Vendettas and violence have long vanished from the inland villages of Sardinia. Or so I was told as I was driven around hairpin turns and bends up hilly roads to an inland village of shepherds called Orgosolo. My imagination was hooked and my sense of adventure stoked.
I was on the rugged, beautiful island of Sardinia, in the middle of the Mediterranean, with a friend and the air seemed ripe with possibilities.
“Ah, dark garden, dark garden, with your olives and your wine, your medlars and mulberries and many almond trees, your steep terraces ledged high up above the sea, I am leaving you, slinking out. Out between the rosemary hedges, out of the tall gate, on to the cruel steep stony road.” These are words from Sea and Sardinia, a book written by English novelist DH Lawrence. Many moons ago, Lawrence travelled to the interiors of Sardinia with his wife Frieda. He described Sardinia as “belonging to nowhere, never having belonged to anywhere”. He felt thus in 1921, but even in the middle of the 21st century, Sardinia feels dissociated from the Italian mainland.
One of Italy’s five autonomous regions, Sardinia possesses a strong individual identity. It came across to me in my daily banter with Enza Tucconi, the vivacious tour guide-cum-politician, who along with her cousin Giampaola pottered around the island with us in her trusty old car.
The holiday started with a bang even as Enza transported us from Alghero’s small airport straight into another world. We were on our way to bandit land, driving on winding roads above stretches of virgin forests, spotting the occasional nuraghi (ancient megalithic towers) of which about 8,000 dot the island, the limestone massifs of the Supramonte and the snow-capped peaks of the Gennargentu in the horizon.
The bandit-cum-hero in Enza’s story was Orgosolo’s famous resident Graziano Mesina, a regular Robinhood kind of a bandit, who has decided to drop his regular profession to become a tour guide.
The next few words that issued from my mouth involved a keen interest in meeting the unusual tour guide. Possibly alarmed at the prospect of the subject being broached with the shepherds we were to meet for lunch, Enza stepped in with words of caution. She said: “The people of Orgosolo eye newcomers with askance. They are protected by the bandits and they in turn protect them from curious eyes.”
It seemed befitting that Orgosolo is tucked into the wilderness of the Barbagia region. Sardinia’s stunningly beautiful highland area got its name from Barbaria, the ancient Roman word for ‘land of barbarians’.
Apart from its fame as home to famous outlaws, Orgosolo is a quirky, artistic hub of murals. Narrow, hilly lanes took us past old, dilapidated houses painted with political and Cubist-style frescoes. In the ‘70s, a Sienese school teacher and his students sparked off a trend of painting political murals in remembrance of the Italian Resistance and Liberation from Nazism and Fascism.
The piece that made an impression upon me was a mural stating the words ‘Felice il popolo che non ha bisogna di eroi’ (‘Happy are the people who do not need heroes’).
In that controversial village, wrapped up in stories of bandits and vendettas (a local poet was shot in public as lately as 2007 as part of a vendetta), we sat in a large hall for a shepherd’s rustic lunch. The long–drawn lunch — do not under-estimate the appetite of the Italians — of creamy ricotta cheese, pink slices of ham, pungent sausage, ‘porcheddu’ (suckling pig roasted upon a spit), rosemary-flavoured sheep meat cooked with potatoes and pecorino cheese paired with ‘carta da musica’ (paper-thin bread) and a thick roundel of ‘pane’ (bread) was served up on rustic wooden boards. Its salty after-effect had us reaching out for re-fills of the local red wine.
Our senses sufficiently doused in wine and grappa, we were treated along with pretty desserts — fairies could have daintily nibbled into them — to the canto a tenore, the traditional shepherds’ song. Four shepherds huddled together with their backs to us and the air soon rang with their rendition of folk songs. A few of us even managed to shake a leg to the music.
Remarkably startling in contrast was the world that popped up along Sardinia’s emerald coast, just a few hours’ drive from Orgosolo. On its north-east coast lies the incredibly luxurious Costa Smeralda which was once just a wild land made up of rocky coves and pastures for sheep. Till the Prince Aga Khan decided to buy up the 35 mile-long stretch in the ‘60s for his A-lister friends, raise incredibly hedonistic resorts and transform it into a playground for the world’s millionaires, tinsel town stars, Russian oligarchs, supermodels and playboys.
