Diving in Nora, Sardinia: the sunken road to Roman ruins .

article by  Andrew Purvis

On land it is easy to imagine what the ancient Roman town of Nora looked like. Standing at the crocevia (crossroads) of the ruined coastal settlement, on a sun-baked peninsula 20 miles from Cagliari in southern Sardinia, I looked north to the near-intact Roman theatre, east to the clearly identifiable Temple of Aesculapius, and south to the Terme A Mare (Spa by the Sea), complete with rectangular bath tubs, the remains of furnaces and brick pillars that once supported an upper pavement with underfloor heating.

There are more than 150 sunken cities and ports around the shores of the Mediterranean
Photo The Telegraph

Extending west from the junction is a Roman road, made from blocks of volcanic rock with the famous “donkey’s back” camber that allowed water to drain off into culverts. It runs rod-straight to the water’s edge, then plunges unexpectedly beneath the surface of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The active mind infers a highway shooting 200 yards out into the bay – and that is exactly what members of the Mensura Diving Team found in 1964 when, inspired by Dr Nicholas Flemming from the department of geography at Cambridge University, they conducted the first underwater survey of the site.

Another sunken road runs parallel with the first and slightly to the north, the two ending abruptly where the water depth increases suddenly from 10ft to about 40ft. This, we now know, is the edge of a quayside where ships once moored, part of a harbour, the Porto Nord Occidentale, which is now completely submerged. It and two others, on the south-west and north-east shores, would have more than trebled the land area of today’s Capo di Pula peninsula.

On the north side of the headland, the story is still more graphically told. As I walk from the car park where coachloads disembark for guided tours of Nora above water, I peer down into the shallows fringing the shore and can clearly see a submerged causeway, 50 yards long, built from slabs of stone. It, too, is a Roman road, running straight and true 4ft beneath the surface until it collides with a cliff rising from the water, and stops abruptly. Where did the rest of the road go?


Nora Anfiteatro Romano -photo http://www.sardegnaturismo.it


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At some indeterminate date, in either the Punic or Roman periods of settlement, the whole seaward section of the peninsula appears to have dropped by 15ft or so along a geological fault, fracturing the road and causing it and Porto Nord Orientale to slip beneath the waves. At the same time, the landward side may have risen a little. There was no recorded earthquake at the time, and no tsunami, so the slippage may have been gradual and was probably the result of coastal erosion along a fragile shoreline.

The same must have occurred at the other two ports, meaning there is a vast underwater Nora to explore, dwarfing the preserved Roman town of latrines, frigidaria and mosaics that landlubber tourists know.

For good reason, the site is protected and a licence is required to dive it. That privilege is held by the Pula Diving Centre, a local club which has an arrangement with Forte Village Resort Sardinia, the upmarket Eleganzia-owned property, six miles south of Nora, where watersports are on the agenda along with spa treatments and Michelin-star dining.

Non-divers can be picked up by boat from Forte Village beach to snorkel in the shallow waters of Nora’s north coast, following the submerged road. Certified divers can explore the Porto Nord Orientale, at depths of up to 40ft that require scuba. This is what I did with Matteo Contu, a local diver with a fortunate knack for interpreting a seemingly featureless seabed and extrapolating from it a Roman port.

Rolling backwards off the boat, I waited for the bubbles to clear and glimpsed an expanse of poseidon grass below, interspersed with patches of sand. Dropping down the anchor line to 22ft, we set off across the seabed and immediately spotted some broken amphorae – ceramic jars once used to transport grain, wine or oil. Apart from that, all I saw was a reef of black rock covered in marine encrustations and weed, like many I have seen in the Med. Only as I swam along it did I realise that the “reef” is perfectly rectilinear, disappearing into the green gloom like a motorway into fog. It is clearly man-made and comprises, I soon recognised, a series of stone blocks positioned to form breakwater walls. At their base we discovered more amphora fragments. The most intact containers have been found in deeper water and come from Chios, a Greek island famous for its wine, and Spain, colonised by the Phoenicians.

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Nora had clearly been a trading port before the Romans inhabited it. The Phoenician amphorae contained fragments of bone, suggesting they were used to transport meat; some Roman jars were used for fish sauce and defrutum (literally “cooked” wine, used to make a condiment).


Nora Underwater -The Telegraph

We finned languidly along the west side of the submerged breakwaters, passing an 18th-century Spanish anchor before returning along the east side. Close to the anchored dive boat, Matteo waved me closer and we settled on the seabed. He moved his hand back and forth over the sand, spiriting the grains away to reveal what I took to be a flat rock bottom. On closer inspection, it bore the flecked, variegated pattern of a marble flagstone.

