We were warned by some German friends that coming to Sardinia, a large island off the coast of Italy, was risky. It’s winter here. That means potentially chilly spring-like weather with temperatures near 50. On the other hand, it could be sunny, dry, and rather comfortable, with temperatures near 60. Either way, by our standards that’s not winter. So from this point on I’ll refer to the Sardinian winter as “winter.”
The girls had a week off from school, and Mary found unbelievably affordable air fares and a great deal on a beautiful house, so we decided to gamble.
We landed at the small airport in Olbia. Population 40,000. It was around 6:00pm. Dark and rainy. Stormy. We picked up our rental car from the two most friendly car-rental people we’ve ever met. Maybe they were so nice because the airport was essentially empty.
Mary made a call from her cell phone to Fritz, our contact, who was waiting somewhere out there in the night, at a remote intersection on the outskirts of Ottiolu, the small town in which our house was located. Fritz is German, and now lives in Sardinia. Mary sensed impatience from him. So feeling a bit rushed, we headed into the stormy darkness, not really knowing where we were going. There are no street lights, although the roads are smooth. The road signs are quite simple—a stack of arrows pointing either to the left or right with town names written on them. They’re well-made, not crude like something from a cartoon. But the roads and highways often aren’t clearly labeled, and they sneak up on you. So his directions were something like, “leave the airport and head towards Caligari; then take the turn to San Teodoro; then go through the roundabout and head straight until you see a sign for Budoni; then exit to the right and go up a small hill…” Maybe it sounds clear to you, but trust us, it’s not that easy. It was dark, and rainy, but at least there was hardly any traffic. So my U-turns and stops along the shoulder weren’t inconveniencing anyone else. One of the interesting phenomenons were stacks of signs that indicated a group of towns coming up at the next right exit. We’d see the town we wanted in the stack, say Ottiolu for instance, then, right before the exit ramp, the stack of signs would be posted again, but inexplicably Ottiolu wouldn’t be on the list! We didn’t know if maybe we were supposed to keep going, or take the exit. This happened a number of times.
Eventually we found Fritz outside of town, sitting in his car along the side of the road with his lights on. He lead us through Ottiolu, a beautiful town of probably less than 1,000 people, very quickly. I mean REALLY quickly. We went the wrong way through the roundabouts and ran through the two stop signs. When we got to the house I mentioned that it was hard to keep up with him. He smiled and explained that the town is empty. He said maybe there are 10 people in the town right now because it’s “winter.” Everyone was gone. I thought he must be exaggerating. The street lights up the winding roads to the house illuminated beautiful stucco and stone houses with lovely landscaping. Surely not EVERYONE was gone.
Fritz also explained a thing or two about the house. It was a beautiful place, and I had noticed on the website that there was an awesome looking hot tub in front, with ocean views. At the time I thought “who cares if it’s spring and kind of cool. Hot tubs are fantastic, especially in cool weather!” As we approached the front door I saw the tub and asked if it was working. Fritz said no, it’s just too cold to try to heat. After all, it’s “winter.” My heart sank. I know how Mary and the kids love to soak too, and there’s just a small shower in the bathroom. Bummer.
He went on to inform us that nobody has ever rented the house during “winter” before, so it will be sort of an “experiment.” Furthermore, there were a few other things he had to show me. He didn’t know how much propane we’d need for heat so he bought an extra tank for us. Guiding me behind the house with his flashlight, he showed me where the tanks were and explained how to disconnect and connect them in his broken English. He then lead me down a path to the heating system which is in a little shack under the porch in the yard. He said it’s been broken, but he just fixed it. However if the heat goes out, and the little red light goes on, I’ll need to push the little black button to reset it.
We headed into the house. As I said, it was a beautiful space, but cold. These houses aren’t designed for “winter.” So they have no insulation. He said he had turned the heat up a couple hours ago, but it was cold. We figured we’d just let the heat keep running during the night. Give it a little time. He said he’d check back with us in a couple days.
