“Puffy white clouds drifted overhead like zeppelins, casting slow shadows”
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 soigne 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: Oristano was a slice of Sardinia deliciously lost in time, a beguiling little vanilla, cream and pale- strawberry city under tow ering palm trees. Puffy white clouds drifted overhead like zeppelins, casting slow shadows. 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 hi 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.
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 tunes. 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 hi 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.