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The Silver Travel Book Club goes to Sardinia

The story of my trip to Sardinia, for the Silver Travel Book Club, following in the footsteps of an author, her characters and locations in Sardinia.

Silver Travellers may already be aware of the Silver Travel Book Club (“STBC”), set up recently as a result of our new partnership with TripFictionSilver Travel Advisor members can now access TripFiction’s database of location-based fiction and travel-related memoirs, set in thousands of alluring global destinations.

Debbie Marshall, MD and founder of Silver Travel Advisor: “The worlds of travel and books go hand in hand, and we know that our members will enjoy browsing the wide range of novels and memoirs on the TripFiction site, providing ideas and inspiration for their future travels“.

Rosanna Ley, the authorThe first STBC book of the month was The Little Theatre by the Sea, written by Rosanna Ley. Two lucky Silver Travellers received a free copy of the book, and have been reading it along with Andrew Morris, one of our regular writers and Literary Editor of the STBC.

The Little Theatre is firmly rooted in Sardinia, and Rosanna’s vivid prose transports you to the wild, unspoiled west coast of this intriguing island. Newly qualified interior designer Faye visits friends Charlotte and Fabio in charming Deriu, where she is employed – by brother and sister Alessandro and Maria Rinaldi – to draw up plans to restore the crumbling old theatre in the village.

Bosa StreetThis engaging romantic mystery is a classic destination novel. Close your eyes, and the author will have you walking through the narrow cobbled streets of Deriu’s centro storico, where pastel-coloured houses tumble down from the old castle to the Temo river, just a short distance from the sea and the marina. Or eating local speciality spaghetti con bottarga, washed down with a bottle of Cannonau wine.

But our intrepid Literary Editor wanted to get even closer to the author, her characters and locations…so we packed Andrew off to Sardinia to see if he could track down Deriu and solve the mystery of the Little Theatre by the Sea.

Over to Andrew

Before heading out to Sardinia, I contacted the author – Rosanna Ley – and she kindly answered a few questions, giving me an insight into her writing approach and a few clues about hunting down some of the places, characters, food and wine she included in Little Theatre. You can read the detailed Q&A session on the Book Club Forum thread here.

Bosa rooftops from near the castle, looking down to the snaking river TemoMy first port of call had to be Bosa. Rosanna: “I wanted somewhere that didn’t already have a theatre so that I could make it my own! I renamed it Deriu because it is easier then to “make it your own”, and hopefully none of the locals will be offended by anything I write about places & people which they might construe as being taken from real life.”

I wandered along the banks of the river Temo, spotting the converted houses on the river bank, where Faye stays with Charlotte and Fabio, and the ponte vecchio, where Faye gets closer to Alessandro.

But it is the centro storico that engaged Rosanna most, and which enchants Faye too: “the jumble of buildings lay mainly between the far riverbank and the hill beyond; Faye could see what looked like a castle on top of the hill, the other old buildings sheltered beneath. The cluttered houses were painted various shades of pastel, the river snaking from the cradle of the lush mountain valleys in the east through to the sea beyond.”

“That’s the centro storico, the old mediaeval town. It was originally founded by the Phoenicians – because of the fertility of the soil and the river.”

Malaspina CastleI too fell in love with beautiful Bosa/Deriu, home of the mythical Little Theatre. I ambled through the labyrinthine cobbled streets, craning my neck to see washing stretching from one pastel-coloured house to another. I climbed ever upwards towards the Malaspina castle, as Faye does when describing her quandary to her mother, and from where: “a prickly pear was outlined against the summer sky. From here she could see a jumble or orange roofs and flower-laden terraces; vines twisting around wooden pergolas, purple jasmine blossoming in a blue haze.” And I visited the Deriu Museum, from which Rosanna borrowed the name for her fictional town.