We told Fritz that we hadn’t had dinner, and had no food with us. We asked if he knew of any restaurants that were open. After all, it was Saturday night! He said there was a good one that was open in San Teodoro, about 15 minutes away. He said he’d lead us there. We hopped into our cars and off we went, zooming through the quiet town, running stop signs, out to the highway, and over to San Teodoro. We parked in the tiny town square, where there actually WERE people. He pointed to a small restaurant and said, “That’s where all the Germans eat in the summer. But we’re not going there.” He then led us some 30 yards through a dark alley to Gallo Blu, where all the locals eat. When we walked in Fritz exchanged greetings with the owner, and from what I could tell, he explained who we were. We really stood out. It was as if we had walked into a large dining room in someone’s house. Simple, rustic, full of Sardinians who all seemed to know each other. Everyone who walked in talked to the owner as if they were friends. The staff was very friendly and helpful. One woman spoke a tiny bit of English, so we were able to communicate enough to order two yummy pizzas and tiramisu for dessert. What a great experience.
DAY TWO — Sunday
We all slept fine, and were warm enough during the night. In the morning we were greeted by a most amazing sunrise. The house looks directly east, over the ocean. So the sunshine poured into our bedroom windows. Olivia and I stepped outside in our pajamas and sat on the patio. There’s nothing like smelling the ocean and seeing green foliage in February. I took some photos that morning…
After breakfast (cold leftover pizza), we picked up groceries at a small grocery store in the nearby town of Budoni. Then came back to the house to explore the path that leads from the property down through a small valley and on to the beach. It’s about a 7-8 minute walk. Earlier I thought I had heard something that sounded like a gunshot. But figured it must have been something else. I was wrong.
We headed down the path and saw…hunters. Probably five or six of them in this little valley that we were descending into on our way to the beach. We met one hunter on the path with his dog. He didn’t speak much English, but he said “pig,” and pointed to a badge on his orange vest that had a boar on it. So they were hunting wild boars. I gestured to the beach and asked, “Okay?” He smiled and said, “Si. We go away. Fini.” Well, they weren’t finished, but we made it to the beach while they continued to yell to each other across the valley, and with occasional barking fits by the dogs. But no more gunshots, despite the flurries of excitement. Luckily there were no boars on the beach. We enjoyed the sun while hiking the rocky shoreline.
In the afternoon we drove back to Olbia to check out the old town center. Not much happening on a Sunday afternoon in “winter.” Hardly anyone around, and nearly every store was closed. But after a brief shower I was able to snap this shot of an incredible double rainbow. (My photo doesn’t do it justice.)
When we returned to Ottiolu that night, we realized that Fritz was indeed right about something. There were really only around 10 people in Ottiolu, if that many. The place was empty. On our way out of town in the afternoon we saw no one. And now in the evening, no one. It was kind of an eerie feeling to be essentially the only people in this town.
In the evening we had a bit of a shock…our first propane tank was empty. The “experiment” had hit its first snag. I initially panicked, frantically searching for a reason why. At this rate we’d go through at least five of them, and Fritz would certainly charge us for them. We had no idea how much they cost.
I concluded that the tank had emptied itself that quickly because either 1) it wasn’t brand new, so it only had a little gas left in it when we arrived; or 2) we burned through it because we simply used too much and needed to be much more frugal. We went with theory number two, to be cautious. The rationing of propane was to begin. But first I needed to change the tank. Dealing with ignitable gases isn’t something I relish, but in the morning I successfully performed this task, and restarted the furnace.
DAY THREE — Monday
Cool. Patchy clouds, which thickened during the day. We left two messages for Fritz, telling him the first tank was empty and that we’d probably need another one. We went to the nearby town of Golfo Aranci, where according to our small guide book there was a great beach. After driving down a dirt road for half a mile, avoiding potholes, we did indeed find a most amazing cove and hiking trail. It didn’t match the description in the book, but we weren’t complaining!
