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’.

Sheep-y Sundays

Albert Einstein was not off the mark when he said that in order to be an immaculate member of a flock of sheep one must above all be a sheep oneself. I had a sheep-like personality in the growing years of my life – till I reached Delhi and the city decided to do me a favour and rip it off. Naturally you would forgive me for thinking that I stood a chance of bonding with those precious bundles of wool.

Now, I have tried to be friends with all shapes and sizes of them. I have talked to them, I have cajoled them to come closer and then I have chased them to be friends with me. In all my time of roving the English countryside, I have to admit sheepishly that I have been an utter failure. Here are some close encounters with the Swaledale sheep that roam around the northern dales of the Yorkshire with their curved horns, healthy frames (they are not fat, they will let you in baa notes) and black faces. I deemed them the J J Ramsbottoms, just because they looked like J J Ramsbottoms.

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This is also peak lambing time in the Blighty. Everywhere you look there are tiny lambs in duos and trios, innocence and curiosity in their eyes, and a skip in their steps. A lamb gambolling around green pastures in the wake of a busy ewe (why with chomping on grass which they do even through snow) is one of those sights in life that is bound to put a smile on your face and a spring in your step. But before that you gotta contend with the mother looking around the corner, watching out for her wee ones.

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And now I shall sign off my sheep-laden weekend with bitter ales brewed in the Yorkshire dales that we have brought home with us. We never leave bottles of beauty behind. Hic hic.