“It should be just up here,” said Stefano, as we bounced along yet another dusty, isolated track at the base of Monte Nieddu.
As before, there was no signage to indicate if indeed, this was the right way to the swimming hole. All we had to go on from the beginning was word of mouth and the name of the nearest village. That, and some directions from an elderly woman who appeared to be the only resident in town on this particular day.
In the back, the children could barely keep their eyes open while Veronica and her sister leaned their heads wearily against the window like two convicts in cross-country transit.
Suddenly, a red estate appeared from the opposite direction. The driver stopped and exchanged words with Stefano. It turned out they were also looking for the elusive river and had information on its whereabouts. Stefano swung the car round at the nearest layby and headed back down the hill. By the side of the road, the driver and his son waved us down and pointed to a pathway heading through the pine woods.
With renewed vigour, we piled out of the car and followed them down a thin track. Before long, the trees petered out and we were surrounded by sun-bleached granite formations that seemed to weave and flow almost like a river. The path began to descend into a blind gorge and then we were presented with that most precious of resources – water.
Despite the midsummer heat, a steady stream made its way between the rock and collected in a pool just right for jumping into. On the far side, the water continued its journey off the lip of a ravine and plummeted into another gorge where a group of climbers were following its course deeper into the landscape.
The heat bore down on my head as I crossed the car park of Il Redentore. The door handle to the hire car was almost too hot to touch and the seat burned the backs of my legs as I sat down. I cranked up the air con to full blast, letting the coolness fill my lungs. Then I began to feel excited.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I wasn’t enjoying the festivities. After all, it’s not everyday you get invited to a traditional Sardinian wedding with all the wild boar, seafood and herbaceous liquors you could ask for being (literally) handed to you on a platter.
However, I was finding the 40 degree heat a struggle and the continuous effort to communicate as the only foreigner at the party was a strain. I needed a breather and the only escape was the road in this part of the island.
I took a right out of the gates and quickly realised I had made a mistake when the road veered towards the motorway. I imagined being forced miles away from my only reference point, before a slip road funnelled me, panicked and sweating, into the indistinguishable landscape.
Thankfully, this being the Sardinian countryside, I was the only car on the road so I casually swung it around and cruised off in the opposite direction.
No sooner had I passed by the venue than all signs of civilisation dissapeared. On either side of me, burnt yellow fields rose up towards the hilltops. Tufts of greenery still peppered the scenery, however, and great bushes of magenta flowers were bursting from the roadside.
Further on, the road opened out on to a spectacular straight, its vanishing point nestled far within the hills. I considered I should probably turn back at this point. It was hardly the most sensible idea to be driving away from the only place I knew, alone, in a foreign wilderness. But I also knew that adventure doesn’t often come from being sensible. So I put my foot down.
The bridge rose up, lifting me above the crowds that swarmed out of the train station and across from the bus terminal. That was when it hit me. Never before had I set eyes on a river that was so full of life.
Across emerald water, boats jostled for space, bumping past each other as they delivered groceries, goods and tourists to the quayside. Narrow pavements lined the sides where cafes spilled out to the water’s edge and the sound of chatter and tinkering cups echoed off rows of crumbling facades.
I crossed the remainder of the bridge and was instantly plunged into a labyrinth, formed by blocks of flats stacked impossibly close to one another. It was from here that the rest of my encounters with Venice panned out.
Amongst meetings with myriad rivers and fairytale squares, was a chance visit to Il Canovaccio and the beginning of a love affair with the city’s most famous export; the mask. My boat trip to the islands also stands out, where centuries of glass-making tradition survive and a Lego-like town decorated in rainbow colours seemed to belong to nowhere, except its own microcosm.
Not bad for three days, but the twinkling studs and knowing smile of the mask that now hangs on my wall tells me I only scratched the surface.
I feel drunk, except I’ve had no alcohol, only short, bittersweet glasses of tea; ubiquitous refreshment on the streets of Istanbul. It doesn’t help, however, that I’m stood up in a Dolmus, the taxi-cum-buses that chug about the city, picking up anyone anywhere who flags them down en route. My friend, Colin and I, clutch at the handrails and grin at the madness of it all as the driver bumps and jerks his way through the traffic. It’s just one more moment in a sea of experiences that have happened today and, thinking back, it’s no surprise that I feel the way I do.
First off, it was Carsamba market, with its never ending tunnels of clothes and groceries that filled up my eyes and ears with colour and chatter. Then there were the crumbling buildings of Balat that caught my imagination, an old Jewish neighbourhood, where washing lines are strung out across the streets and children roam as free as the stray cats that call the area their home. And I’m frankly still a bit fazed by the shoe-shiner who reeled us in with his thank-you-for-picking-up-my-brush routine and offered to polish our shoes out of gratitude only to snatch a 20 note from my wallet after asking for a donation. In hindsight, however, it simply added a little extra adrenalin to the mix as well as reminding me that not only am I tourist here, but a very fortunate one too.
The sheer variety of experience has been a constant as we’ve explored the ever-changing quarters of the city and by the end of each day my head has been left spinning with a heady mix of information overload and travel-inspired glee. It’s this combination that has led to such a feeling of intoxication and it’s something I know will only continue as we are dropped off at a gondola station where we await a carriage up to the Pierre Loti café overlooking the Golden Horn and the cityscape at dusk.
Tomorrow, the hangover will surely kick in as I board the plane back to England. But I’m hoping that I can take home at least some of the sense of adventure that has characterised this trip, so that I might better appreciate the colours, sights and sounds that are everywhere in my own city, albeit in a less exotic fashion. That way the trip never really ends.