The large rocky island in the distance is actually much more impressive in person. It’s huge. It looms over you.
DAY FOUR — Tuesday
It rained a lot during the night, and we woke to rain and wind. We hadn’t heard back from Fritz yet, so we continued to ration out the propane. I’d turn the tank on in the morning for hot water and a little (pointless) heat, then shut it off during the day, then turn it on in the evening for cooking and hot water, then shut it off at bedtime. Mind you, the system would “trip” frequently, and I’d go outside to push the little black button to reset it. This was a pain to continually monitor. I wasn’t so sure that Fritz had fixed it.
To get out of the house we went to Sassari, a college town an hour away. According to our guide book it had some decent shopping and cafes. It was here that we had our first opportunity to check email, but it wasn’t easy. We went into a few cafes asking if they had an internet connection. Nobody spoke English, but they were able to communicate that they didn’t have internet, but there was a place several blocks away that did. So we’d walk in that direction, then stop at another cafe and go through this routine again. Finally we saw what they meant, it was a communications shop, a place where you could make calls and/or use a computer. It was dirty, and the clientele was a little rough around the edges. We didn’t want to stay long. There were five booths with computers in them, and a row of pay phones. (When’s the last time you saw a pay phone?) We checked our email quickly, then headed to a tiny cafe for a terrific lunch.
In the afternoon we visited a couple nuraghe sites—old stone structures some 2,000 years old that were built by early inhabitants of the island.
When we returned to the house in the evening it was pouring outside. The house was cold, so I turned on the furnace. Fritz hadn’t called. And after the kids were in bed we noticed something new—the ceiling was leaking in four places. We placed towels along the floor where the rain was trickling down. It wasn’t real bad, but it was another thing to be monitoring. A distraction. At least the place had a fire place, and Mary had discovered some duraflame-type logs at a perfume store (yes a perfume store) in Olbia. So we had a corner of heat. One thing to note is that it wasn’t really that cold, it’s just that it was a damp cold. That kind of cut-to-the-bone damp chill that you get in spring when it’s wet out, and no matter how many layers you put on it doesn’t really help much.
I went out in the rain and turned off the furnace before we went to bed.
DAY FIVE — Wednesday
We woke to heavy rain…and Olivia discovered there’s no power. So now the house was cold, and leaking, and dark.
At this point, laying in bed, I’m thinking, “Okay, we don’t have power, which means there’s no way the furnace will ignite. We won’t have (pointless) heat, or hot water. We haven’t heard from Fritz. Who knows if he’s just taken off with our security deposit?! After all, it’s ‘winter’ here and nobody’s around. Let’s just pack up our stuff, leave the dishes, clutter, etc., cut our losses, and go to a hotel where we can be warm and dry and have wonderful hot showers!” But that would be giving up way too easily. I went outside in my pajamas and raincoat, and surprise—the furnace turned on! Then we figured we should find the fuse box and see if we just need to throw a switch or two. We found the fuse box and bingo—power! So now things were looking up.
Mary had known about a meeting at the U that was taking place later in the day that she wanted to be in on. She needed an internet connection to use Skype so she could video-conference herself into the meeting. We figured we could pay for a hotel room in Olbia for the day just for this purpose. She could make her call, but first she and the kids could take hot baths. So that’s exactly what we did. Off to the Double Tree in Olbia! The kids and I watched “Monsters, Inc.” on the floor in the bathroom (with bed pillows!) while Mary made her call. Afterwards, to really spoil ourselves, we went to a nearby McDonald’s for dinner.
Then back to the chilly house. By this time the rain had thankfully stopped, and the landscape and ocean were beautiful.
Still, Fritz still hadn’t called.
DAY SIX — Thursday
Woke to clear skies! Lots of sun, but lots of wind. The high must have been around 55.
