporary Sardinia, brought the mines to a state of prosperity, improving the mill to boost the recovery of zinc and building a road to transport the ore to Porto Botte 30 km away.  

The Sardinian company sold out to the Turin based Societe Anonyme Miniére de Liège in 1898 and under Belgian management the mines prospered for the next decade. This company installed a new mill in 1899-1900 with six main sections and a secondary section which treated the tailings for copper and iron. However, problems in separating the mixed ores coupled with high production costs and adverse market conditions were compounded by growing unionisation. The mineworkers’ demand for better conditions and an end to the truck system of payment led to two strikes in 1895 and 1896, all of which culminated in the Belgians selling out in 1911. The mines passed into the ownership of a British mining engineer, Karl William Wright. He was to enjoy little success and is remembered locally more for the strange rumours that he murdered his wife dubbed ‘The White Lady’, an albino who only emerged from their house at night. It seems more probable that she could not tolerate the scorching Sardinian summer and returned to England. Wright leased the concession to the Domusnovas Mining Company Limited in 1912 which he sold to them in 1922.

The First World War and the rise of Fascism had a negative impact on mining operations in the area. Mineral yields declined and despite alterations to the mill in 1919, continued their downward trajectory to 1924, causing the workforce to plummet from 700 to 120. Nevertheless, a survey undertaken in 1922 estimated that there were still significant ore reserves and in 1924 a company named Società Miniere di Rosas emerged to work the mine which remained in their ownership until 1962. Several mines were closed and the remainder were worked with varying degrees of success. In 1938, a state of the art froth flotation plant which could dress 50 tons of minerals a day replaced the hydro-gravity mill. However, this only became active after the Second World War, during which time the mine was suspended. Following the cessation of hostilities the mine reopened and in 1951 about 152 people lived in the small village that had grown up in the valley behind the mill. However, many post-war Sardinian mines, a good number operated by state companies set up by Mussolini, were not commercially viable and were kept open purely to provide employment. Despite the shift to public companies in the early 1960s and the refitting of the mill in the 1970s to boost mineral recovery, Rosas, like a lot of other Sardinian mines, was subjected to a long, slow decline characterised by a number of strikes. Depletion of the lodes and the soaring cost of mineral extraction led to its closure in 1980. 

It was only due to the prescience of the local mayor, Gianfranco Tunis, who saw the site’s potential as a future industrial archaeological and mining heritage attraction, that saved the Rosas mill and surrounding buildings from the scrap merchants. In 1986 the Municipality of Narcao issued an order, the first public deed to call for the conservation and protection of the site. Local support for the preservation of Rosas was strong, spearheaded by the Association of Former Rosas Miners and two decades later, following a multi-million euro EU project to conserve the mill and other buildings, the whole of the Rosas Mine became an eco-museum in 2007 and an integral part of the new UNESCO Geological and Mining Park of Sardinia. 

The paved access road to the mine winds its way uphill alongside a small stream in a valley with craggy sides vegetated with broom, oleander, laurel, and mastic trees, the brilliant green of the foliage contrasting with the dry brown earth below. We soon spy the tell tale signs of mining as large heaps of deeply weathered spoil loom into view above the road before we pull into a paved area in front of the mill, above which towers a square stone built chimney that appears to connect to an old calciner. This striking four storey mill constructed of local stone with a wooden façade, has been tastefully restored to the highest standard. We enter the reception on the bottom level where we are greeted by a member of staff who provides us with an ipod audio guide and directs us to the restored former chemical laboratory opposite the mill. Here, a series of externally mounted interpretation boards give an overview of the mine buildings and their restoration. These are in Italian, but the audio guide provides a comprehensive translation into English of each. We pass inside the building to view the small museum which boasts numerous mineral specimens including rosasite, a type of pink quartz for which the region is famous, and various items of machinery and equipment. Interpretation panels illustrated with period images and newspaper clippings provide information in Italian and English, not just about the engineering and technological history of the mine, but of the owners and the work and social conditions experienced by the men, women and children who worked there.

We then progress to the mill which, thanks to Mayor Turin, has its machinery largely intact. Now eerily silent, the giant ball mills, rod mills, classifiers, feeders and froth flotation cells are in an excellent state of preservation. The pungent lingering smell of minerals, chemicals and oil assails my nostrils as I read the interpretation panels that explain the ore dressing process. I can imagine the place working. To our delight we discover that the machinery is still operational and we are treated to the spectacle of one of the huge ball mills slowly revolve with a grating roar followed by the deafening clanking of the iron balls inside its giant metal drum.

