Deserts, volcanoes, oceans: is there anything more attracting than the bare rough nature? I don’t think so, and this is the reason I can’t stay too much away from any of them. At the end of April – just after my trip to Iran – I decided to visit one of the most beautiful and yet not touristic places in Italy: the Sulcis area, in the south-western corner of Sardinia.
The first settlements here date back to the Neolitic age, few years later Phoenicians stopped by, but the real population growth occurred at the beginning of 1900 when the area was used for intensive coal mining. Once coal became obsolete the capital behind the mines disappeared, leaving behind poverty but a beautiful unspoiled land.
Visiting Sardinia in May is a great experience: it is very warm, if you are lucky you can swim in the sea (if it is not too cold or too rough) and there are not many tourists: tourism in Sardinia focuses on the Norther side, the Western side and the South-eastern side.. surprisingly not many people adventure into Sulcis. Why? Very rocky, rough sea, not many infrastructures. What is a hell for someone is a paradise for me!
But beauty of the land was not the main reason I wanted to go there: this part of Sardinia has extraordinary caves. Few of them can also be visited on a metal walkway. And then there is Su Mannau cave where they also organize speleological excursions. No, I really mean that: real speleological excursions! Only a handful of locations in Europe offer that – no need of any qualification, you just need to be fit. So on the way back from Iran I decided that Su Mannau would be my next destination.
Off I go! Ryanair flight to Cagliari airport, then car rental (you need a car!!) and drive via a super scenic road to Iglesias, just 90 minutes west of the airport.
Iglesias is a small town of 25000 inhabitants and it is the best base to visit Sulcis, as everything will be within 30 minute drive. Unless you really want to stay in an isolated village in the mountains, Iglesias offers few accomodation options, basic shopping and excellent food: a good dinner is the most rewarding prize after a day of exploration!
Sardinia’s coal mining heritage
The first day I paid homage to the Sulcis coal heritage and I headed to Porto Flavia. This is a wonderful series of galleries excavated in 1924 that end above the sea: coal was mined inside the mountain and brought through a 600mt long tunnel on a cliff where a mechanical arm loaded it into the boots of ships. The whole site was considered a fine piece of engineering at that time, and it is definitely worth a visit for at least two reasons: 1) the guided tours (also in English) are very interesting, providing useful information about the operations and the life in a mine – most of the guides are people who used to work there! 2) the walk in the tunnel is suggestive, opening on the sea and ending with a spectacular view over a rock called Pan di Zucchero (Sugar Bread).
If you are interested in visiting the site, have a look at their website here: http://www.igeaspa.it/en/visita_guidata_a_porto_fl.wp
After your visit to Porto Flavia you can indulge in the area and do some decent hiking.
Speleology in Sardinia: Su Mannau cave
Right! After enjoying the cultural part of the trip, it was time to head to the main destination: Su Mannau. More information here: http://www.sumannau.it (website in Italian, but you can call them directly, they speak English)
To my surprise only two guys were interested in the excursion: so we were three with two guides. When asked which level of difficulty we wanted, we opted for the most difficult track, six hours inside the mountain. Important note: I was not particularly fit in that period, I must admit that at a certain point I had some problems to keep up with the guides, but I made it with no particular issues. It is not necessary to be Superman, but if you have some physical conditions it might not be the right product for you: just stick with the walkway option.
We have received mountaineer equipment plus some extra survival tools (rubber boots). Our target was an inner area called Sala del Sonno (Hall of Sleep): to reach it we had to go up around 30mt, then down 60mt.. and when I say up and down, I really mean it! First things first: instructions about how to behave in a cave and how to use climbing tools. Now we were ready to go. We had a very steep uphill in front of us (probably 30%), with water running down. When the guides told us to walk on it, we thought it was a joke! But here’s the thing: it looks like that the dark environment of a cave prevents the growth of moss and lichens, which are the cause of slippery rocks. I did not fully trust this explanation, but it was true: I walked uphill without much effort. After these 30 seconds of Spiderman feeling, I started to like speleology… but I still had 6 very hard hours in front of me.
The first part was very encouraging: we were going up at medium difficulty and the cave began to look like.. a cave! We started to see the first stalactites.
The temperature dropped sensibly and we started to get wet – luckily the intense physical activity and the protective clothing were keeping us warm. Once reached the top, we started to go down. At a certain point we reached a cliff. It was so dark that we could not see anything except few inches away from our torches. The guides harnessed us and instructed to start abseiling with no fear. With a bit of unease we started to climb down.. it took longer than expected and later the guides informed us that the wall was 25mt tall. In this situation darnkess really helped: if does not make any difference if the wall is 1mt or 30mt tall when you are not able to see the floor and have no other reference point than your hands!
The landscape was completely different now: there were still stalactites but now we were also walking past some beautiful and weird crystal formations; we also saw some inner rivers and and a lake (more like a pond..). We continued to walk downhill until we reached a small hole in the ground: we had to go through it. Gravity helped a lot here, but not for the second passage few minutes afterwards: the hole was so tight that you could barely squeeze in there. I could not move my arms at all and the only way to get out of it was moving like a worm. Yeah. It took a while. Not suggested if you suffer of claustrophobia.
After around 2.5 hours we reached our destination, Sala del Sonno, but we did not care much. All we wanted to do was to rest, drink and eat. But while our batteries recharged, we started to contemplate this fantastic place: stalactites, crystals and us, isolated from the rest of the world by meters of granite. It was completely silent, not even the noise of water streams or drops that accompanied us for the whole trip. We decided to switch our head torches off for few minutes and enjoy the emptiness.
Before leaving Sala del Sonno, we had to do a selfie:
And then back to the starting point.. the roundtrip lasted around 6 hours: we were shattered, with bleeding hands and painful joints, but it was totally worth it! I definitely recommend this experience and I encourage you to go. The guides are expert speleologist, they explain everything you see during the tour and – most important – they run this tour as volunteers: the cost is 50 euro per person and everything will go to the association that maintains the cave. Unfortunately the number of people interested in the speleological tour is reducing year after year and the guides told us that they might be forced to cancel this option: fixed costs are getting to high. So do not miss this opportunity! If you are spending few days in the area, go support this association and you will go back home with a unique experience!!
Have you tried other speleology tours? Share your experience, leave a comment!