Outside Bosa, I went north – via a spectacular coast road – to Alghero, a fortified Catalan city jutting out into the sea. Faye eats “a delicious lunch of aragosta alla catalane, lobster with tomatoes and onions” with her father here. I had spaghetti con bottarga instead, another local speciality eaten by Faye back in Deriu, with Allesandro:Spaghetti con bottarga, local speciality with mullet roe “a type of caviar made from the roe of grey mullet. Faye’s bottarga was good; she loved the deceptive simplicity of Sardinian recipes and produce.” I also saw the restored Teatro Civico in Alghero, part of Rosanna’s inspiration for Faye’s redesign of the crumbling imagined old theatre in Deriu.

I found the marina at Bosa, where Alessandro works at a boatyard, but it was too large and on the wrong side of the estuary. Through the magic of social media, Rosanna pointed me in the right direction, teasing me perhaps in a game of literary cat-and-mouse.

Following Rosanna and Faye was a joy. I would love to have had more time to visit some of the other places seen by Faye, on different trips away from Deriu with Alessandro and with her visiting father, but I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing what literary stalking I did manage to achieve in Sardinia.

Where next, I wonder?

Sardinia with Sardatur Holidays

My feature on a sponsored trip to Oristano, Sardinia with Sardatur Holidays  – published on Silver Travel Advisor.

Felice Soru, founder of Silver Travel Advisor partner Sardatur Holidays, told me before I went that a trip to Sardinia is a discovery. The island is like a separate continent, with different landscapes and cultures – even languages – and with a wild, ungovernable centre.

I went to the central west coast, to the province of Oristano, an area of Sardinia that is also wild and relatively unspoiled, which is rich in history and with plenty of nature, activities, food and wine to enjoy, whilst remaining accessible.

History

Unpeel layer upon layer of history as you explore this continuously surprising area.

Sinis peninsulaGo to the Sinis peninsula, a marine protected area, to see the remains of the ancient settlement of Tharros. Reputed to have been founded by the Phoenicians towards the end of the 8th century BC, it was one of the most important cities in Sardinia through the Punic age, from the 6th century BC until Roman occupation. But there is some evidence suggesting that Tharros was occupied before the Phoenicians, by the Nuraghic civilisation in the much earlier Bronze Age.

TharrosThere are an estimated 7,000 examples of nuraghe, stone-built tower-fortresses from this ancient civilisation, dotted around Sardinia. One of the most important is the nuraghe Losa, near the village of Abbasanta. Here you’ll see a large complex construction in the shape of an old tomb, with a central triangular shape. A turreted wall is linked to this impressive core, and surrounded by later additions from Punic, Roman and Middle Ages occupation.

Back on the Sinis peninsula, visit San Giovanni di Sinis, one of Sardinia’s oldest and most important churches. Built with blocks of sandstone, probably brought from nearby Tharros, it is Byzantine, with distinctly Arabesque features.

Giants of Monte's PramaAnd one of the most important historic finds of recent years on this beguiling promontory is the Giants of Mont’e Prama. Farmers working the land a couple of kilometres from Cabras in the 1970s uncovered remains from the late Nuraghic period. Painstaking work has since pieced together Sardinia’s version of China’s terracotta warriors. As of today, 25 statues of large stone men – including warriors, archers and boxers – have been reconstructed, some of which are exhibited in Cabras Museum.

Nature

Wildlife abounds around Oristano. Flamingos inhabit the marshy lagoons, as do several rare aquatic bird species.

S'Archittu sunriseFor breathtaking beaches, head to Putzu Idu or the quartz-laden “rice sand” of Is Arutas and Maria Erma. But my favourite was probably S’Archittu, taking its name from the photogenic rock arch, one of Sardinia’s largest natural bridges, and through which you can swim or kayak.

If you’re adventurous, drive further south to explore the largest sand dunes in Europe, at Piscinas on the remote Costa Verde, and formed by the natural forces of the Mistral. But don’t get stuck in the sand.

Go inland to discover the special environment of the Giara di Gesturi, a high volcanic plateau now rich in flora and fauna, and inhabited by the island’s cherished wild horses.

