The fortresses we build today may be temporary and personal, constructed by the simple gesture of slipping on our headphones or clicking open our own cellular world. We may move into a neighborhood that feels like ours - where we all wear the same shoes, carry the same net bags filled with the same organic Asian pears, where the stores sell exactly what we want to buy. Whether it be second-hand record stores, fancy cupcakes, barbershops, or high-priced cocktails, we surround ourselves with things both comforting and safe - this is where we want to be. Since we moved to the countryside four years ago, many of my city friends and new acquaintances ask me how I can live in a place so isolated, so quaint. Don’t you miss the city just a bit? But the islands we strand ourselves on are intangible, and the fortresses we build are not made of stone and mortar. We are equally capable of being alone and lonely on a crowded subway train as on a deserted coastline.
In 1540, the Lomellini family from a small port town outside of Genoa bought the rights to coral fishing on what was then the island of Tabarka (now a peninsula). It was a minuscule island, just one hill, and they began to gather subjects to populate it. Hundreds of families lined up eagerly, ready to sail south to Tunisia to work hard and claim their fortune. Within only a few years, the community established itself and began to flourish. They built a beautiful Genoese fortress, eschewed their Muslim neighbors on the mainland, earned riches and honors. Boats sailed back and forth from Tabarka and Genoa and, for 200 years, the rest of the world barely existed.
Today, on the southwestern coast of Sardinia, the remains of a Roman bridge lay unceremoniously exposed, marked with an insignificant brown sign. Meanwhile, just a few yards away, a newer concrete bridge sprouts bare and matter-of-factly and, within minutes, it whisks cars from the main island onto a secondary one, the island of Sant’Antioco. For thousands of years, Sant’Antioco was also the name of the only town on this island. But in 1769, a bustling new village was created on the northwestern tip: Calasetta.
Calasetta is a stunning little Mediterranean gem with picturesque white-washed buildings and a love affair for the colors of the sea. Most every door or window in the town is painted in a shade of light, brilliant blue or soft, marine green. It is speckled with palm trees and dark stone streets and walls. At the very top of Calasetta is the ever-present tower, a stout, reassuring structure that seems to watch over the town. First built as a watchtower in 1756 , it now sits proudly at the center of this sleepy coastal inlet.
As tends to be the story, the beginnings of Calasetta were far from assured. In its first years, boatloads of Genoese and Piedmontese alighted on the island, convinced of starting anew. But most died quickly of smallpox or returned immediately home, ill-prepared for the particularities of life in an isolated coastal town. Eventually, enough settlers survived and thrived to form a small but diverse community of fisherman and farmers. From Calasetta, one can see the sea on all sides, the hulking coastline of western Sardinia, and a sparkling gem of a town located just over 5 km away on the smaller island of Carloforte.
Carloforte can only be reached by taking a 30-40 minute ferry from either Calasetta or Portoscuso (on the western coast of the main island). It is the only town on the island of San Pietro, which itself is about 50 square kilometers (Manhattan is 86). The town has a population of about 6000 people, all of whom are proud and devoted Carlofortini. Because who would otherwise have the wherewithal to live on an island off of an island off of an island? But the Carlofortini are particularly well-suited to this sort of isolation. After all, their ancestors were the same families who had spent two hundred years cementing their traditions in the fortress on Tabarka.
By the early 1700’s the famed coral for which the Genoese families had moved to Tunisia was almost exhausted. Frictions were also growing between the two realities, two religions, two cultures. The Duke of Savoy and King of Sardinia, Charles Emmanuel III, was at that time trying to fortify his territory by repopulating the abandoned seasides and gladly arranged for the island of Tabarka to be sold off and for the families, known by now as Tabarchini, to be given the island of San Pietro. Enthusiastic families set sail once more and cheerfully named their town Carloforte (literally, Strong Charles) in honor of the generous king. They set to building a lovely Genoese port, with the narrow streets and modest, graceful architecture that reminded them of a home they had left before they were even born.
The Carlofortini began by fishing for coral on their new island, but quickly expanded into all maritime activities with the concentration and passion that had helped them thrive off the coast of Tunisia. So much so, that they became famed as the Mediterranean masters of wooden boat construction. Though small, Carloforte was an important place - the first port that travelers from farther west would encounter - and had a thriving economy based almost entirely on trade with the Ligurians. Their trials were not over, however, as pirates of all breeds repeatedly invaded the town. In one dramatic episode, 900 Carlofortini were captured and taken back to Tunisia as slaves until the Italian nobility could raise the funds for their release. And, shortly after the French Revolution, the French arrived to “liberate” the island, though it is still a point of discussion as to whether the Carlofortini were grateful or merely tolerant.
Throughout these centuries of migration and invasion, the Carlofortini and the Calasettani have maintained a particular dialect which seems to be a slight variation on medieval Genoese. Linguists believe their language has changed shockingly little, with extremely rare incursions of Arabic words and small geographic adaptations (the words for snow, ice and frost were reintroduced in Italian, as it appears they were discarded while in Tabarka). Some of the dishes that they eat have been rediscovered as old and forgotten Genoese recipes; others, like the famous cascà, have links to Tunisian culture (couscous). And their towns stand out as architectural anomalies in the whole of Sardinia. Today, these two proud little outposts sit facing each other across a wide sliver of the sea, both contributing to the intricate mix of cultural and linguistic traditions that bedecks the whole of Sardinia.
A linguistic map of Sardinia, with Carloforte and Calasetta at the southwestern tip.