We headed off to explore the nearby town of San Teodoro, where we had had dinner our first night. This town was larger and had more activity. And it was becoming clear that the people here are wealthy. Ottiolu, where we were staying, was empty because the houses are all rentals. And now in San Teodoro, the locals clearly weren’t peasants. They drove BMW’s and Audis, and wore black stylish clothing. There weren’t many of them around, but they made quite an impression. And it may also be worth noting that up to this point we had seen no other tourists on our trip, except for one German couple on a beach. Other than them, we were the only non-Sardinian people around. We stood out.
Here are some photos of the San Teodoro:
We went to the visitor’s center to get info on nearby beaches, and headed to a couple great beaches just north of town, despite the wind. We all had a great time climbing on the rocky shore, and the kids ran and ran and ran on the sandy beach. Here are some photos of the scenery:
DAY SEVEN — Friday
Still hadn’t heard from Fritz. Still carefully rationing out the propane. The tank was getting lighter and lighter, so I was growing concerned. We had left another message for him, and were growing more and more convinced that he must have taken off with our cash. He had said he’d check on us at some point, but he hadn’t done that either.
But on with the day…
Clear and sunny, still windy. Again, around 55. After lunch went to another beach near San Teodoro.
While cooking dinner Friday night there’s a knock on the door. It’s Fritz.
Did I mention what a nice guy he is? Really. He is. He’s very soft-spoken and calm. He lives in a town nearby with his wife, and rents out his house in summer. He’s friends with the owners of the house we were in, and handles renting it for them. He gives ultra-light flying lessons somewhere in the area in summer, and used to live in the U.S. He worked for Harley-Davidson. His job had something to do with transporting Harleys across the country.
Apparently he hadn’t gotten our messages because he only uses his Italian phone when in Sardinia. We were calling his German cell phone (with the only phone number we had to contact him). I think he felt kind of bad. He said that he had indeed stopped by to check on us, but we were gone. He had lifted the propane tank and felt it was sufficiently full for us to survive a few more days. But he had another with him and would switch it before he left. I told him that the gas didn’t seem to last long. He understood, saying that nobody has radiated heat in these houses. No one has insulation. They’ve all been built within the last 10-15 years as summer rentals. The fact that we had heat at all was a luxury around there.
I mentioned the power outage. He said in heavy rain that happens sometimes. Some water must get into a wire or something and it shorts out the system temporarily. Then I mentioned the leaky ceiling. He smiled and said everybody’s roof leaks in Sardinia.
We had a pleasant chat. And soon his wife showed up too. We all had a pleasant chat. We got our deposit back and discussed visiting again when it’s warmer in May, when the hot tub is working, and the radiators aren’t needed, and the bulk of crazy tourists haven’t yet arrived.
Saturday, our last day…the car accident
Beautiful. Sunny. No wind. Mid 60s. The best day yet. A great day to head to the beach before our evening flight back to Berlin.
Around 11:00 am we headed towards a beach we had visited the day before, when it was extremely windy. Today would be perfect.
We drove through the outskirts of San Teodoro, then continued north for several more kilometers. I was following a small blue Fiat of some sort, at a safe distance, and behind me was a gray BMW station wagon, also at a safe distance.
I became distracted when an elderly man on a bicycle traveling south in the oncoming lane swerved out into the middle of his lane. I slowed a little, taking my foot off the accelerator. Mary and I both looked at him as I passed him, wondering if he was physically stable. When we looked forward again the little blue Fiat was stopped in front of me with his left turn signal flashing. He was waiting for an oncoming car to pass before making a left turn. This was not good.
I braked very hard and moved to the right side of the lane as far as I could, going partially into the grass next to the road (there are no shoulders on these highways). He started to make his left turn slowly, and I came to a complete stop, avoiding him by inches. Then, somewhat to my surprise, a moment later I heard the BMW’s brakes squeal, and he hit the Fiat’s rear left fender.
