The Classical Bandits of Sardinia

They live in Orgosolo, they say. But in the same breath they maintain that vendettas and violence have long vanished from the inland villages of Sardinia.

In the spring of 2015, around this time, a girl friend and I took a flight into Alghero. To land upon the island that sits in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea, surrounded by the Balearic islands, the Italian peninsula and Corsica, and yet is a world unto its own. A rugged land where the air is ripe with possibilities. Here there are no high-street chains for clothing and coffee stores, no concrete jungles to feel lost in, and certainly none of the big city lights. Pre-historic Nuraghi which are cylindrical stone towers dating back to the 1500 BC — preceding the Etruscan civilisation — show up instead upon miles and miles of green countryside framed by the limestone and bluish-green mountains of the Supramonte.

English novelist DH Lawrence described it as “belonging to nowhere, never having belonged to anywhere”. In this ancient part of the country, Barbagia, where the people lead rustic lives and shepherds make their living from tending to livestock in the wild interiors, the concept fits in with the precision and smoothness of say slipping your hands into the softest sheepskin gloves, that bandits should double up as heroes for the people in the villages. That the Codice Barbaricino, which is the Code of Barbagia, should be the mark of a life well lived, with honour. For, the right and the duty to preserve honour is everything here.

From Enza, who was in charge of shepherding us around the island, I heard about Graziano Mesina, a regular Robinhood kind of a figure in this part of the world. Mesina had decided to drop his former profession in favour of the tour-guide business. A bandit turned tour guide, heavens!

The next few words that issued from my mouth alarmed Enza and she decided that enough was enough. She would not have a pesky person broach difficult subjects. She said: “The people of Orgosolo eye all newcomers with askance. They do not talk about such matters at all. You see, they are protected by the bandits, and they in turn, protect them from curious eyes.” That screwed tight the lid upon the curiosity that welled up in this journalist old heart of mine. It takes a lifetime to wean yourself away from the only profession you have known all your adult life. And I was just starting to learn to keep my nose out of other people’s business.

In that 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 lunch. It was a rustic affair and one that was long–drawn, for whatever you do, do not under-estimate the appetite of the Italians. On rustic wooden boards, we were presented with fluffy rounds of pane, which is bread. We tore into the bread, pairing it with creamy ricotta cheese, pink slices of ham and pungent porcheddu (suckling pig roasted upon a spit). And sips of grappa, potent enough to make the nerves tingle and warm the insides with searing intensity.

I thought that was enough, till more appeared. Rosemary-flavoured sheep’s meat cooked with potatoes and pecorino cheese paired with pane carasau that was but a simple parchment of bread. Followed by refills of the local red wine. Our senses sufficiently doused in wine and grappa, we were treated to pretty desserts. They were fit for fairies to nibble on.

Suddenly the shepherds, four of them proceeded to a corner, huddling together with their backs to us. I was wondering about this strange sight when they broke into a song. The air rang with the resounding bass in their voices. The canto a tenore, a traditional shepherds’ song. The group of Germans behind us got up and danced in a while. The grappa and wine had done their job alright.

Now Orgosolo has more going for it than just its fame as home to the outlaws. Its hilly cobbled lanes are lined with old, dilapidated houses in pastel hues, their facades painted with political and Cubist-style frescoes. In the ‘70s, a Sienese school teacher and his students had sparked off a trend of painting political murals in remembrance of the Italian Resistance and Liberation from Nazism and Fascism. Now you can see these murales, telling stories in diverse styles. And if you have the time, why they will have a conversation with you.

Thus was I introduced to Sardinia. Through this small village that was once occupied by the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Spanish. The village that has hospitality carved into its anti-authoritarian veins, where the bandits are shy despite their notoriety, where the men huddle together to sing songs that have been sung through the ages and where blood feuds are a cultural backdrop because this is where the people live and die, my darling, by an ancient code of honour.

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The road that winds past the Supramonte
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Villages in Barbagia
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Welcome to Orgosolo. I imagine he is a bandit.
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The shepherd’s lunch took place in a barn
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Shepherds with their suckling pig 
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Where they carve up the pig
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Enza pours us grappa
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Makes me faint with greed
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Pane Carasau
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Bread with ricotta, ham and porcheddu
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Pastissus. Thin delicate pastries, glazed with sugar, and filled with almonds
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Canto a tenore 
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Orgosolo on the map of Sardinia. The words above urge you to love the island for what it is, an oasis of natural beauty. 
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Streets of Orgosolo

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Cross-eyed with thinking? We women do think too much.
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Rural women go about the business of life

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Aunt Elisabetta, the sibyl of Orgosolo
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Vittorio De Seta, the director of ‘Banditi a Orgosolo’

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Bums. That’s my darling Enza.
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‘If the most difficult kids are lost, the school is no longer a school. It is a hospital that takes care of the healthy and rejects the sick.’ Lorenzo Milani, an Italian Roman Catholic priest and educator of children who nobody wanted to educate. 

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Cubism. Accident at work.
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On the left are scenes depicting Gaza and massacres visited upon by the Palestinians by the Israeli army. The right-hand side mural states, ‘We are all illegal aliens’, acknowledging the desperation of people who arrive in Italy, stuffed into boats, in the vain hope of escaping poverty.
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‘Felice il popolo che non ha bisogna di eroi’ — ‘Happy are the people who do not need heroes’.

