Sardinia’s Wild Heart Beats in Barbagia

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.

 

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Nuraghe, ancient towers belonging to the mysterious Nuragic civilisation 
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Nuraghe and chapel
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Orchards around Barbagia
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Myrtle
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Myrtle berries
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The Museum of Sardinian Life and Popular Traditions
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Fragrant rosemary shrubs
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Traditional costumes of women in the villages of Sardinia
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Dolls in traditional gear
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A child’s garb
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Mamuthones (men in black) and Issohadore (fellow in red) from the village of Mamoiada. The origins of these masked figures are unknown. The Mamuthones, in their vests of dark sheep fur and copper bells and grotesque wooden masks with giant hooks for noses, command a spooky presence. It is almost as if they are checked by the presence of the Issohadores in their red tunic, embroidered shawl and black bandolier. They walk together in processions that end at bonfires in the village that has had the Mamuthones and Issohadores for as long as it can remember.
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Boes and Merdules from a carnival in the town of Ottana.  The men in their white sheepskins, accessorised with plenty of cowbells, wear two kinds of masks. The Boes wear ox-like masks and the Merdules those of old, deformed men. These were part of rituals, meant to protect man against evil spirits. The Merdule served as reminders to man – to overcome his baser instincts and retain his human identity.
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Thurpos (meaning blind or crippled). In Orotelli, a town in Barbagia, men with their faces painted black and dressed in black overcoats, cowbells dangling from shoulder straps, roam the streets during its agrarian carnival. They are allegorical figures representing the triumph of the weak over the powerful, the eternal tussle between farmers and landowners.
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The Mamuthone in profile

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Streets of Nuoro

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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’.