Lighthouse keepers, a story set on the edges of Sardinia

YiS Team: Annalisa Bucci

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2024

Lighthouse keepers, a story set on the edges of Sardinia

“The voice of the wind and the sea could rise or fall, but it never stopped”. The echo of wild cliffs resounds in the journals of the keepers, where the only sign of life and hope is the beam of the lighthouse.

A beam of light keeps night sailors away from the coasts, signalling the last boundary between land and sea. During the day, with the light off, the charm of lost and wild places shines in its stead. Standing on headlands far from everything and on uninhabited islands, the lighthouses of Sardinia are lonely outposts, silent witnesses of the stories of the sea. They watch over bright-coloured waters, where the air smells of salt and Mediterranean scents and the hubbub of waves crashing on the rocks is incessant. They exude the emotions and feelings of the intense lives of their keepers, of yesterday and today. They tell of miraculous rescues and shipwrecks, of boats swallowed by the waves, as in the islet of Mangiabarche (boat-eater), only a short distance from the coast of Calasetta, on the island of Sant’Antioco, named for its reputation among sailors. Nearby, on the island of San PietroCapo Sandalo stands on a cliff overlooking the westernmost lighthouse in Italy, built in 1864. From its summit, at the top of 124 spiral steps, it emits four beams of light that reach up to 24 miles away.

Life in solitude on the lighthouses became tragic when endless storms raged that cut off the islets inhabited only by the keepers and their families. They are very close to the mainland, yet they must have appeared far away, waiting for help that was delayed. This was often the case at dei Cavoli island, a short distance from Villasimius. Today, only memories remain of families and keepers drowned in a desperate attempt to escape. Cavoli lighthouse is now home to the biological research center of the protected area of ​​Capo Carbonara and is one of the most visited places in the marine park. Built in the mid-19th century, the lighthouse incorporates a late-16th century Spanish tower. Its outer walls are covered with a mosaic of small white tesserae, with colours changing from blue to purple. Moving up the eastern coast, you will meet the splendid and endless sandy expanse of Costa Rei, closed to the north by the promontory of Capo Ferrato. It starts with delightful coves, and leads, at the end of a path through thick Mediterranean scrub, to a striking 11 metre high lighthouse tower. Further east, across the Gulf of Orosei, in Siniscola you will discover another ‘mythical’ lighthouse, which has stood at the eastern end of the splendid Capo Comino beach since 1903.

On the oldest of the Sardinian lighthouses, at Razzoli, the northernmost island of the Maddalena archipelago park, the keepers lived like hermits. The great light guarding the tormented Bocche di Bonifacio required the work of three keepers, who lived here with their families sharing everything they had, even the education of their children. Their teachers reported to the mainland on the lives of the children and teenagers who grew up on the small island exposed to the elements. Emotions experienced at the edge of the world, the same that you can still feel when visiting other (former) lighthouses of the archipelago and the opposite coast: Punta Filetto and the lookout of Marginetto at La Maddalena; the lighthouse of Capo d’Orso in Palau, the signalling stations of Capo Ferro in Porto Cervo and Punta Falcone in Santa Teresa Gallura, where the magic of the Capo Testa lighthouse stands out as a romantic destination and a meditative refuge, not to say a reference point for surfers (since 1845) and anyone seeking a place to sit quietly and reflect. Still in Gallura, at Golfo Aranci, a path towards the peak of Capo Figari leads to the Navy lighthouse. Completed in 1890, it became famous thanks to Guglielmo Marconi who installed a (then) revolutionary shortwave radio system.

Solitude and silence. The Sinis peninsula ‘speaks’ through the signs of nature and ancient history. It extends by land and sea from the lighthouse of Capo Mannu to that of Capo San Marco, which you can reach on foot along a path that passes by the ruins of Tharros. The two ends mark the edges of the Sinis protected marine area, which has survived intact to the modern day: sand dunes, white cliffs, quartz crystal beaches, natural oases inhabited by rare fauna and scattered with evidence of the Nuragic, Phoenician Punic and Roman ages. It is an extraordinary piece of land, like the widow of the lighthouse keeper of Capo San Marco. Her love for her husband and her passion for her job led her to become a keeper herself and raise her children in the lighthouse. One of them is today the last keeper. Guarding the extreme south of Sardinia is one of the oldest island lighthouses, built in 1850: the lighthouse of Sant’Elia, near the bay of Calamosca. The lighthouse is a two-storey building topped by a cylindrical tower with black and white stripes. Its light expands up to 21 miles, guiding the path of ships and boats in the Golfo degli Angeli. It also watches over an open-air museum: in a few square kilometres on the hill you’ll find a concentration of Roman cisterns, ancient mosaics, steps carved into the rock and a domu de Janas adapted to civil uses.

Contemplation, restlessness, suggestion, wonder…this is the Asinara park. Just like every island, it has its own lighthouse, standing alone at its northern end. Even the name is ‘sinister – Punta Scorno. Set in the open sea, it is exposed to storms. A round three-storey tower, 35 metres high, dating back to the mid-19th century, dominates from above the rarely tranquil ‘palette’ of blue, azure, turquoise and green. Stories about the lighthouse abound: the most famous is the story of the three Vitello sisters, daughters of a lighthouse keeper. One night in September 1953 they rescued three survivors, recovering them with a small boat. Their courage earned them a bronze medal from the Italian Navy, the only women to receive the honour. In 1977 the last lighthouse keeper closed the wooden door of the lighthouse for the last time. Since then it has been automated, but still remains witness to the total isolation of Asinara. Before becoming a park, it was a hospital, a penal colony, a war refuge, and a maximum security prison – the Italian Alcatraz. For decades, the life of the keepers, in the village of Cala d’Oliva, went hand in hand with that of prison guards and prisoners. In fact, one of the prisoners used to be assigned to help the lighthouse keeper during the day – in exchange he lived in semi-freedom, together with the keeper’s family.

Sardegna Turismo
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