Over a delicious lunch consisting of many courses including blue fin tuna, a local pasta dish and roasted suckling pig washed down with a fine Sardinian red wine, Paolo tells us that the secret of the success of this mining museum is that it has the support of the local government which recognises its socio-economic value to the local community which is very involved in the project. This has engendered a sense of democratic ownership of the eco-museum. Indeed, the home cooked lunch we are consuming with gusto has been prepared by the wives and daughters of the former mineworkers as the restaurant, a building that was once the mine post office, is run by the Association of Former Rosas Miners. After ending our gargantuan lunch with a shot of mirto liqueur, I am grateful for the opportunity to walk off some of the excess calories I have consumed by exploring the miners’ village. Paolo explains that the workforce was permitted to build houses on the mine sett at their own expense and were allowed to reside in these dwellings for the duration of their employment. The house, however, remained the property of the company. Their attractive little one up and one down homes, each one different, are built of limestone or shale, the roofs, now tiled, were formerly of reeds and the floors of shale stone or concrete tiles. In the late 1980s the importance of this vernacular housing was recognised by the Municipality of Narcao and the restoration of a number of cottages was undertaken with the support of the Superintendent of Environmental Heritage of Sardinia and Cagliari. The one we inspect is fully furnished and complete with its original black and white floor tiles in the kitchen and dining area. The cottages are available to rent at about 60 euro in the high season and 40 euro in the low, very competitive rates indeed for Sardinia which is by no means a cheap holiday destination.

We now drive further uphill and stop below a large building with ceramic roof tiles just visible above the trees. This we are informed, was the mine director’s villa and its position, at the top of the hill, gives an unfettered view down over the village and mill. Nearby is a long building once a barracks and canteen converted to a guest house and inside another small building we receive a helmet. We cross the road to the entrance portal of one of the refurbished late-nineteenth century adits: La Galleria Santa Barbara. Inside the entrance gate we follow tram lines down a long, brightly lit tunnel which runs for over 200 metres. There are some stopes off to the side and our guide explains that there are many more levels below this one. Below the deep adit the levels are flooded, but those above are still accessible. However, the cost involved in refurbishing these and making them safe for tourists means that they are likely to remain closed for the foreseeable future. Insurance issues also makes it difficult for mine explorers to enter these workings. Our circular visit lasts around half an hour and we pass one or two displays including ore tubs and a selection of pneumatic drills. However, we have been to far more interesting and exciting underground attractions and feel that this one lacks a ‘wow’ factor.

Over espressos at the museum’s café, we discover that the mine receives about 10,000 tourists a year. Having inspected the visitor book, we conclude that the majority of these are from Sardinia. The fee for a guided tour of the buildings and underground gallery is six euro, five if you opt out of the underground visit. An audio guide costs six euro, but you can visit the external features of the site for free. With around three full time members of staff, the eco-museum is not sustainable without funding from the local government and the help of a number of volunteers. Interestingly, the Lonely Planet guide notes that the museum is rarely open and that there is often no one around. Paolo suspects that the people running the site have little experience of marketing or management and have much to learn in this respect, but the eco-museum is young and the structural integrity and authenticity of the site has been well conserved which bodes well for the future. It is hoped that membership of the Global Geoparks network will further publicise what this eco-museum has to offer beyond the immediate locality and boost tourist figures.