The sun and sea in Costa Smeralda’s ‘capital’ town of Porto Cervo, one of Europe’s swishest addresses, holds forth promises of breaking the bank. When we arrived in Porto Cervo, a wicked freezing wind promised to drive us out of our minds. But we walked around the pastel-hued villas rising above glittering blue waters and the yachts moored at the marina.
It is the place where Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed were last seen in 1997 before their fatal accident, apart from it being home to celebrities such as Formula One mogul Flavio Briatore, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and actor Denzel Washington. It was easy to see how the Aga Khan must have been mesmerized by the pink-granite boulders, virgin beaches, unexplored coves and emerald -turquoise waters around the Costa Smeralda.
The day that we went to Costa Smeralda, we also took a ferry for the Maddalena archipelago. Our first stop was the town of La Maddalena where we had a rustic Italian lunch of fiery pasta and calamari. After which, we took off for the nearby island of Caprera which was made famous by Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi when he chose it to be his home, we went beach hopping. Caprera is connected to La Maddalena through a causeway.
On the crossroads to Costa Smeralda, in the Gallura region of Sardinia, I was fascinated by the idyllic little village of San Pantaleo which is tucked into dramatic granite hills. Its remote location attracted artists, painters and sculptors from England, Germany, Scandinavia and France to set up home in the village alongside a group of local Gallurese craftsman in the ‘70s, imbuing it with a bohemian feel. Its backdrop was entrancing the day we dropped in. On a miserably cold day, beset by an incessant drizzle, and a howling mistral (strong, cold and northwesterly wind) which becomes pronounced during the change of seasons (lucky us), something had to give. For me, it was the sight of those hills, their peaks shrouded in thick, smoky mist rising above that small village of artists.
We did the occasional hikes. Up to Capo d’Orso (Cape Bear), a rock shaped by the mistral into the shape of a bear, near Palau, and in the old town of Castelsardo which is fortified and crowned by a castle, the Castello dei Doria.
The current town of Castelsardo in the province of Sassari finds its origins in the castle that was built there in the 12th-13th century by the Doria family of Genoa. The castle and the village which came up around it naturally got its name from the castle and was called Castel Doria or Castelgenovese. But once it was conquered by the Aragonese in the 15th century, it was re-named Castillo Aragonés (Castel Aragonese). Except for the Maddalena archipelago, it was the last city in the island to join the Kingdom of Sardinia.
The castle was most home to the Sardinian heroine Eleanor d’Arborea. Enza told me her story as we walked around the vast castle’s maze of alleys. I quite fell in love with the idea of a strong female who was the iuyghissa (female judge or queen in Sardinian) of the Giudicato of Arborea from 1383 to her death in 1404. The Giudicati, meaning judgeships or judicatures, were the indigenous kingdoms of Sardinia from about 900 to 1420, when the last was sold to the Crown of Aragon.
Eleanor drafted the Carta de Logu, a famous document that was deemed to be the most progressive of all laws in Europe and was kept on till 1827 when the document was superseded by the Holy Roman Emperor. As per the Carta, some of the laws greatly reduced the penalty for minor crimes, instead of capital punishment called for fines while women were allowed property rights and the right to inherit in Sardinia.
Near Castelsardo, we came upon the Elephant Rock, a mass of stone that has been shaped by the wind into the shape of an elephant. It has pre-historic chamber tombs inside it called Domus de Janas (Sardinian for house of the fairies or witches). These tombs were built somewhere between 3400 and 2700 BC and there are more than 3000 of them on the island.
In the heart of Gallura, Tempio Pausania is a lovely medieval town in the province of Olbia-Tempio at the foot of Mount Limbara. In its vicinity are forests of cork oak which are extremely crucial to the economy of the island since Sardinia produces about 80 per cent of Italian cork.
