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 years ago.
“The wild landscapes, vast skies ana simple, stucco ranch style architecture seemed ideal for spaghetti westerns”
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 tenore 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 could imagine Clint Eastwood in his poncho and Stetson riding over the hill.
“I always wondered why Sergio Leone didn’t film here,” I said. ‘After all, Sardinia is just a ferry-hop from Rome’s Cinecitta 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.