We bid farewell to Paolo as the sun is sliding low in the sky and head for Carbonia, a town built in just 300 days by Mussolini in 1936-38. The clue lies in its name: it was constructed to house colliers from the nearby Sirai-Sirbariu coalfield which was developed in earnest after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 resulted in international sanctions against the Fascist government and the drive for self-sufficiency. The sun has set and the sky has turned a dark, sombre bluish shade. There is something slightly unsettling about the uniformity of the architecture and rectilinear streetscapes, something fabricated and mildly Orwellian about the place. I feel this particularly as we pass the town’s central piazza dominated by the hard outline of the Municipo which appears to frown over everything and the somewhat bleak and soulless Chiesa di San Ponziano with its gloomy red bell tower. With the decline in coal mining from the 1970s, Carbonia has fallen on hard times and unemployment is high. On the outskirts of town we pass the former Serbariu colliery, now a museum and part of the UNESCO Geopark, dominated by a huge 30 metre high steel headframe which glowers over the parking area. Having taken my full of Fascist architecture, I am relieved to head back to the chaotic medieval splendour of Cagliari where I delight in the discovery of Birra E Dintorni, a remarkable artisanal and craft beer bar.
Our car traverses the brow of a hill near Iglesias. A dramatic view confronts us. Ahead looms a large hill with a jigsaw puzzle of buildings tightly clustered about its lower slope, the sharp rooflines and each window intricately etched in the glassy glow of the morning sun like something from a Joan Miró painting. Above, the tell tale scars of scouring and terracing, associated spoil spilling down the hillside and the long line of a flue defiantly running uphill towards a ruinous chimney stump that stands proud of the skyline like a broken tooth. And below the buildings, some unroofed and ruinous, a vast expanse of angry rust-red tailings. This is Monteponi, the most industrialised and important silver-lead mining area in Sardinia. Known from Phoenician times, Monteponi assumed great importance during the medieval period attracting experts from Tuscany and Germany, its mines so numerous a code of laws governing mining operations was written in the early fourteenth century and a mint built to press silver coins. It was here that dynamite was first used in 1743 but it attained its zenith during the nineteenth century with the Società di Monteponi Regia Miniera, formed in 1850. Over 1,000 people found employment with this company which built extensive mills; sank the great shafts of Sella and Vittorio Emanuele; constructed a railway to Cannelle where a new port named Vesme was created to connect the mainland with the port of Carloforte on the island of San Pietro opposite, and introduced steam engine technology from Belgium to drain the workings. Perhaps most impressive of all, in order to resolve the persistent problem of flooding, between 1880-1892 the company drove the 5.8 km Umberto Adit from the San Vittorio Shaft to a swamp near Fontanamare. This proved so successful at draining many nearby mine workings that by the turn of the twentieth century, over 15,000 people were at work in the area.

However, storm clouds were gathering on the horizon in the shape of faltering production and declining employment in the Post World War One period. A climate of unease ensued where fears of growing communist sympathies among the workforce and rising labour discontent resulted in bloodshed in 1920 when police killed seven miners at a protest in nearby Iglesias. The decline was further exacerbated by the Wall Street Crash and the outbreak of World War Two. After the Second World War, the mines witnessed something of a renaissance and in 1962 an amalgamation of the company running Montevecchio with Monteponi created the largest lead-zinc producer in Italy. However, a move to state run companies in the late 1960s resulted, as at Rosas, in very high running costs with the mines kept open mainly to provide employment. All mining activity ceased here in 1997. It is possible to visit the Montepoini mines site which includes the Villamarina Tunnel and the miners’ village by prior appointment, and just outside Iglesias, the Museo del Lavoro Minerario di Genna Luas and the Cave of Santa Barbara and the Mine of St John which is part of the abandoned San Giovanni mining area.

The main road bisects the huge Monteponi mining site, passing beneath towering banks of rust coloured tailings hoary with mineral salts whimsically eroded by heavy rainfall into sinuous arteries that have liberated and carried away trapped toxins. Timber baulks protrude from the heaps like the ribcage of a giant carcass, while matted beds of fraying reeds make a feeble attempt to hold back the friable mass that oozes downslope like melted wax. We inspect a row of ruddy stained masonry ore chutes sandwiched between the giant banks like an ancient temple. Close by, a single straggling myrtle bush defiantly sporting purple berries covered in red dust has managed to gain a foothold, but nothing else grows on this blighted wasteland. I find the place mildly disturbing and it is something of a relief to pass beyond this lifeless wilderness to a landscape of typical breast-high myrtle bushes, arbutus scrub, juniper and mastic trees amid which a straggle of goats, bells clanking loudly, are grazing.

We head for Masua along a road that winds its way above the spectacularly sculpted coastline of the Golfo di Gonnesa, sea stacks protruding from an abyss of turquoise, cobalt and sapphire, the most impressive of all being the Pan di Zuccero, a giant limestone monolith that sits impervious amid the pan flat surface of the Mediterranean. A kind of Stendhal syndrome, that makes you lose your senses in the face of so much beauty, occurs when you take the coast road up to Nebida and Masua. And that’s before you even encounter the amazing industrial archaeology, for even along this seemingly pristine coastline, the tell tale signs of mining are never far away and we pause briefly to photograph a long flue leading to a truncated chimney stack atop a knoll. This leads from an area of crumbling walling behind which we spy a cluster of roofless buildings and a restaurant above a beach and small quay. The place is closed for the season but close to its car park we discover many black glassy fragments and a line of ore bins built into a bank above the beach. The site was formerly the Fontanamare smelter, one of the island’s most important late-nineteenth century lead works which processed ores from Monteponi.