On one of our jaunts we stopped for coffee in Tempio Pausania and explored the town which seemed different than any I had seen on the island so far. Built entirely out of grey granite blocks, it had an aura about it. Of history, of a wonderful laidback air, beautiful cathedrals, people hunching over their coffees and drawling in Italian. We too had our coffees while we appreciated a handsome, salt-pepper haired neighbour dressed nattily. It turned out he was a local politician, one whom Enza knew but was not overly fond of.
Santa Teresa di Gallura, a cheery seaside resort, on the northern coast of Sardinia holds some of my favourite memories in Sardinia. It was a spontaneous stop where we stood on the coast along the Torre Longonsardo, a historic Spanish watch tower, and gazed at the stunning blue waters mesmerized by its beauty. We peered a fair bit and tried to make out the outline of Corsica which was right across on the horizon but the sun was playing peekaboo with the clouds and it was just not Corsica’s day to be seen. During summer, ferries from Santa Teresa cross the straits to Bonifacio into Corsica.
Santa Teresa did have get some fame when it was used as the location of a wooden cottage in the 1977 James Bond film ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’. We reached it around siesta time when the spiaggia (town beach) called Rena Bianca was deserted as was the rest of the town. The best artisanal gelato – a double delight of Italian nougat called Torrone and cioccolato — I have ever tucked into was in that small town as we strolled down the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. We had that town, established by Savoy rulers in 1808 to help combat smugglers, all to ourselves.
Alghero is a not-to-be-missed proposition. For one, it is a medieval city, while it is the main resort in the northwest. It is a town that has a distinct Catalan past and is bathed in a proud and independent spirit. It is easy to fall in love slowly with its centro storico, with its piazzas, network of cobbled lanes, Gothic palazzi and honey-hued sea walls. The marina is lined by a gaggle of yachts. More than three centuries after the Iberians left, a type of medieval Catalan is still spoken in Alghero. Do not be surprised to spy street signs and menus are written in both Catalan and Italian.
My particular experience in Alghero was amusing. I wanted a gelato and in one of the cafés, I tried out a flavour. I threw the tasting spoon right after. The man behind the counter reeled off something in Italian and I was smiling away. After we left the café, me with a gelato in hand and a big smile on my face, Giampaola, who spoke scanty English, told Enza what the man had said. It turned out he was upset that I had wasted a plastic spoon. Enza looked at me, smiled and said, “Now you see what I mean by a Catalan being miserly and money-minded?” Next when we stopped at a shop and bought a few things which were on sale, Enza asked the shop owner to bung in something for free. His reaction was that we ought to have paid him something extra for getting everything at such a remarkable price. Which made Enza retort in Italian, “Don’t be such a Catalan!” I could make that out and could not help laughing at her plucky repartee and the reaction she got.
As we walked around the marina, we tucked into local burgers stuffed with fries and meat and sipped on wine on that pleasant evening at a beautiful bar. Sometimes a holiday can turn out remarkable when you have the right companions with you. For us, Enza and Giampaola made it special and a girly holiday.
Stopping by azure waters in sleepy old towns taking their customary siestas and fields of artichokes, listening to romantic stories about Sardinian heroines such as Eleanora d’Arborea, tucking into artisanal gelatos, soaking in the history of old Catalan towns like Alghero and staring into the ancient burial chambers in nuraghi complexes contemplating about the ephemeral nature of life, I came to the conclusion that a return to Sardinia was imminent. Small as it might look on the map, Sardinia is the Mediterranean’s second largest island. It has eight provinces – Olbia Tempio, Sassari, Nuoro, Oristano, Ogliastra, Medio Campidano, Cagliari and Carbonia Iglesias.
The most special part of our holiday lay at the end when we were invited for a delectable home-cooked meal by Enza’s mother Caterina. I have never feasted on more flavourful gnochettis, raviolis and lamb as I did that day, nor been so touched by the warm-hearted bounty of an Italian family. Also, I would like to add that I shall never boast about the appetite of Bengalis. The Italians can, hands down, put us to shame.