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The Sardinian Ghost Town of Nora

December 07, 1986|NINO LO BELLO | Lo Bello is an American author, teacher and newspaperman living in Vienna.

NORA, Italy — Now you see it, now you don't.

Ghost towns don't all have the right spirit, but there's a ghost town on our planet that can practice one-upmanship on all the others. So put this strange Sardinian town down as the best of the lot.

It goes like this: What you see is what you get; what you don't see is what you get, too. That's Nora, the only ghost town anywhere that's partly on land and partly in the sea.

If stories about the lost city of Atlantis grab you, try your hand at Nora, 22 miles southwest of Cagliari (the walled capital metropolis of Sardinia) and visit the most Ripleyesque of all ruins.

Built around 700 BC, Nora is the only half-submerged ghost town in the world; actually, about a quarter of the ancient city has been gobbled up by the greedy sea. The feeling you get from it is . . . well, spooky. This once-great port city (population today: zero) is open to the public seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to sunset.

Anybody who's a scuba-diving freak has it made. He can do his thing by descending right down into the remains of the inundated part of the city to do a tour beneath the waves.

On the other hand, if you're a landlubber like most folks, pay a call on Nora anyway, remove your shoes and socks and walk barefoot on the beach portion of the ancient city, eventually wending your way into one or two feet of water, an inch at a time, as the lost town (including the port) disappears into the Mediterranean Sea step by step.

Time Has Stopped

Down below in the brine, time has stopped. You are 25 centuries in the past as Nora sleeps the slumber of millennia under its blanket of sea water.

Should the breezes die down and the Gulf of Cagliari calm itself while you are present, you can observe the most unusual underwater vegetation on the bottom. It is deserted down below, of course, and the people who lie in Nora's burial grounds--the rulers and the slaves, the priests and the warriors--rest next to their strange amulets, many of which are still to be uncovered from under the salt water and sand by prying divers.

At one time Sardinia's most important center, the peninsula of Nora was pillaged and abandoned, and eventually the city disappeared from view. Not until 1952 did excavations bring it all back. Uncovered were Nora's thermal baths, its amphitheater, several temples, the mosaic floors of wealthy homes, narrow paved streets, a sewer system and a municipal plan on which every building was mapped out. At the far end of the cape stand a lighthouse and a structure built by the Pisans, a 16th-Century tower that does not lean.

Nora prospered when colonized by the Phoenicians, providing an all-weather harbor along their trading sea routes to the European mainland. Set up according to the advanced system of Phoenician urban planning, Nora was a thriving port until about the middle of the 6th Century BC when Carthage decided to conquer Sardinia from the south.

Eventually the Carthaginians managed to unify the whole island. In 238 BC the Romans took control of Nora and ran things until the ancient Germanic tribe of Vandals came in during the 5th Century. To escape from military attacks, the population sought refuge inland, and the town declined and disappeared, to be found only centuries later through archeological digs.

Ruggedly Beautiful

Your trip from Cagliari down to Nora is through a ruggedly beautiful region that is backdropped by the peaks of the so-called Mountain of the Seven Brothers, an area used by several Italian film directors for scenes in their spaghetti Westerns. Hugging the coast with flypaper tenacity, the snaky road descends to the ancient town of Pula from where a road leads to the Nora Peninsula.

It was in Nora that St. Efisio (the patron saint of Sardinia) was made into a martyr by the Romans. A high-ranking officer in the army of Emperor Diocletian, Efisio was put to death because, fearlessly professing the Christian faith, he divulged il Verbo Divino (the Word of God) on the island. In Efisio's honor there is a spine-tingling festival each year that experts rank as the most grandiose, authentic folklore event in all of Europe.

Every year since 1657, from May 1-4, the Sardinians undertake a four-day pilgrimage from downtown Cagliari to a chapel right outside of town. During certain years, however, the three-mile procession escorts the saint's statue for the full 22 miles to Nora's 11th-Century Church of St. Efisio.

The parade is headed by the characteristic carts of the Sardinian farmers, pulled by oxen and gaily decorated. Behind them walk peasant men and women from all over the isle wearing their local costumes, members of the island's ancient militia (clad in embroidered scarlet waistcoats, black skirts and trousers of white linen), groups of horsemen dressed in swallowtail coats, musicians playing their bagpipe-like instruments (known as luneddas ) and wagons draped in multicolored rugs and shawls. VIP politicians precede the historic carriage.

To cap it all, on the evening of the fourth day, Italy's most massive display of fireworks rocks the sky, a mammoth show against the illuminated mountains in the background.

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