Silver-lead mining at Masua dates back to the seventeenth century. However, it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that the ore deposits were fully developed by the Società di Montesanto which, besides mining the galena deposits, built a calamine plant to process sphalerite. The transportation of ores was always problematic along this coastline, as treacherous as it is beautiful. Carloforte, on the island of San Pieto, was the only safe anchorage in the region; from here the ore was shipped to the Italian mainland. Men carrying bags of ore made their way to rocky bays along Sardinia’s south west coast where over 250 primitive wooden boats with lateen sails operated by ‘galanzieri’ (carriers of ‘galanez’ or galena) ran the gauntlet of dangerous seas to convey cargoes of ore from 20-60 tons in weight on the 8 hour journey to Carloforte. We arrive at Masua to find a small, ramshackle village of largely uninhabited and dilapidated buildings, including a small, boarded-up church and the museum of mining machinery, which is closed. Beyond this lies an enormous mill that has served mines higher up the valley since at least the nineteenth century, now fenced, abandoned and decaying. Roofless buildings and circular concrete thickening tanks stand out starkly amid a forlorn landscape littered with the detritus of former industry. We pass beyond its perimeter fence to a car park with signposts to Porto Flavia, quite probably the most iconic industrial archaeological site in all Sardinia.

Masua witnessed a change of ownership in the early twentieth century before passing into the hands of the internationally known Vieille Montaigne Company in 1922. This Belgian concern with lead and zinc mines spread across Europe from the Pennines in the north of England to the Pyrenees in the south of France and with a firm foothold in Sardinia as owners of the nearby mines of Montecani and Acquaresi, came up with an ingenious method of safely, quickly and cheaply shipping their ores from Masua. In 1924 a Venetian engineer, Casare Vecelli, devised a plan of excavating two tunnels, one above the other, into the cliff face opposite the Pan di Zuccero. Wagons conveying minerals from the mine arrived in the upper tunnel and passed the ore through nine chutes to storage bunkers. From there a conveyor belt transported the ore via a tunnel to a crane that loaded it onto large merchant vessels moored safely in deep water beneath the towering limestone cliffs, a task that took, on average about 4 hours, obviating the necessity of the costly sea passage to Carloforte.

We set off along the old mineral railway track towards the portal of the Flavia Tunnel only to spot a paper notice taped to the centre of an Igea SpA sign, the company that runs the site. We manage to translate this from Italian: ‘After considerable financial problems sites will remain closed until further notice’. The sign looks recent. We progress further down the track-way past a deserted camper van site. The air is perfectly still on this mid-December day and a watery sun is trying hard to pierce a bank of high cloud that has silently rolled in from the west. There isn’t a soul around and, confronted with a padlocked gate lying between us and Porto Flavia, we scale a fence nearby and hurry furtively towards the famed entrance portal. Flanked by a reception building and a display of a locomotive and mineral wagons set amid the yellow and green spines of numerous cacti plants, the portal with its name emblazoned in black letters above a gated entranceway is very impressive. However, the site has a disquieting feeling of benign neglect and we wonder for how long the tunnel has been closed. The view of the Pan di Zuccero sitting across the narrow stretch of water is particularly fine from here and we soon spot a tall rectangular tower with windows and a castellated roof built into the sheer cliffs opposite it. The tower marks the exit of the tunnels below which a large metal device protrudes seawards. We marvel at this remarkable feat of engineering, imagine what it would be like to travel through the tunnels or to view their vertiginous cliff face egress points from the sea, and lament the fact that this attraction is currently closed, before beating a hasty retreat. 

