She last set foot on Sardinia 35 years ago. Now Dana Facaros returns to see if the Italian island’s mysterious landscapes, quirky traditions and exquisitely strange food have stayed fresh
Lunching at Agriturismo Sa Marighedda, a farm restaurant outside Castiadas, in southeast Sardinia, my husband Michael and I couldn’t have been further from the bling of the island’s celebrated, supermodel-draped Costa Smeralda. We’d jumped at the chance to spend a week here, in a house offered by a pair of Sardinian teachers, Giuliana and Mario, and right now we couldn’t have been happier.
The food was no hotel-bland international fare. On Sa Marighedda’s fixed-price menu we had already chewed our way through cured meats, tangy pecorino cheese, olives, grilled aubergines and ‘rustic’ focacce, all brimming with that sunny taste of the Med you can’t replicate back home. Two types of Sardinia’s distinctive pasta in a rich tomato sauce followed: culurgiones, fat oval pillows filled with pecorino, and ridged, trilobite-shaped malloreddus. To wash it down: the local Cannonau red, full of those lovely antioxidants that help the locals live to be 100.
Yes, this was Sardinia, the Sardinia we first visited 35 years ago while researching our first travel guides on the western Med: the fantastically old, mysterious island that existed long before Michelin-starred chefs descended and swanky resorts set about colonising the beaches. Somehow we also managed dessert: pardulas (tiny cheese tarts under flurries of powdered sugar) and seadas (warm, fried cheese ravioli oozing arbutus honey). But it was the scent of the mirto, Sardinia’s famous myrtle digestivo, which really evoked memories. ‘Do you remember when we had all this before?’ I asked Michael.
‘At the shepherds’ feast,’ he said right away, even though it had happened 35
The shepherds’ feast was the most magical day of our five-month-long journey. Back then, before Sardinia was a beacon on the package-holiday map, the authentic was all around – you didn’t have to go in search of it. That said, our VIP pass that long-ago day had something to do with the fact that we were travelling with the best accessory you can have in Italy: a cute baby. Doors fall open. Chocolates and bonbons fly out of handbags. People take you in a 4WD to a mountain meadow where you’re the only foreigners, where shepherds slow-roast meat in a pit, as they’ve done since antiquity. Where a floppy-hatted male quartet cupped their ears in their hands and burst into uncanny, archaic, cantu a tenòre polyphonic song, while our baby was passed around, smothered with kisses and stuffed with tidbits. It felt downright Homeric. Isolated for centuries from the mainland, everything about Sardinia – its cuisine, its language, its festivals and music – seemed older than the rest of Italy.
How much of the island would still be the real deal this time round? We couldn’t help wondering what disappointments might lie ahead, as we set off back to our temporary home in Oristano. Initial signs were promising: kilometres of rugged, primeval Mediterranean terrain, and rustic sheepfolds amid tumbles of granite boulders, parasol pines, olive and lemon groves and vineyards. Cork oaks blushed reddish orange where they’d been stripped of their bark.
The wild landscapes, vast skies and simple, stucco ranch-style architecture seemed ideal for spaghetti westerns
‘I always wondered why Sergio Leone didn’t film here,’ I said. ‘After all, Sardinia is just a ferry-hop from Rome’s Cinecittà studios.’
‘I imagine Spain was cheaper and emptier,’ Michael replied. ‘Besides, it would look odd if there was a shoot-out with a nuraghe in the background.’
We had already passed several of these characteristic single or multi-lobed towers: nothing shouts ‘ancient Sardinia’ like them. After the pyramids, nuraghes, built here and nowhere else from about 1500BC to 500BC, were the tallest megalithic constructions ever created, and a mind-boggling 7,000 of them still dot the landscape, often isolated in dramatic settings.
We were headed for a revisit to the daddy of them all: Su Nuraxi, just outside the village of Barumini. In the distance were the hills that gave the region its name, the Marmilla. In fact, before Su Nuraxi was excavated by the Sardinian archaeologist Giovanni Lilliu in 1949, everyone thought it was just another perky protuberance. Local adults warned it was home to an enormous child-eating fly.
The den of the fly turned out to be the interior of a nuraghe tower, a huge three-storey structure surrounded by a rampart and four other towers. In 3D reconstructions, it looks like a medieval castle surrounded by a dense Hobbit village of round houses.
While elsewhere, on the coast, the holiday crowds would be rolling up their beach towels and heading for happy hour and ambient sounds, we felt wonderfully alone in the island’s historic embrace: we were the only ones there for the 7pm tour, the last of the day, when the rich light played on Su Nuraxi’s colossal basalt boulders. I had forgotten how complex it was, with narrow passages, stairs and massive corbelled vaults built within the thickness of the walls. As we emerged near the top it was like standing on the shoulders of giants.