Activities

Swim from the many beaches. Play golf at Is Arenas. Hike, cycle or twitch in the nature reserves. Take a boat out to the tiny island of Mal di Ventre (Italian for tummy ache!) for a snorkelling or diving expedition. It was near here that a shipwreck was discovered as recently as 1989, uncovering a scarcely believable cargo of almost 1,000 trapezoidal lead ingots, each weighing 33 kg and inscribed by their Roman owners from the 1st century BC.

Towns

BosaOristano is the provincial capital but take the coast road north to enchanting Bosa. Explore the narrow cobbled streets of the centro storico, head ever upwards amongst the crumbling pastel-coloured houses towards Malaspina Castle, and for a dazzling view over the red-roofed town, down towards the river Temo, snaking back towards Bosa beach and marina.

And enjoy the even more scintillating drive north along the coast – just into Sassari province – to Alghero, a vibrant Catalan fortified town, with towers, trebuchets and cannons a reminder of its more violent past.

Food and wine

Spaghetti con bottarga is a local food speciality, a simple but exceptional dish of pasta and mullet roe. Do NOT add cheese! Fregula (fregola) is the Sardinian equivalent of couscous, typically toasted semolina dough balls and often served with clams. Or try malloreddus, a gnocchi style pasta cooked with saffron and a tomato sauce.  Porcheddu – roast suckling pig – is a prized dish but not one for vegetarians.

But even in a trattoria in a small village, you’re likely to enjoy simple food, from well-prepared local ingredients and served with a Sardo smile.

Sardinian wines are much improved in recent years. Try the local dry white Vernaccia di Oristano, or the red Cannonau, little known outside the island, both excellent.

Where to stay

Is Benas Country LodgeHead for the Is Benas Country Lodge, an intimate retreat tucked away on the road to Putzu idu. With only 18 bedrooms and outstanding food and service, it feels more like a private country house than a hotel. A little isolated, it is a quiet refuge but within reach of all the many fascinating gifts this lesser know part of Sardinia offers the mature and inquisitive traveller.

On literary location in Sardinia….

I read The Little Theatre by the Sea recently, written by Rosanna Ley and chosen as the first read for both the TripFiction Book Club and the Silver Travel Advisor Book Club.

Thanks to Silver Travel Advisor, their partner Sardatur Holidays and Is Benas Country Lodge, I shall soon be following in the literary footsteps of Faye, Rosanna’s lead character in the novel, to explore the blurred world of fiction and reality on the unspoiled west coast of Sardinia.

In anticipation, Rosanna kindly answered some questions I posed about the places she had used in the book, the characters, food, wine, culture and history of this intriguing island that had influenced her research…..

Rosanna

Your latest novel, The Little Theatre by the Seawas published by Quercus in March 2017 (hardback) and on 1st June (paperback). 

The intriguing romantic mystery – can I call it that? – takes place mainly in Sardinia. As you know, Little Theatre was chosen as the first read for both the TripFiction Book Club and for the Silver Travel Book Club.

And thanks to Silver Travel Advisor partner Sardatur Holidays and Is Benas Country Lodge, I will be travelling to Sardinia in June to follow in the footsteps of your principal character, Faye.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about The Little Theatre by the Sea, Rosanna, and about your writing approach.

I’m delighted. This is so exciting! I can’t wait to hear how you get on – and yes ‘intriguing romantic mystery’ sounds good to me.

Q. Your previous novels have been based in Cuba, Marrakech, Burma, the Canary Islands, Sicily, and now Sardinia. How do you decide where to base your stories, and how important a role does location play in the novels?

A. It’s different for each book. With Return to Mandalay, for example, my husband’s family had a fascinating story and a wealth of sources concerning the country and my late father-in-law’s life there. While the book is in no way a biography, it did inspire me to visit and use much of the material in my story.