We drive back through the old mining village of Nebida. The numerous chimneys of small houses lining the road emit fragrant veils of blue wood smoke that hang in the still air of the winter afternoon. We stop to search for the much publicised Lamarmora mill, opened in 1897 to serve the Nebida silver-lead and zinc mines. The signage isn’t great. D.H. Lawrence in his Sea and Sardinia (1921) constantly compared this island to Cornwall, noting that the Sardinian landscape awakened in him a nostalgia for the Celtic regions. I also feel a connection with the place of my birth when at last we find the site and I gaze down upon it from the old mineral tramway above. Flanked at either end by square stone chimneys, the multi-tiered building constructed of warm limestone is built into the cliffs à la Botallack, above a kaleidoscopic turquoise, aquamarine and azure sea. And I realise in an instant that Cornwall does not have the monopoly on face-slapping coastal industrial scenery! This mill, restored in 1995 by the Superintendency of Cagliari and Oristano, was über-modern for its time and was furnished with a steam engine. It is reached by a long flight of concrete steps that run down the steep scrubby hillside parallel to an inclined tramway complete with its rails and winding drums. An industrial archaeologist’s dream.

In the lengthening shadows of late afternoon we pass through the village of Gonnesa south of Monteponi and climb an un-tarred track into the mountains that takes us through valleys of cork trees and dense scrubland, in a quest to locate the San Giorgio Mine. Huge banks of tailings and a ruinous collection of buildings soon loom through the vegetation. Two mills, the first built in 1893 and the latter, in the mid-twentieth century, were constructed at the base of this hill to treat zinc and silver-lead ores from the Seddas Moddizzis Mine which worked up until the early 1960s. Around the other side of the hill we spot a late nineteenth century calamine mill with large brick arches that once housed three calciners. We don’t stop as we are up against the clock to catch our mid-evening flight from Cagliari Airport. We wonder where all the people who worked at the mines and mills of these mountains lived. Before too long we get our answer.

The steep track begins to flatten out and we spot dry stone walling enclosing a scrubby field with a lone palm tree, then the faded ceramic roof tiles atop a cluster of white plastered buildings. We have arrived at the mining village of Asproni, constructed on the San Giorgio Plain high above the mines, and named after the famous engineer who managed this and other Sardinian concerns. We stop the car and get out. You could hear a pin drop. The place is entirely deserted, its once busy streets now filled with an enormous silence. We wander up to a large building with an ornate brick cornice and window surrounds. ‘Direzione’ is marked in concrete lettering above its doorway. Shattered wooden shutters hang forlornly from the windows and the room we enter is bare apart from a fireplace. This was the administrative hub of the mine housing the Director’s offices and nearby laboratories. Close by is a brick three storey neo-Gothic style tower flanked on either side by two wings connected to it by Juliet balconies and enclosed by a small courtyard. One wing, sporting an intricately designed balustrade and ornate corbels is partially concealed by creeping vegetation. This was Asproni’s palatial private residence. In one corner of the yard, a tree covered with ripe oranges adds a welcome splash of colour to leaven the feeling of disquiet engendered by the atmosphere of desertion that has settled over this place along with the summer dust.

Nowhere is this felt more keenly than at the village church, its brick tower broken, the bells long gone. The weather-beaten wooden entrance doors hang like broken wings from their rusting hinges and inside all is dusty, despoiled and ramshackle. A line of disused chicken coops occupies one side of the interior. There is no spiritual succour to be found inside these walls now, just long, dark shadows. Close by we inspect what appear to be warehouses, workshops, stores and a line of single storey workers’ cottages. These are plastered white with ceramic roof tiles and tiny square chimneys with two slabs leaning inwards to form a type of triangular pot. I peer into the western sky where a gloomy blue grey cloud bank obscures the sun which burns inwardly, sullenly and gives no glow. A great chill fills the air. The fireplaces in these tiny cottages would have been essential for the inhabitants who lived on this exposed plateau up until the 1960s. Martin signals that it’s time to leave.