This is the bare floor of the ancient Roman quayside, running unbroken but covered in silt and Poseidon grass to the shore. Nearby we find what Matteo later described as “the ruins of a port building”. To me it looked like a jumble of builders’ rubble.

Still, it was one of those Eureka moments – like the time when, as a child, I’d noticed the imprint of a potter’s thumb in a shard of Roman terracotta found in a field in Yorkshire. The past was palpable, and I felt a human connection with the people of ancient Nora which was somehow more profound underwater. It’s the same thrill that lures divers to wrecks, working vessels that are frozen in time and haunted by the ghosts of the past.

That is not to say the above-water experience at Nora is unrewarding. One-hour tours depart from the ticket office every few minutes, and the site’s highlights (the baths, the well-preserved Roman theatre, the Temple of Tanit, a housing district and an area filled with artisan workshops) have numbered signs matched to relevant “chapters” of an audioguide, in English, that informs without overwhelming.

If diving and snorkelling are not your thing, combine one of these tours with a visit to the Giovanni Patroni Archaeological Museum in Pula, dedicated to Nora but with a section about underwater archaeology. Exhibits include amphorae, anchors and pottery recovered from the site by divers.

There is also an aquarium and education centre in Pula, showcasing marine life from the lagoon to the north of Nora where Phoenicians and Romans fished.

Most of Nora’s underwater treasures reside in the archaeological museum, but many have been removed illegally by amateur divers over the years.

“The site is protected,” Matteo told me on the boat ride back to Forte Village, “but this is Italy.”

Decades of casual looting explain why diving Nora is not quite the experience I naively expected: a clearly set-out submerged Roman town, as intact and bewitching as Atlantis. Without Matteo as my guide, I would probably have swum right over it. Let’s hope any potential collectors do the same, preserving what is left of La Citta Sommersa.

For the full Article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/italy/sardinia/articles/Diving-in-Nora-Sardinia-the-sunken-road-to-Roman-ruins/



Friso Spoelstra’s best photograph: a pagan whipping ritual in the mountains of Sardinia

Interview by Thursday 21 July 2016.

One day in 2001, I was sitting in my local pizzeria in Amsterdam, flicking through an Italian magazine while waiting for my order, when suddenly these men in huge shaggy costumes sprung at me from the page. I asked the waiter if he knew what it was and he smiled, saying they were taking part in a pagan ritual in Sardinia, where he was from.

‘He whipped me again and again’ … the Merdule comes after Friso Spoelstra Photograph: Friso Spoelstra

Every spring in Barbagia, a remote mountainous part of the Italian island, they hold the Feste Pagane. It symbolises fertility, mysterious brotherhoods, and the struggle between the people and the spirits who freeze the land in the winter, leaving it barren. The guy in the black mask is called a Merdule. He symbolises the bond between man and nature. Traditionally, Sardinians have always been shepherds so the ritual is also to protect the flock against evil. The Merdule does this quite literally – beating villagers and chasing them away from the “sheep”.

This was one of the first shots I took after I arrived. The next moment, the Merdule hit me on the legs with his whip. It was really painful. Then he did it again. And again. I realised it was going to go on all the day, though it wasn’t just for me of course: all Sardinians were being terrorised. Although the atmosphere was mostly fun, there was a scary, violent undercurrent.

I had decided to photograph such rituals all around Europe – a project that ended up taking 10 years, saw me visit 15 countries, and resulted in a book called Devils & Angels. In the German Alps, where devils called Krampus chased people, I saw a man – clearly from out of town – getting really upset and swearing because he’d been hit. A policeman had to calm him down and explain it was just the local custom.

I’ve been chased by devils through the mountains. I’ve run naked through fields in Latvia. I’ve been drenched in all kinds of stuff – sometimes I never found out what it was. The rituals I attend often take place in small villages, on islands, or up in the mountains. Remoteness is perhaps why the customs survive. The festivals bring communities together, but also give a feeling of local identity, especially as young people move away. On Terschelling, an island in the Netherlands, I met a man who flies from Sydney every year for a festival there.

My photographs arise from what I feel, not just what I see. I like how this shot is quite grey. This part of Sardinia isn’t very colourful, which really adds to the sinister atmosphere. The composition was intentional: masked men in the foreground, church in the background. The contrast between pagan and Christian, past and present, all comes together in this shot.

Having spent the day chasing villagers and performing small plays, the flock and the shepherd got tired and headed home. You have no idea who is behind the masks, so it’s a shock when they introduce themselves. I was invited back to the house of one masked men and ate homemade cheese and wine with his family. I had been beaten up – but by some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.

Friso Spoelstra’s Devils & Angels: Ritual Feasts in Europe is published by Lecturis.

Interview by Thursday 21 July 2016.