For ‘The Saffron Trail’ the original seeds for me were saffron and the ‘hippie trail’ – I formed a story around these and Morocco was the obvious choice of setting. ‘Bay of Secrets’ came from the plot (based on a true story) and Last Dance in Havana I chose because I wanted to write about dance and because the history and politics of Cuba fascinated me. With ‘The Villa’ however I visited Sicily for a holiday and was simply inspired to use it as a setting. When it came to Sardinia for ‘Little Theatre by the Sea’ I wanted to write about transformation and I immediately imagined my crumbling theatre to be in Italy. It seemed the perfect setting for the story.

Location is a big part of a book for me – they have been called ‘destination novels’!

Q. Once you’ve decided on a location for a novel, how do you approach your research on “place”? And do you then write while you’re in the location, or can that creative process take place back at home in Dorset?

A. I read about the place both in fiction and non-fiction – anything I can get hold of really, and research it thoroughly using the Internet and libraries. I may also watch films or documentaries. I go there to get the flavour and travel around with my husband taking photographs and me making notes. I find the places I imagine the characters to live, work and play and the journeys that they might travel in various scenes. I generally write a few scenes while I am away but much of the work will be done when I am back at home using my notes and the photos to remind me.

Q. Your Little Theatre lead character Faye, a newly qualified interior designer, is invited by old friends to restore a crumbling old theatre in the Sardinian village of Deriu. Can you please describe where the inspiration for that fictional village came from?

A. I chose Bosa before I went there, just through research really. I wanted somewhere that didn’t already have a theatre so that I could make it my own! When I got there I realised that Bosa was perfect for the needs of the story. I re-named it Deriu because it is easier then to ‘make it your own’ and hopefully none of the locals will then be offended by anything I write about places and people which they might construe as being taken from real life! The truth is that all the people I wrote about were fictional but a few of the real places crept in, sometimes disguised…

QBosa sounds like a charming, traditional Sardinian town on the north-west coast, in the province of Oristano. What should I do and look out for there, to feel that I really am following in the footsteps of Faye and her creator? And how much do you think history has shaped the town today?

A. History has definitely shaped the town into what it is today. I think you can find the converted houses on the river bank (where Faye stays in Charlotte and Fabio’s house) including the museum. You can cross the bridge where Alessandro and Faye have a few ‘moments’ and admire the colourful houses on the other side. You can visit the Castle by walking up the steps through the olive grove as Faye did when talking to her mother on the phone about relationships and the mistakes we make and see the stunning frescoes in the chapel at the top and also the view of the town Faye reflects on. Casa Deriu is also worth visiting because although it does not feature in the book, I took the name for the town and you will see why when you visit this charming museum. At the marina you can see where Alessandro’s boatyard might have been and walk round the bay as they did. Best of all, just wander the old mediaeval quarter of Bosa to explore the area, the pretty piazzas, the artisan markets, the narrow cobblestone alleys that make up the old town. With a bit of luck you will find a building in a piazza which is actually an old chapel but has a rose window and could very well have been used as the basis for the Little Theatre itself.

Q. Where did the inspiration for the old theatre come from, if not from Bosa

A. Partly the old chapel (see above) but I also used the theatre at Sassari and other old Italian theatres that I found images of online. But basically, it was a madeup building, a fusion of all these parts.

Q. Food and wine play an important role in Little Theatre, as they do in Sarda cultureWhat local cuisine can you and Faye recommend…and what is your favourite wine from that part of Sardinia? 

A. Oh yes, lovely food! Some of my favourites were: burrida (a spicy fish soup), spaghetti con bottarga (with mullet roe) and malloreddus (a gnocchi style pasta cooked with saffron in tomato sauce). I also loved fregola – an unusual pasta similar to cous-cous, often served with clams. The seafood pasta was always good. And as for the lobster… Take me back there – now!

A lovely wine to try is the golden dry Vernacia di Oristano DOC.

Q. Whilst in Sardinia, most of the plot develops in Deriu. But Faye also discovers other parts of this intoxicating island, with theatre owner Alessandro and also with her father. Where should I go beyond beautiful Bosa, to see and feel what Faye experienced? Have you explored many other parts of Sardinia…and how would you say that this western coastal area differs from the rest of the island?