Beyond Asproni the road gets progressively rougher and we do not have a 4X4 vehicle. It’s too far to go back the way we came and we take the gamble to press on. In the distance we finally spot the fabulous castellated engine house and chimney of the Santa Barbara Shaft on the San Giorgio Mine, built by the Monteponi Company in the 1870s. By now we are extremely pressed for time and we have to skip inspecting this site to begin the descent to the main road that runs through the valley below Monteponi. The road is treacherous and loose rock and deep gullies caused by the recent storms that swept Sardinia impede our passage. Progress is painfully slow and I am fearful we will soon find the track impassable and miss our flight. Martin does a fabulous job coaxing the car down slowly over every obstacle. Monteponi inches ever closer. And then finally the setting sun emerges from beneath the bank of brooding cloud to flood the buildings of Monteponi in exquisite amber light. The impressive shaft head complexes of Sella and San Vittorio are brilliantly illuminated as is Bellavista Palace, the fine villa built for the mine manager. All fear of getting stranded half way down the mountainside evaporates in the glorious sunset and before long we hit the main road and are speeding along the main road to Cagliari Airport.
At the airport we are surprised to see an alternative tourists’ guide to Sardinia sponsored by the Geopark advertised continually on video screen. Sardinia has a well established tourist base built on its fabulous coastline, mountain scenery and gastronomy, and the Geopark is trying to piggy-back onto this by presenting an alternative aspect of the island’s heritage to broaden and enhance the visitor offer. However, we suspect that the overall management of the Geopark leaves a lot to be desired. The Geological and Mining Park of Sardinia is large and it is therefore important that a joint marketing strategy is devised for all the sites in the park and clear guidance about the various attractions and how to reach them presented at each site. It is also imperative to address the fundamental lack of adequate signage throughout the park. We found this ad hoc with a plethora of different interpretation boards with conflicting information. The creation of an instantly recognisable corporate brand for all the Geopark sites is vital and clear signage directing tourists from arterial routes needs to be urgently addressed. We also wonder whether the recent financial storm might have an adverse impact on some of the island’s mining heritage attractions through reduced tourist figures and/or a decrease in core funding from municipal or regional sources. Financial security and a rigorous management plan are crucial to the long term viability of the Geopark which might find itself yellow carded at the next four yearly UNESCO inspection if it is remiss in ensuring that these core requirements are met. As our plane soars above the island, I look down on thousands of twinkling lights and see Sardinia for what is really is: the jewel in the crown of Mediterranean mining heritage and industrial archaeology.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Winter Comes to the 'Granite Kingdom': The Mourne Mountains, Northern Ireland

The Mourne Mountains, gripped by the first iron fist of winter, lie partially concealed beneath yellow-grey cloud rumbling atop their crests, russet skirts dusted with ice and snow. With a bitterly cold wind at our backs we begin the walk up the Glen River track. Verglas-covered rocks lightly peppered with snow cover the paved trail making walking conditions difficult. Higher up this gives way to thick grey ice that oozes down over the trail's steps dripping icicles like melted wax. Stopping to don our crampons, a large group of youths wielding walking poles appear, inching their way slowly downwards, determination etched onto wan faces bearing smiles bordering on grimaces. They stare at our feet in amazement as we ease by them exchanging greetings, leaving them slipping and sliding open mouthed behind us.

The mountains of this granite kingdom never fail to amaze and astound, their rugged beauty matched by the ever-changing weather of the four seasons that plays about their summits. Like an addict, one is compelled to return again and again to indulge in their majesty and to savour their mystery. Today is one such day. 
From the Saddle between Donard and Commedagh I watch, mesmerised, as frigid Slieve Bearnagh, its spiky tors silhouetted against an apricot sky, is slowly engulfed by cloud boiling up in the valley below, partially obscuring the watery sun now hanging like a paper lantern in the darkening sky. Bright pools of light flooding the surface of the Irish Sea gradually vanish from sight as snow begins to fall heavily.

Struggling against a vicious east wind we make our way up to the tower on Commedagh, seemingly etched in monochrome, a welcome sanctuary from the elements. We fire up our stove inside for a hot drink and watch the conditions worsen outside. With the mercury plummeting and a wind chill making it feel about -10, we reach the cairn on Commedagh in near white out conditions then begin our descent through ankle deep snow to Slieve Corragh. Through the spindrift and snowflakes whirling dervish-like I think I spot a person, then more loom into view. These are not people, but the granite pillars below Commedagh which emerge through the gloom like giant totem poles carved by the hand of time into fantastical shapes – or stone sentinels frozen for eternity to guard the realm of a Mountain King. Clambering over the ice encrusted Mourne Wall we reach the summit of Corragh then return to the Saddle via the Castles, passing a huddle of grim faced walkers taking shelter close to the stile over the Wall.

The path down to Newcastle is now covered with the diamond dazzling treachery of a thin coating of fresh snow on ice. As we descend below the cloud it stops snowing, unveiling the iced tree tops of Donard Wood and the white crescent of Newcastle Bay abutting a moody grey-green sea. As we enter the woods, now fantastical and mysterious in the fading light, snow begins to fall softly. There isn't a sound except our boots squeaking in the fresh snow. And through the tangled boughs of the trees, the fairy lights of Newcastle are twinkling, enticing us safely downwards.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Scaling the Heights of Ireland: The County Top Quest

There was a time, not so long ago, that I claimed that I was no summit bagger, but having inadvertently done many of the County Tops whilst completing various hill-walking circuits, ticking off the final few began to create something of an itch that needed to be scratched! In November 2012, on a bitterly cold day with occasional hail showers, we assailed the nondescript Slieve Beagh, our final summit, in County Monaghan. Later that day, on the long journey back to Wicklow, I reflected on scaling the heights (of nonsense some might say) of all 27 summits, completed over 3 years and in all winds and weathers.