Everything happened so fast that it’s really hard to know, or remember, exactly what happened. It was…an accident.
Tempted to keep driving since I didn’t hit anyone, my civic responsibility took over and I got out of the car to talk to the other drivers who were busy chatting about the whole thing. The young man in the Fiat was actually taking photos of everything, including me and my car. I thought it was kind of weird how he sprang into action so quickly like this. Was I in trouble? I walked over and asked if he spoke English. He said, “A little.” I said I was sorry to hit the brakes so hard, but I had been distracted by the man on the bike. He didn’t seem to understand me. Great.
He and his male passenger then pulled out identifications and said “we are the Carineiri.” The police. Great. He then said “this is a military car.” A tiny blue Fiat is a military car? These guys were in street clothes, so I was a little confused. I thought maybe they were in some equivalent to the National Guard.
The driver of the BMW was in his 60’s, and was arguing his case pretty hard to “Fiat guy.” From his gestures he seemed to be saying that he was blocked, and essentially had no choice but to hit the Fiat. I felt helpless because they couldn’t understand me, and my explanation of things.
“Fiat guy” said that I should stay because the police were coming. Great. So what’s going to happen when they come? Will someone speak English?
The three of us just stood around on the dirt road waiting in the sun. Quietly. I walked over to our car, still sitting along the side of the road with hazards on, to give Mary and the girls an update. The BMW is behind me, along the side of the road as well. And the Fiat is off the road, partially sitting on the dirt road he was turning on to. Traffic slows down when passing the carnage of this fender-bender. Actually, they probably wonder what we’re doing, since there’s really no evidence of an accident!
Some 10 minutes later a police car arrives with two officers. They have a lively talk with “Fiat guy,” his partner, and the BMW driver. I just stand there. The officers don’t speak English. One of them gets all our rental paperwork, and my driver’s license and our passports and starts writing info in his log book. Why isn’t he doing this with the other guy? What’s happening?
“Fiat guy” tells me another police car is coming with someone who speaks English.
We all stand around waiting in the sun. Quietly. I get Mary and the girls out of the car, since it appears this is going to take a while. We all stand around waiting in the sun. Traffic slows down when passing the carnage of this fender-bender, now with a police car on site.
As I wait, I notice that “Fiat guy” has a gun sticking into the back of his jeans. Hmmm. I guess he’s some military officer.
Some 10-15 minutes later a second police car arrives with two more officers. Then a third car arrives with two more officers. A female officer approaches me and asks me what happened, saying that she speaks a little English. I tell her my story. She doesn’t seem to understand. She goes over to everyone else (all the Sardinians) and has a talk, then comes back to me and asks me to write down what happened on a piece of paper, then she would interpret it. I did. She read it and went to talk to “the group.” More milling around. More of our perfect beach time draining away.
Some 10 minutes later “Fiat guy” comes over to me and says we had to wait for an interpreter to arrive.
More milling around in the sun. Traffic continues to drive by slowly when passing the carnage of this fender-bender, now with three police cars on site.
Some 15 minutes later a young woman arrives in a small tan Fiat. She’s extremely friendly and speaks excellent English. Finally, someone who understands me! She reads my story, then asks me to verbally explain what happened. I explain it all again. She understands! She tells the guys my side of things. The BMW driver seems to object to the fact that I said I was at a complete stop when he hit the Fiat. She asks me if I’m sure I was at a complete stop. I said I certainly believe I was, or if I wasn’t I nearly was.
She talks with them some more. More talking. More milling around. Minutes pass. More talking. Mary and I just stand around with the girls, who are making the best of the situation. She comes over to me and chats a little. At some point she says that she doesn’t think this is my fault. But is that the consensus, or just her opinion? I hope it’s what the police think, because I didn’t hit anyone!
