Sardinia is much more than white beaches and crystal clear ocean, Costa Smeralda and giant yachts. Something that many people never meet is the heart of the island, the mountains and the people who live there.
We had a couple of days of bad weather this vacation in Sardinia, and we happen to discover what we had never found before in our 15 summers spent on the island.
Nuoro a town clinging on the cliffs in the very middle of the island, surrounded by mountains, forest and herds. You don't eat fish here, but the best pecorino and sheep casserole you can imagine. We came here a day of rain in the middle of summer - strange for July. The town was empty, but we found a nice cafe, all similar to what you could find in so to say Austria by the cozy furniture of sofas and small tables, but without a cake in sight. I have not understood what the nuorese people eat for their afternoon tea...
It appears to be the most well-known cafe' in Nuoro, where Nobel winner and nuorese Grazia Deledda used to sit working.
Out of the place we were trying to find the cathedral, but we found instead a small tailor shop, where we just couldn't pass by without getting involved in an incredible love affair.
The shop is owned by a tailor and his wife, a beautiful couple with a passion for redesigning old Sardinian tissues and pieces of clothing. A very small shop on two floors, with two old mechanical sewing machines and the couple's paper and pencil drawings on the walls. Some of their jackets, shirts and trousers hang on one side.
They tell us with very few words about the tissues and the concept they have. People here don't speak too many unnecessary words. Anyway, we stay in the shop for a couple of hours and get out with a beautiful decorated orange cord jacket for me and the order of a white row wool coat with paisley designed inside to my husband - to be picked by us in September, when we are back with our guests......and also a feeling of being near two persons who do together what they love, no matter if it brings them good results, objectively speaking. They just do it for love.
This was the first real encounter with the Sardinians, which is not the same as people living in Sardinia. For me there are two kinds of people in this wild and beautiful island: tourist sea hunters and originals (genuine).
Sardinia has a very ancient history, much of which is about sailing people coming to find shelter or to conquer the island from the sea. It is a land in the middle of the Mediterranean and nearly all the ethnics living on the coasts have had some reason to come over and take part of the gifts Sardinia has to offer. So for example the South is inspired by the Phoenicians who came to the island to expand their commerce, and established in the city of Cagliari, and in the North the Aragón from Spain conquered and built the city of Alghero – Ryanair’s resort of today.
But the originals came long before everyone else, perhaps 6000 years before Christ. They were priests from Mesopotamia and were expelled for some reason that is not clear today. Because you should not kill priests they were sent in chains in a boat, and they could not navigate. They just happened to strand on Sardinia’s coast up northwest, near the actual Bosa, it seems. They could read the stars and danced to see in the future. The whole society floated around two fundamental figures: “the judge” who was the one who could help people when they didn’t know how to solve their disputes, and “the guard of time”, who beware Sardinia’s memory for the new generation. The ancient Sardinians maintained this through occupations and conquerors, be they Phoenicians, Romans, Aragonese or Italians. They were living in the heart of the island and expanded or imploded during time, depending on the strength of the occupiers, but I believe that they still exist.
We went to Mamoiada, a small village near Nuoro, in Barbagia, because they were going to have a parade showing the beautiful wooden masks that the village’s craftsmen are well known for. Surfing the Internet we found a web site for the event, and it was told that one could go to a “Lunch with the herdsman” and eat the traditional Sardinian food of the inlands, based on sheep and pecorino cheese (there are 2,5 million humans in the island, and some ten times as many sheep. Our herdsman had 600, which can be adopted and give you 7,5 kilo pecorino each year). After a long ride through the mountains above Mamoiada, following our guide on her scooter, we arrived at 1000 m height, at a long table under the cork oaks, together with other 2 tourists as we were and a dozen of Sardinians, part of the family and friends of the herdsman, Mario.
The only word I can say is: beautiful. Simply beautiful.
I am so astonished by people who can be holding on their life for centuries, or thousand years as it always has been, changing only the surface (Internet for example or sheep adoption), and still be curious, and alive. It is a choice I am sure, to stay where they are born and their parents and grandparents, even if it is a small village in the inland of Sardinia. It is a choice to live of sheep-farming, not an easy one I guess.