 After an ice climb of a gully at the back of Glencullin Corrie to the Lugmore Ridge in 2010, the sight of Mweelrea (Mayo) from Ben Bury glowering in shafts of broken sunlight, its icy slopes shining like liquid mercury and the purple shapes of myriad islands floating amid rafts of sunshine reflected off the calm Atlantic, brought a sudden and unexpected lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. This vision is forever seared into my memory. With darkness chasing away the last rays of sunlight, there was no time to bag this behemoth on this occasion, so surmounting it on a hot autumn day with exquisite coastal views was unforgettable.
A case of carpe diem, we did Lugnaquilla (Wicklow) from Glenmalure on snowshoes during one of the coldest winters in living memory, summiting in Arctic conditions to a riotous sunset, descending in the light of head torches under a purple sky showered with brilliant stars. That same winter, frigid Slieve Donard, King of the Mourne Mountains (Down), clad in diamond dazzling treachery gave crystal clear views of the icy Isle of Man. On Errigal (Donegal) and Kippure (Dublin), I strangely felt my mortality as I watched the vermillion orb of the winter sun slip below the western horizon and the full moon rise like a paper lantern. We were tested climbing Sawel (Derry/Tyrone) in deep snow sans snowshoes (how did we manage to forget them?) and were nearly flattened by gale force winds on a very autumnal Mt Brandon (Kilkenny).
Vivaldi’s Gloria captures the sheer euphoria of gaining Benbaun (Galway) on one of the finest spring days imaginable with endless views in all directions. I was bemused to see joss sticks burning at the summit of mighty Carrauntoohil (Kerry), Ireland’s highest peak. But size isn’t everything. I loved exploring little Slieve na Calliagh’s (Meath) megalithic tomb which receives the first rays of dawn at both equinoxes and meandering amid the whispering beech trees and carpets of bluebells fringing Mullaghmeen (Westmeath) on a warm spring day.


Slieve Foye (Lough) was a steep pull up from sea level, but I shall carry the memory of the views of Carlingford Lough and the Mourne Mountains heaped on the horizon opposite to the ghats! Corn Hill (Longford) and Cupidstown Hill (Kildare) posed no challenge: tarred tracks led straight to them. Slieve Gullion (Armagh) was quickly scaled from a nearby car park where happily, thieves seem to be a thing of the past! The prize for a bog trot goes to burst teabag Moylussa (Clare), but Trostan (Antrim) and 'old chalky' Cuilcagh (straddling the border between Cavan and Fermanagh in the Republic and Northern Ireland respectively) were worthy runners-up. Seltannasaggart SE Slope (Roscommon) was a dull affair unless you're 'into' wind farms; aqueous Arderin (Loais/Offaly - why on earth would someone cart a car battery to the summit?) and Slieve Beagh SE Top (Monaghan), wringing wet affairs. The sight of paragliders atop Mt Leinster (Carlow/Wexford) was delightful, quad bikers on Knockmealdown (Waterford) was not.


For an edgy experience the Truskmores win hands down, bagged at the fag end of a wet and windy summer’s day. The gate to the RTÉ mast access road declared the site off limits and due to the legendary hostility of the local farmers, including the infamously named ‘Bull McCabe’, we almost ran up the steep and dreary tarmac way convinced that any moment a shot would signal the prelude to our derrieres being peppered with buckshot, put there by an irate local farmer! Truskmore (Sligo) was a deflating experience, trig point marooned within a muddy building site. Truskmore SE Top (Leitrim) nearby offered some consolation when the cloud rose revealing fine views of Yeats Country and not a farmer in sight! Most vile climb? Definitely Knockboy (Cork). After scrambling up a mucky gully, it began to rain steadily and I fell into deep bog, couldn’t get out, lost part of my walking pole and was bitten alive by horseflies! We returned to the car soaked to the gussets and filthy dirty. Then to cap it all, the gauche B&B we stayed at in Bantry had no hot water for a shower!  