A. We travelled around the island in our motorhome to explore and research and spent three weeks drinking it all in. We didn’t get the whole way round, but focused mainly on the west of the island and the South, rather than the more touristy but stunning Costa Smeralda in the east. I would say that the west is more rugged and dramatic and is much less touristy and developed, which suited my purposes for the story.

We began by driving through the cork forests of the interior to the West coast from Olbia. We started at the National Park of Asinara in the north and basically drove down the coast. Some other high points were: Capo Falcone, the white beaches at Stintino, the ‘ghost’ mining town of Argentiera, Alghero (see below) the stunning coves on the magnificent Costa del Sud from Teulada to Chia which were also inspirations for the beach scenes, Nora (see below) and Cagliari.

In particular, Cala Domestica leads to the secret beach where Alessandro takes Faye. In the novel, this is near Deriu but it is actually a lot further down the west coast from Bosa and near the old mining town of Buggerru.

Nora is the site of the ancient village Faye visits with Ade. It is south of the island near Cagliari and is where she sees the ancient amphitheatre. This is a very interesting historical site.

Alghero is in north west Sardinia and Faye visits with Ade. It is a fascinating Catalan city which is a fusion of Italian and Catalan in food, history and architecture. It is also home to Teatro Civico.

The capital of Cagliari doesn’t feature in the book but is well worth a visit if you get the chance!

Q. There are some other lovely characters living in Deriu in Little Theatre. Are any of them based on real people you met while researching the story? Who should I try to meet while I’m in Bosa?

A. No, sadly none of the characters are based on real people! However, you will see women sitting outside their houses lace-making and men playing dominoes outside or in cafés. Down at the Marina you will also hopefully see fishermen – perhaps even mending their nets as we did!

Q. Do you know yet where your next novel will be based, and when we can expect to read another romantic mystery in an exotic location from you? I may have to follow you and our characters there too….

A. The next novel is entitled ‘Her Mother’s Secret’ and is set in Belle-Ile-en Mer, a small island just off the southern coast of Brittany.

Grazie mille, Rosanna, for giving us some insight into your latest novel The Little Theatre by the Sea and into the location that inspired your characters and plot. Good luck with promoting Little Theatre and see you at the location of your next novel!

An absolute pleasure. Thank you so much, Andrew and I hope you have a wonderful trip to Sardinia.

Books – why do you read them?

Why do you read novels?

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To escape? Emotionally? Physically? Do you enjoy being transported to another destination, to a magical locale, whether real or imagined?

Or is a devious, head-scratching plot more important for you? Or perhaps you’re driven more by a story’s characters, who need to be more layered than a one-dimensional thug, or an untarnished saint?

I wrote a while ago about TripFiction, an intriguing and inspiring website recognising that books set in a location offer great holiday reading. They help us get under the skin of a place in a way that is quite different to a conventional travel guide.

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(image courtesy of TripFiction)

I am honoured and excited to be helping the lovely people at TripFiction with their new #TFBookClub. The first selection has been The Little Theatre by the Sea. Written by Rosanna Ley, it transports the reader from Dorset to Sardinia.

The Little Theatre by the Sea by [Ley, Rosanna]

Rosanna has clearly carried out a huge amount of research into Sardinia, and I loved the evocative descriptions of local sights, smells and tastes, with Italian words picked out and italicised for added authenticity.  Buonissimo! It certainly brought back happy memories of our own trip there a few years ago, and I was close to booking a flight to Olbia before turning the final page.

But – and I hope Rosanna forgives me for this personal observation – I found the locations of the story more inspiring than either the plot, or the characters populating this otherwise enjoyably escapist novel.

But that’s fine. I was entertained for many hours and given a vicarious holiday, all for the price of a book. And I will really enjoy hearing the thoughts of other TF readers, and finding out what their priorities are in any book they read.

Why do you read a novel? How perfect does it have to be, to give you enjoyment on some level…..?

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