We end up chatting a lot with the interpreter. Turns out her name is Lucianna, and she works at the visitor’s center in San Teodoro, where we stopped a couple days before to get beach info. The police called her because of course she speaks English! We have a very nice conversation, talking about our time in Sardinia, her background, etc. She also makes little digs at the police to us, commenting on how silly it is that everything is taking so long, and how the bureaucracy is so thick. And then she starts to laugh and says that it’s taking extra-long because “Fiat guy” is the chief of police in San Teodoro! I am NOT making this up!
Thank God she showed up. Now everything made more sense.
We were expecting things to wrap up at any time now. But no. More milling about. Every now and then an officer would have a question while looking at my driver’s license as he transcribed info into his log, or he’d want to look through the glove compartment of our Thrifty rental car for more papers. It was strange.
At one point the police produced a tape measure and started measuring the distance between the Fiat and my car. But my car was nowhere near where it was when the impact occurred. I had pulled ahead to let traffic through. I told Lucianna this, and she related this to the police. They said they were aware of this. So what were they doing?? I still didn’t know what was going on. But I trusted what Lucianna told me, that it wasn’t my fault. I also didn’t want to act too aggressively. I thought ultimately the best thing to do was to keep my mouth shut.
Eventually the Chief of Police, named David, and formerly known as “Fiat guy,” told me, via Lucianna, that the insurance policy in our rental car glove compartment had expired two weeks ago. Therefore, we were not permitted to drive the vehicle. It had to stay where it was, along the side of the road. I am NOT making this up. We’re standing around on a dirt road, next to a highway out in the country, and he’s telling us we can’t use our car. However, he’s willing to call Thrifty and explain the situation, and ask them to deliver another car to us. From Olbia…25 minutes away. I’m thinking there’s NO WAY they’ll get a car out here to us for at least an hour. At the soonest. Now I’m wondering if we’ll even catch our flight. Forget the beach.
There’s great confusion over how to get in touch with the car rental company. The police have all the forms, and our contract from the car. They keep asking what the name of the rental company is as they look through the forms. Mary keeps telling them it’s Thrifty, or in Europe it’s AutoEuropa or something like that. We can’t see the forms, since the police have them. But we’re thinking it can’t be that hard to find the contact info on the forms. Lucianna mutters, “They’re police. Of course they can’t figure this out.”
Finally they find the number. David calls from his cell phone. He reaches the main office in ROME. Great. He hangs up and asks if we have a local number. Well, HE has the forms. How are we supposed to know a local number?
He calls again and eventually gets through to the company at the airport, going through some phone tree I imagine. He hangs up and says Thrifty claims the car IS indeed insured, but the new form simply wasn’t in the car. So they are going to fax proof of the policy to the San Teodoro police station. Then the police station would contact David to say everything is okay. He said it should only take “five to ten minutes.” Right.
More milling about. At this point the three police cars are gone, and the driver of the BMW as well.
Around 15 minutes later his phone rings. Good news! The fax came through and everything was okay. I mistakenly thought that we could now go to the beach for a quick walk. But no. We had to follow David and his partner to the San Teodoro police station to get our copy of the fax!!
We say goodbye to Lucianna, thanking her for her help. We take her business card, thinking it may come in handy if we come back in May. Although now I’m not so sure I’d want to. She kisses us goodbye, Sardinian-style (like the French) and gets into her Fiat.
We follow David and his partner. At the station David goes in his office and looks at the fax. I stand outside the door. He seems puzzled. He shows it to someone else in the office, and his partner. I stand there, wondering what’s going on. Something I’m now quite used to. He continues to look at it. Eventually he shrugs and hands me my copy, shakes my hand, and says goodbye.
Sorting out this fender-bender had required eight police officers (including David and his partner) and one interpreter, and had taken nearly three hours. And I really don’t know what the outcome was!! Are we going to see a huge deductible on our credit card next month? I may need a lawyer!
We went for a short walk on the beach before heading back to the house to cleanup and pack.
The girls have a nice pink glow from the Sardinian “winter” sun. But it’s not from time on the beach.