The isolated mien of the island of Sardinia is compounded by its insistence on keeping to itself and shying away from mainland Italy. The Sardinians do not repose faith in Rome. Their grouse is that they have been sidelined, rather monstrously. A politician who doubles up as a tour guide, the vivacious Enza, told us about the political climate of her country as she drove us in her trusty old car through the winding mountainous roads of Barbagia. I was enamoured of that dramatic landscape. Villages with their bevy of granite houses and terracotta roofs sat comfortably in valleys that seemed to have been scooped out of limestone mountains. Swathes of green pastures were dotted by ponies and prehistoric stone towers, herds of cows ambled along the roads as if they were out for a stroll, and often rows of wine and myrtle orchards showed up, standing upon modest patches of land. Myrtle, the aromatic berry that stains your fingers a deep purple if you squish it, and which the Sardinians use to make a fine liqueur called Mirto.
In this primitive part of the country that derives its name from Cicero — the Roman orator had dubbed it the ‘land of barbarians’ because the Romans had tough luck here — the mountain people cleave to the Sardinian language even while it is slowly being replaced by Italian elsewhere on the island. Here where they make their living from the land, where milk and sheep’s cheese are staple diet, where gnarled olive trees add character to the craggy surroundings, where bandits still rule strong in villages like Orgosolo, and where shepherds chant songs around fires, it is not unnatural that carnivals exist and that they are a window into times past when pagan rituals were a way of life.
Shepherded by Enza and her cousin Giampaola to a museum in the town of Nuoro, we were introduced to the traditional black ensemble of men and women. The Museum of Sardinian Life and Popular Traditions turned out to be a small affair but packed with details that transported us to another world. I was repulsed, and at the same time, strangely drawn in by the theatrics of the carnival costumes. People in older times surely knew how to work their imagination.
Men dressed in sheepskins, cow bells and ominous-looking masks, enacting the eternal battle between good and evil. In the agrarian culture of Barbagia, it made sense that the carnivals had their roots in Greek rites dedicated to Dionysus, the god of vegetation. They signified the end of winter, and invoked the gods to bless the land with fertility. People indulged in sacrifices and orgies. They dressed like animals and danced wildly after drinking plenty of wine.
Emerging from the confines of an old world recreated within the museum, we found the town of Nuoro to be quietly photogenic. It sat at the foot of Mount Ortobene. Atop it stood a statue of Christ the Redeemer, as if keeping a careful watch upon the life of the few thousand inhabitants of Nuoro who live around its narrow streets in traditional stone houses. Because it was furiously cold that March, the usual windy conditions on the island exacerbated by the northwest wind called the Mistral that blows in from France, we winded up in a small café in Nuoro. I look back upon that moment and smile at one of those apparently trivial memories. Nothing earth shattering. Just four girls chattering over a cup of coffee each and the beginnings of a lovely friendship.