It was dark by the time we returned to Oristano, only to find a note under the door: ‘Please call me, Francesca (Giuliana and Mario’s daughter).’ I feared the worst – an invitation to some soigné dinner party with a cliquey group of English friends visiting from Kensington? An evening of chit-chat about Brexit and house prices? I tapped the number she left, and found relief – of sorts: ‘My parents have been reading your Sardinia guide in your house and think you need to meet my uncle Piero. Can I pick you up on Saturday night at 8.30?’ I love surprises as much as Michael hates them. ‘You didn’t ask about this Uncle Piero? You just said yes, just like that?’ he grumbled, convinced that Uncle Piero would be a nitpicking bore who would point out all the mistakes in our book, or a pushy restaurant or hotel owner wanting to get a mention.
The next morning Michael was still grousing, but not for long: the smell of fresh coffee wafted from the bars, drawing us in for java jolts amid the pensioners, who stood chatting, perusing the headlines of L’Unione Sarda. No-one seemed in a hurry. No-one was staring at screens.
Oristano’s centrepiece is the most charming statue on planet Earth, depicting the city’s medieval ruler, Eleanor of Arborea, as if she were a fantasy primary-school teacher, instructing the locals on her legal code, which gave women more rights than they had almost anywhere else in Europe. She stands by the Antiquarium Arborense museum, where we saw something so bizarre that we both remembered it as soon as we saw it again: a 5th-century BC terracotta mask, with a line of buttons on the face that resembled a sardonically (yes, the word comes from ‘Sardinia’) laughing Phoenician android.
Oristano’s centrepiece is the most charming statue on planet Earth, depicting the city’s medieval ruler
The mask came from the nearby Phoenician city of Tharros, on the Sinis peninsula, a half-hour’s drive west. The Sinis is Oristano’s five-star attraction but, reassuringly, tourism has yet to stake its claim and it was as blissfully unspoiled as we remembered it that perfect Mediterranean morning when we first drove there. It was a geographical tone poem of pure white quartz sands lapped by turquoise sea, curling under a cape topped with a 16th-century Spanish watchtower.
Spread below were the ruins of Tharros, which endured into early medieval times. Alone again, we pottered along ancient streets past re-erected columns, the forum, baths and a theatre. Nearby stood the thick-walled, buttressed 5th-century San Giovanni di Sinis, probably Sardinia’s oldest church, under an undulating red roof and dome. Inside its low, stone arches it was mysterious and shadowy, a perfect contrast to the sunny Ristorante Da Marina just over the road where we lunched on heavenly spaghetti and clams.
There were crowds that afternoon, following lunch, as we drove north along the Sinis towards Cabras. Fortunately, they weren’t pasty and human, but bright-pink, ornithological and rather photogenic: flamingoes, hundreds of them, nesting in lagoons as we motored past. Their black and hot-cerise wings turned them into blazing firebirds in flight.
We were in Cabras to see something new (at least to us). On a hill near here in 1974, a farmer was surprised to find chunks of sandstone statues under his plough. Over the next decade excavations uncovered more than 5,000 fragments of purposely broken figures. Since then they have been meticulously pieced together as the Giants of Mont’e Prama: archers standing two metres high, warriors, and boxers with eerie, perfectly round concentric eyes that stare into your soul. There were six of them in the Cabras museum, along with mininuraghes the size of dollhouses found at the same site. Dated between the 11th and 8th centuries BC, the Giants are utterly unique and archaeologists can only guess at their purpose. Did they guard VIP graves? Did they celebrate victories over the Phoenicians, or were they meant to scare invaders away? That evening Michael was still grousing about Uncle Piero, when Francesca (and her boyfriend Guido) knocked on the door. What evening of social hell awaited? Michael’s trepidation melted away at once: they were warm and lovely, the kind of people you feel you’ve known for years. We piled into the back of their Fiat 500 and headed for the hills. After half an hour, Francesca stopped at a small village. The omens were reassuring: no parked tour bus. No foreign chatter. No sign of a newly built hotel begging to be included in a guidebook. Just a dozen locals seated on a terrace, drinking. A man in a white shirt, black waistcoat and flat cap stood up, kissed Francesca on the cheek and vigorously shook our hands. ‘Welcome, you writers!’ And with that we met Uncle Piero.
He ushered us into a dimly lit, panelled space graced by rows of fiercely glaring boars’ head trophies, then ordered a round of local drinks as we sat. Everyone on the terrace had followed us in and looked expectantly at Piero. As soon as each man cupped a hand over his ear, I knew what was coming – a polyphonic song, just like the one we’d heard long ago at the shepherds’ feast. Piero with his deep, quavering voice provided the verse, and the other three tenores chimed in the nasal ‘mee mam’ chorus.
The sound reverberated through my bones. I felt like a human tuning fork. Anthropologists say Sardinians may have sung similar songs in the nuraghes. I believe it.
‘You like, eh?’ Uncle Piero grinned broadly as we applauded. ‘You want more?’ Yes, yes, yes. And suddenly going back 35 years seemed like no time at all, as the unearthly voices of a land that tourism forgot pulled us three and a half millennia into the past.
Dana Facaros/The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing