The sunrise across the Costa Smeralda bathed the white houses in a red glow. Seen against the sea and sky, the village didn’t look real. It was as if someone “photo-shopped” the turquoise and aquamarine of the water, the cerise and tangerine of the houses and the verdant charcoal of the vegetation among the rocks to create an achingly beautiful landscape.
That natural beauty is the wonder of Sardegna, as locals call the island of Sardinia. It is a beauty seen in every face, in every region and on every shore throughout the island, a beauty there throughout the centuries of conquest and assimilation that is Sardinia’s history.
In The Beginning
Sardinia is a prized gem of an island strategically significant in the highway of trade that is the Mediterranean. Before the Carthaginians, before the Phoenicians, or even before the Romans, the Spanish or the French fought for dominion over Sardinia, the native people of the Bronze Age Nuragic Civilization lived a complex existence in the arid coastal plains and rugged mountains of Sardinia. They left no written account of their lives, but the remains of more than 7000 stone towers, called Nuraghe, and the thousands of bronze figurines depicting the occupations, costume, and interests of these hardy people attest to the sophistication of their lives. The tin necessary to produce these statues does not exist in Sardinia, but the bronze models of boats show how it was acquired.
Theirs was a life tied primarily to the land, possibly with water figuring prominently in their religion. Deep in the interior mountains, below the amazing cliff-dwelling ruins of the Nuragic village of Tiscali, archeologists recently uncovered a series of nine purification stations leading to a sacred fountain.
It had nine spigots, carved as animal heads that released a steady stream of water into the baptismal below. Here is where many of the bronze figurines were found, presumably left as tribute, and then buried beneath the avalanche that protected the site for centuries from the nomadic charcoal makers and sheepherders that camped above it. Further study is necessary before a final determination of the site’s significance can be accurately presented, but the enigma of its existence and the rugged scenery surrounding it makes this an exciting adventure tourism destination.
Much more accessible are the ruins of the seaside Phoenician village of Nora, in Pula, on the southwestern end of the island. With baths, an amphitheater, and numerous mosaic-floored residences, this excavated archeological complex helps visitors to understand everyday life in the antiquity of Sardinia.
A Horse Tradition
Horses, in addition to donkeys, were traditional modes of transportation on the farms and in the rugged, mountainous interior of the island. They were necessary to the survival of Sardinia’s agricultural way of life. In modern times the love of horses is imbued in the hearts of Sardinians even as the need for them has lessened. A tradition similar to that of our “Old West” sprang up, especially among the young.
As our horses were used for herding cattle, in Sardinia they were used for sheep herding. The unique breed of hardy, fast workhorses that grew out of their early history is now bred and raced recreationally. Western wear, predominantly cowboy hats, is a prevalent and popular style. Existing trails provide opportunities for horseback riding and income for the many stables. Horses even figure prominently in some of Sardinia’s largest religious festivals.
Sardegna’s Religious Festivals
In the village of Oristano an ancient display of horsemanship takes place during the Carnival before Lent. The Sartiglia is the most famous festival in Sardinia. It is an equestrian parade followed by races through the village. Acrobatic riders tear through the streets standing on horseback. Children parade on ponies. Riders compete in contests to be champion.
The highlight of the event is when stars are placed along the circuit with the idea of each rider trying to spear as many as possible with their lance, similar to Medieval knights in jousts. The more stars pierced, the better the harvest. It is an event filled with pageantry, tradition and danger as the costumed riders race their horses through the paved streets.
A smaller event that few Americans have ever attended is the five day feast of Santa Greca, celebrating the life of a martyred Catholic woman from Greece. It is held in the end of September in the village of Decimomannu, ten kilometers from Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia.
There are bright costumes and processions along village streets lined with craft and candy vendors. At night music fills the public square from a large stage.
Amusement rides and games of chance are popular, but this is really a major food festival. Many vendors grill eels, sparrows, suckling pigs, beef and horse meat, sausage and hot dogs over huge charcoal fires. Here, as everywhere throughout the island, aromatic myrtle branches cover the food platters.
This duplicates the ancient flavors when, before iron skewers, myrtle, along with arbutus and juniper, were used instead. Mounds of celery and radishes are served with the meat to cut the grease, and the local red wine flows freely.
Blowing in Sardegna’s Wind
There are no fewer than five words to describe Sardinia’s winds, all based on the direction they blow in from. The Mistral originates in Southern France, blowing from the Northwest over the island. It is the most constant, so that early dwellings were constructed with their entrances on the leeward, or Southeast side. It is usually a dry clearing wind. The Sirocco blows in from the Southeast off Saharan Africa. It sometimes carries sand, which helps in the dramatic erosion of the rock formations Sardinia is famous for.
Libeccio is from the SW, from Libya. Levante blows in from the East, and, finally, Grecale blows in from the Northeast, especially in Winter. These winds carve weirdly sensuous rock formations, such as the iconic Bear Rock and Mushroom Rock, and shape the granite and basalt cliffs throughout the island. They also help to shape the lean, wizened population, whose chiseled features quickly break into a smile as they pause to help strangers.
Nature and the Environment
Sardinia is an ideal place for outdoor activities. Birding is a popular activity here. The island is a migratory stop for many species flying between Europe and Africa. The swamps and estuaries that historically complicated early invasions now are breeding grounds for flamingos. They also provide refuge to over 220 varieties of birds.
Off-road adventures are readily available. Hiking, rock climbing, camping, horseback riding and biking are very popular. Kayaking and sailing opportunities abound, and the miles of sandy beaches and small secluded coves provide sunbathers, with or without clothes, more than enough space for walking, swimming and tanning. In fact, much of the island’s interior is parkland, open to the public, and none of the beaches are private.
Foods of Sardinia
Sardinia most shows its insular ways by retaining the traditional foods of its ancestors. The flavors of Sardinian meat and cheese are strongly influenced by the animal’s diet – the aromatic herbs and shrubs that have filled their fields for centuries. In fact, driving through the countryside one cannot help but inhale the fragrances of thyme, rosemary, broom, oregano, arbutus, myrtle and juniper that the livestock eat.
Artisanal cheeses, such as a sheep milk pecorino sardo, or “fiore sardo” which is less salty and richer than the familiar pecorino romano, prevail here, virtually unknown to the outside world.
The sizes and tastes of the local bread are varied and delicious, and usually specific to each village. Of the nearly 500 varieties, “pane carasau”, or “carta da musica” as it is called in Italian, is the best known. It is a very thin, crispy bread that breaks easily. It keeps very well, especially in the arid climate.
For this reason, it was the traditional bread of the shepherds who were away tending the flocks for long periods. It can also be dipped in warm liquid to soften, then layered with sauce, tomato and cheese, in the manner of lasagna, and finished with a poached egg to create a more complex dish called “pane frattau”. From an artistic point of view, decorative bread, called coccoi, is made for ornamentation as well as food to commemorate weddings and special occasions. It can be an intricate and long lasting art form.
According to a Sardinia expert and personal guide, Francesca Fodde, “Cocci takes different names according to the special occasion and to the area of Sardinia where it is made. I can just give you some examples: In the village of Pozzomaggiore (area of Sassari) the wedding bread is called PANE DE S’AFFIDU while in Ittireddu (again area of Sassari) is called PANE DE COJUADOS NOOS and it has a different shape.
The Easter bread can be called SA PIPPIA CUN S’OU (the little girl with the egg) when is made for children and has the shape of a doll with the egg on her stomach or COCCOIEDDU CUN OU or SA CULUMBA (the dove), with different shapes, for everyone. After all this I think it wiser to speak of a COCCOI bread shaped differently according to the occasion (weddings, Easter, New Year’s Eve etc.)”
Historically, Sardinian meals are more often from the land than the sea. Game meats such as wild boar, small birds and rabbits, along with piglets, lamb and beef, and the sausages made from them, predominate.
In fact, at every festival, or event, and seemingly at every opportunity, you will find a suckling pig turning on a spit over an open fire. The more people expected, the more piglets cooking, often with sausages ready and waiting to be cooked next to them. Nothing can compare to the taste of pork roasted over aromatic woods, bathed in the smoke of myrtle branches smoldering on the hot coals. This is a typical Sardinian delicacy, and when paired with the hearty local wine, a feast truly fit for a king.
Liquors & Wines of Sardinia
There was some homemade Limonello, made from alcohol, honey and lemon peel, at the Santa Greca Festival, where a potent homemade dry red wine was also served.
The wine was a bargain at 1.5 euros (sold in a plastic 20 oz. coke bottle, vintage 10 AM that day!) but not nearly as good as their Edmond Bernard Cabernet Sauvignon (2007 France) for 8 euros per bottle. With so many good cheap Sardinian wines available it was a surprise to find a French one, especially at a small local festival.
A distilled and very potent drink made from the grape byproducts of wine production is grappa. The bouquet and taste depend on the grapes it is made from.
The Sardinian grapes of cannonau, malvasia, moscato, vermentino, and vernaccia can all be used, so the taste varies widely. Grappa is a brandy, high in alcohol, and enjoyed as an after dinner “digestive” drink. Mirto, a potent red or white liquor made from the berries of the Myrtle plant, is also served this way. It is perhaps the best known of Sardinia drinks.
Of the popular Sardinian wines, a deliciously dry white, Nuraghe Majore (2006) and a fruity astringent red, Capocaccia (2007) both from Sella & Mosca, were on many lists and most tables.
The wine cellars of Arigolas produce whites and reds and dessert wines of excellent flavor and value. Their Perdera (2006) has a rich tannic rusticity that complemented a hearty meal of game meats with red sauces. The full-bodied red wine, Cannonau De Sardegna (2007) from Nepente Di Oliena, is from a local grape that paired perfectly with a traditional Sardinian dinner. While a white, Funtanaliras, (2005) Vermentino, was voluptuously elegant with a variety of seafood dishes.
From Past To Present
Today, it is the hardy descendants of the Nuraghi, those whose blood has mingled with that of centuries of successive conquerors, that coexist with the harsh but beautiful landscape on an island containing three times more sheep than people. Their language is closest to that of old Latin than any other, but most speak Italian, with a smattering of other languages, though rarely English. Sardinia is ancient and modern, existing without contradiction in the past and the present, while planning for the future