Finally, high drama on Galtymore (Tipperary). After scrambling up a gully, we arrived at the top to find two women, one holding a Tesco's carrier bag, both  ill clad, disoriented and mildly hypothermic, wandering about aimlessly in the dense mist that had suddenly descended. Three of their group were missing and none had coats on. We got them into our emergency bivy and were brewing up hot tea to warm them up as 2 more walkers appeared, panicking about a missing friend. We had no choice but to call in Mountain Rescue. Galtymore was bagged in something of a hurry whilst traversing the top of the mountain trying to locate the missing walkers. Mountain Rescue was stood down 3 hours later, all casualties safe. Yes, the County Tops have given me many great memories. Some I’d happily climb again, others no way!

Delectable Donegal: Climbing Errigal and Slieve League

Donegal, a magical corner of Ireland: remote, not on the way to anywhere, a land of wide open spaces and big skies. Friel's Donegal, a place of jagged coastline and treacherous cliffs, shimmering loughs, heathery moors and bogs hemmed in by mountains. Its primitive charm and its wildness have also spawned some of Ireland’s finest musicians. Their languid, ethereal tunes, many sung in the haunting cadence of Gaelic, conjure up images of this timeless land. You don’t just ‘see’ Donegal, you ‘feel’ it.

We set out mid afternoon on a cold November day to climb Mackoght and then the steep quartize giant, Errigal, the highest summit in County Donegal. The air was cold and crisp atop Mackoght and mist drifted periodically up over the shattered scree covered NE face of Errigal which looked virtually unassailable from this angle. Joining the tourist path we quickly attained the summit of Donegal's most iconic mountain to feast our eyes upon sublime 360 degree views. The setting sun cast a pool of rosy light upon the scalloped face of Aghla More and the loughs of Dunlewey and Nacung blushed pink. On our descent, the full moon rose and stars began to wink in the firmament. The moonlight reflected off the bog pools like shattered shards of a giant’s mirror and it was so bright it was possible to see without head torches.

After booking in at Errigal Youth Hostel in Dunlewey, we headed for the Tábhairne Leo at Gweedore, renowned for nurturing world famous musical talents Enya, Clannad and Moya Brennan. The clientele was amazingly colourful as is often the case in littoral societies which always seem to harbour colonies of 'bohemian types' who find that there is nowhere left to run, so just settle downA tall man with a face like a nutcracker, whom a very gossipy local lady at our table duly informed me was Dutch, wore apparel like that of a Puritan preacher complete with broad rimmed black hat, while a middle aged lady originally from South Dublin sporting peacock feathers in her 1920’s hairdo, cruised the bar area, wine glass in hand. The place was packed to the rafters as the musicians struck up sometime after ten, the rhythmic beat of the bodhrán contrasting with the plaintive, mellow notes of the flute. ‘Níl sé ina lá’ sang the band, ‘níl sé ina lá is ní bheidh go maidin’, as my mind, hazy from the Guinness, began to wander. ‘De ye know ‘Tuoer-kee?’ enquired another local woman at our table, who had told me her entire life story in fifteen minutes. Smiling banally, I wondered what on earth ‘Turkey’ had to do with me being from Cornwall... the Guinness began to flow more freely. Knowing we wouldn’t be able to 'drink here 'til the morning' as in the lyrics of Níl sé ina lá’ and like many of the locals undoubtedly can and would, we quietly slipped away during the distraction of the draw of a raffle in aid of Donegal Mountain Rescue, arriving back at the hostel sometime past midnight.
The land steamed as the morning sun gently released it from the icy grip of the night. There’s something about the quality of the light in Donegal - a translucence that enlivens the russet heather, green mosses and warm bands of coloured rock in the cliffs of Slieve League, exposed and polished by the storms of countless ages, and contrasts with the deep blue of the sea and sky. The cliffs truncated by ice and ocean are stupendous, the sea so far below the waves appear silent. On a perfectly still and sunny autumn afternoon we took the cliff path, scrambling the airy arête at Kerringear and One Man’s Pass to the summit. Panoramic views unfolded: Benbulben, Nephin, Achill Island, and even distant Croagh Patrick. Inland a sea of mountain-tops receded in tumultuous waves as far as the rounded head of Slieve Snaght and the distinctive quartzite cone of Errigal, which we had assailed the day before. We completed our circular walk via the Pilgrim’s Path to Bunglass as night fell and the moonlight shimmered over this enchanting landscape.