22 de jul. 2017

The Mines of Sardinia. Tourism with History

The abandoned mine of Nebida
Sardinia is a tourist destination, a vacancy island, and so it seems condemned to be reminded just on summertime. When hot arrives, everyone dreams to escape to a paradise beach that, for all those who do not live in an island, could be placed only on an isle. In the very same moment I am writing this article, coming home on a train that goes from Sitges to Barcelona, after a working day, the girl just in front of me is reading a book. It is titled Mi Isla (Elisabet Benavent, Suma, 2016), my Island in Spanish. The cover image represents a small islet with two palm trees, the iconic image of the desert circle island. She, I have no doubt, is planning to escape on it.

But on an island there is more than beautiful beaches. This is true in particular for Sardinia where, far from swimsuits and sunscreens, there are a lot of interesting places to see, thanks to its long history. One of them, that common tourists will never think to visit, are the abandoned mines.

The mines of Sardinia
Since late Middel Ages, Sardinia was rich in metals and minerals. So rich, that one of the main reasons that drove here conquerors from the surroundings continents was the chance to exploit the underground resources of the island. So much they were exploited, that today only few traces of raw material remained in the subsoil. The extractive activity was particularly intense in the Middle Ages, but then it decreased from the 15th to 19th century. During this century, the activity begun to increase, in search for resources useful for the Industrial Revolution. One of them was carbon, so much valuable in a country as Italy, poor of any fossil combustible or primary resources. So, during the last twenty years of the 19th century, many extractive activities were set up in Sardinia, not only to extract carbon but also other materials. Such extractive activity reached its highest point during the Fascist regime, when the country tried to achieve autarchy. During the ’50 and the ’60, many mines were closed, and today a little of them remained, as a souvenir of the past: the ruins of the abandoned facilities, and a few miners who are still fighting to maintain opened the surviving activities, that are carbon extraction and the production of aluminium. The whole sector was, and still is, in the hands of non-island entrepreneurs.

What remains are the old mining buildings. From 2001 onwards they are part of the Parco Geominerario, Storico e Ambientale della Sardegna, a public institution that has the mission to restore the mines and to keep the sites available for visitors. But, due to low budget and an objective lack of political interests, the institution is not working as it was expected. Some mining sites are abandoned and decadents, a truly post-industrial landscapes in a naturalistic environment, which will leave you literally breathless.

Is the case of l’Argentiera, a small hamlet a few km from the town of Alghero, that was a working silver mine until 1963. The village is placed in a small bay along the north-west coast of Sardinia, surrounded by rocky cliffs. The extracted material was carried on boat to the Italic peninsula, and so there were no direct benefits for the locals. For them there were only the devastation of the landscape and the chance to do a hard and extremely tiring job. The same pattern could be found in Bugerru, Masua or Montevecchio, in the south-east region of Sulcis-Iglesiente, where are concentrated most of the Sardinian mines. Here the extracted material were carried on cargo boats using tunnels that, from the deep underground, ended with a hole on the rocky cliffs along the coastline.

Piscinas. Photo by Ornella Locatelli
Today a visit to l’Argentiera or Masua, followed by a bath in beaches where the sand still keeps the metallic tonality result of the year of mining, it is a much more interesting experience compared to the overwhelming massified beaches of the Costa Smeralda or the Pelosa – so much advised by generic tourist operators. Another breathtaking place to see is the abandoned mine of Montevecchio, that lays in the middle of a unique environment. Visitors can enter in the facilities, safely guided by a local guide. In the area, in a place called Piscinas, there are the highest sands dune in Europe, so big and so yellow that the sensation is to be in the middle of a desert. But you are just a few metres from the shoreline. The beaches of Piscinas are hard to reach, you must pass through the abandoned mines and the ancients dwellings of the miners, driving in road that seems completely abandoned. Recently, some tourists complained about the lack of internet connection, which prevented them from using their cell phone. But, having an absolutely unique spectacle as a background, I assure you that you will not suffer from isolation.

The miners of Bugerru
The mine’s route is not the expirience that common tourists are looking for. Visitng the mines is to coming into contact with a recent past, exploring hidden and fascinating places of Sardinia. But it is also the way to understand the tragic history of this island, depredated of its natural resources to feed the industrial development of northern Italy. Most of the miners came from the Italic peninsula, but many were former shepherds who were expelled from the inner mountain of Sardinia, when here the commom use of the soil begun to be changed for the private proprety. Those who did not have the strenght or the money to impose themselves as landowners, could only have the chanche to dig down into the island subsoil, before leaving definitly the island. Miners with a past as shepherds, who worked in an inhuman conditions, even forced to live in hamlets where all, from the houses to the shops, were proprety of the mine’s owner. He had an easy buisness, since with the money that the workers paid for the rent or to buy food, it recovered the misery that had given them as salary. The first general strike in Italy broke out in solidarity with the brutal repression suffered by the workers of the Bugerru mine, who peacefully protested against the modification of working hours. In front they had the army, who shot. The result was four miners killed and 11 wounded.

Visiting the Sardinian mines is a way to avoid the clichés of the enchanted island, where everything is idyll and unconcerned, and to understand how, here, there has been history, not just secondary episodes, but events capable to influence that of the continent.


If you want to visit some of the places mentioned in this article, we will be glad to put you in contact with a tour operator specialized in trips to Sardinia. Write to marcelfarinelli@gmail.com.