Published by

Arundhati Basu

The great affair in my life is to travel. I count myself immensely fortunate that my partner shares this passion. We are a team that likes to spend time planning and plotting out places to go. Destination check, flights check, accommodation check, cheesy grins check. Off we go.

48 thoughts on “The Classical Bandits of Sardinia

  1. Great post of your trip to Sardinia. Didn’t know that it was occupied by so many in its history. Love the cubist style artwork – Picasso would be proud. Who wouldn’t like some burly looking men making you a feast of suckling pig 😉 BTW, I didn’t see your post in my feed. I had to click on the link in my email.


    1. Thank you! There is so much to Sardinia. Words truly cannot grasp the details, however much I do try. The Cubist murals are truly something to behold, right? I loved them too.
      Also, cheers for letting me know about the post not showing up on the feed. The challenges of going the self-hosted way. Sigh.


    2. Thank you! There is so much to Sardinia. Words truly cannot grasp the details, however much I do try. The Cubist murals are truly something to behold, right? I loved them too.
      Also, cheers for letting me know about the post not showing up on the feed. The challenges of going the self-hosted way. Sigh.


    1. I am a bit relieved to hear that the post showed up on your feed. This self-hosted business has been making me round around in circles. I suspect I am more challenged than others who have made a smoother transition to the self-hosted blogging life. And thank you 🙂 Orgosolo is a place unlike any. The bread, cheese and sausages had me in their grips. xx


    1. Thank you my lovely! I wanted a new look for the blog 🙂 Oh yes, my friend and I ate rather well in Sardinia. There was in fact too much of the good fare. xx


  2. Loving your new blog layout lovely! Also, this place sounds amazing – very different to our pace of life, admittedly, but wonderful. And that quote about educating difficult children is FABULOUS xx


    1. Isn’t it? I loved what I read about the man. Such people are rare and that is such a pity. Thank you for the feedback on the new layout, my love 🙂
      Sardinia is utterly enchanting and Easy Jet/Ryan Air have these fabulous deals often. The only annoying bit is reaching Gatwick/Stansted! xx


  3. What an amazing story. I had no idea about the history of Sardinia so something new learnt today 🙂

    Btw, were you not always self hosted (as your site wasn’t Also how’s it going on that front ?


    1. Thank you love. Now that is a good question. Frankly, at the risk of sounding foolish, I do not know! I had bought my domain as you rightly noted and last year had transferred it to Siteground in the whole effort to start all over with a new host. But I had already paid up WordPress and it made no sense to pay both. So I decided to wait it out.
      It is going okay, Anushree. I have finally let it be and settled down to just blog now. How about you? xx


      1. Ah, I get it now. I think as long as you are self hosted with WP , it still allows you to be a part of the whole WP ecosystem.
        It isn’t going too great on the engagement perspective I guess. Which is a bit annoying because I’d expect WP to include other word press sites to be part of that ecosystem. But I guess Like you said, I just have to let it be. Except that I feel I am just throwing myself out in the open universe with nothing hitting back 😀 its painful at the moment. But hey ho.


      2. I know what you mean. My visitors have dropped remarkably and there is naught I can do. So I am letting it be. It’s alright sistah, we shall pull through. xx


  4. As always, charming post and lovely photos. I went to Sardinia for the first last year, found it totally enchanting and well worth a further visit.


    1. Thank you, Sheree. I too want to go back. There is so much to see on that island. I would not have imagined had I not reached it. xx


  5. Sardinia is quite a different region of Italy, I have heard. I would love to visit there one day and experience it for myself.I have also heard that the people who live in Sardinia, have a long life expectancy than usual!! Interesting. Xx


    1. They do, is it? Maybe the simple way of life? Hmm. I wonder. I think you would be charmed by it. I will do a few more posts about it because there is just too much to stuff into one 🙂 xx


    1. It definitely gave it an old-world ambience and went perfectly with the food that the shepherds typically eat, Jen. Thank you 🙂 xx


  6. What a lovely picture you paint with words. Did you also visit some of the stunning beaches in Sardinia? Sardinia really is on top of my list for a beach holiday but it looks like the history and culture have a lot to offer too.


    1. Thank you Pooja. I did get my behind to the beaches in Sardinia. I have more posts on it in the pipeline. Sardinia has enough to make you want to go back — because it is not just another pretty destination 🙂 xx


  7. What a very odd world you stepped into there! I was content to just scoff the bread and cheese and have the odd conversation with that big eyed bandit, but then you started introducing me to all his buddies. What an odd shaped bunch! But I can get along with most folk. 🙂 🙂 I kept expecting Al Pacino to turn up. Fun!


    1. I could head back and let myself loose upon the bandits of Sardinia, if you would be a willing backup. Just a modest adventure.


      1. Of course, no one dare deny you the sun. I am sending you a dose of brightness since the week has dawned bright and chirpy upon us.


      1. *drumroll (for the fine weather). Thanks Nisha, I shall make the week count. xx


  8. Omg! Their is so much history to this place! Loved your post was a real good read. Putting it on my ‘go to places’ list now. As always a very pleasurable experience to go through your blogs. Much love 😘


    1. Hey you 🙂 Fancy seeing you here! Thank you my love. I shall hope you get to see it for yourself. xx


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