Everyone laughs at this lunch, at least until one of us tourists has got a little too much to drink and starts arguing about the bandits who used to rub and kill in these mountains for not long time ago. During the 70es there were some cases of kidnapping – hiding in the lands of Sardinia is really a challenge for the search, because of the inaccessible nature, where only the locals know how to move.
Well, this needs some historical explanation again – as usual the actions against the law are often driven by some reason of defense.
In Mamoiada, after lunch we watched the traditional parade of the terrifying local masks – one who worn the mask was our friend Mario, the herdsman. The beautifully carved wooden masks were created to scare the invaders in very ancient times. They must be terrifying, more similar to devils than to human being, with hairy bodies of sheep furs and clocks of all sizes on their back, making an incredible noise, when the mask moves.
The story tells that the masks were invited by the ancient Sardinians and placed on top of a cliff with fire all around, so that they could be seen by the ships of the enemies, or hidden in the huge caves inside the mountain to sound like hell – the mountain where they were hidden together with the fugitive natives, saved their life and was from then on considered a sacred mountain. It is called Tiscali today – and is by the way one of the best places to go trekking.
Outsiders have during time attacked Sardinia, as I said. The original inhabitants were used to need to defend themselves or hide. They were often not the strongest or the bigger in number, and they could not move away without the peril of the ocean around their island. Fear of the foreigners and lack of willingness in getting in touch with strangers grew stronger for each new visit from the sea. A sort of internal power started to gather around the “judge” and the “guard of time”. Many time they used violence to continue to exist.
In the parade there were some hundred participants, besides the masks also the traditional dresses of the villages around Nuoro and of Nuoro itself, some by feet and most riding their beautiful horses. Pride, beauty and wild nature.
Back in Porto Rotondo at our house, we had planned to meet a friend of our hosts who wanted to show us his country house for renting proposals through our travel agency. the couple who own the house we lived at, are from Italy, not from Sardinia, but they have a passion for the island and live here more than they do in Modena – they are pensioners and love the wonderful climate of Sardinia, they eat fish they catch by themselves and live a simple life. But they warned us for their friend being a “verbose” person, that if he started he could never stop talking.
We meet in his mother’s family house, a “stazzu” which in Sardinian language means farmhouse. It is a 100 years old lime stone building surrounded by olives, pine trees, oaks and juniper, old and hard to resist the hot and windy climate of Sardinia. There is a clean old style over the house too, with nearly pedantic attention to the details. The man who guides us through is also pedantic and a little boring, very verbose indeed. I like the place.
I get a new story of this particular country called Sardinia, when we later go to see the apartment the family rents out in Porto Rotondo. Here we meet the mother – the one who was born in the “stazzu”, together with her brother and his wife. We should have a short professional visit to the place, but at the end we happen to stay for a cake and some wine of their own production, and come out learning more about the island.
The apartment is big and expensive, on two floors and with an amazing veranda on top, where you can see the whole Costa Smeralda, the clear blue sea, the green and rocky hills. We also see the yachts in the harbors, tourists and expensive cars everywhere. Costa Smeralda is still one of the world’s most famous jet set vacation resorts.
“ Berlusconi’s villa is behind the hill there”, tells the uncle, “We were six siblings in Porto Rotondo, owners of the land before it was sold to build what it is today. You see the rock down there? I remember it when I was a child, and I am so happy it is still there!”
we look at the details of the apartment, and at the same time I feel a little uncomfortable with the fact that we disturb in a family reunion, and then the son tells us mother want us to stay for lunch. Why, what? Why! Just don’t understand, I thought I was disturbing!
Sitting at their table, we learned that Sardinia still used barter as a form of payment 50 years ago. One of the brothers should pay taxes and went to the city of Olbia to the tax office to pay, but they did not accept the payment and he was forced to go back home. The payment had been the brother’s best calf. When you marry in Sardinia, family comes from all around before the wedding and helps you build your house. Everyone brings something to eat and all contribute to the party.
The ancient Sardinians owned the land together and the sheep. It was a hard life but righteous and peaceful, ruled by the “judge”, nature and a sense of being part of.