Secrets of the south

Dana Facaros steered clear of Sardinia’s chic northern resorts and unearthed a land of buried warriors, haunting songs and 7,000 mysterious towers

Napoleon said he could recognise Corsica by the scent of its maquis alone. I recognised Sardinia that afternoon by the smell of pig. Not just any old pig, but su porcheddu: spit-roasted sucking pig.

Eating lunch on the terrace at Sa Marighedda, a farm restaurant outside Castiadas, in southern Sardinia, my husband, Michael, and I couldn’t have been further from the bling of the island’s supermodel-draped Costa Smeralda. We’d jumped at the chance to spend a week in a place we’d seen on a house-swap site — offered by a pair of Sardinian teachers, Giuliana and Mario. And right then we couldn’t have been happier.

From Sa Marighedda’s fixed-price menu tipico sardo, we had already chewed our way through cured meats, tangy pecorino cheese, olives, grilled aubergines and focaccia, 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, beetle-shaped malloreddus. To wash it down, the local cannonau wine, strong and red, and full, apparently, of the antioxidants that help the locals live to be 100.

Yes, this seemed like Sardinia: the fantastically old, mysterious island that existed long before Michelin-starred chefs descended and swanky resorts set about colonising the beaches. Now, our plate of glorious porcheddu arrived, topped with myrtle leaves, tender and succulent within its crispy skin, served with roast potatoes.

Somehow we also managed dessert: pardulas (tiny ricotta 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, that really evoked memories.

“Do you remember when we had all this before?” I asked Michael.

“At the shepherds’ feast,” he said immediately, although it had happened 35 years ago.


Pretty in pink: flamingos wade in one of the island’s lagoons

The shepherds’ feast had been the most magical day of our five-month 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 fell open, and chocolates and bonbons flew out of handbags. We were driven to a mountain meadow where we were the only foreigners.

There, shepherds slow-roasted porcheddu on myrtle branches in a pit, as they had done since antiquity, while a floppy-hatted male quartet cupped their ears in their hands and burst into archaic cantu a tenore polyphonic song, and our baby was passed around, smothered with kisses and stuffed with titbits.

It felt downright Homeric. Isolated for centuries from the mainland, Sardinia and everything about it — its cuisine, its language, its festivals and music — seemed more ancient than the rest of Italy.

Before Su Nuraxi was excavated in 1949, locals warned their kids that it was home to an enormous child-eating fly

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: miles of rugged, primeval Mediterranean terrain, rustic sheepfolds amid tumbles of granite boulders, pines, olive and lemon groves, and acres of 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’d always wondered why Sergio Leone never filmed here.

“I imagine Spain was cheaper and emptier,” Michael suggested. “And it would look odd if there was a shoot-out with a stone nuraghe in the background.”

We had already passed several of these characteristic single or multi-lobed towers. After the pyramids, nuraghes, built here and nowhere else from about 1,500BC to 500BC, were the tallest megalithic constructions ever created, and a mind-boggling 7,000 of them still dot the landscape.


The head of one of the Giants of Mont’e Prama

We were going to revisit the daddy of them all: Su Nuraxi, just outside the village of Barumini. In the distance were the mammary-shaped 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 that 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 with 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 the holiday crowds would be rolling up their beach towels and heading for cocktail hour and ambient beats, 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 (£9; fondazionebarumini.it/en).

It was dark by the time we returned to Oristano, only to find a note under the door from Giuliana and Mario’s daughter, Francesca: “Please call me.” I feared the worst. I called 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.


A shellfish supper

Oristano was a beguiling little vanilla, cream and pale-strawberry city under towering 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 the planet, 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 (£4; antiquariumarborense.it), where we saw something so bizarre that we both remembered it instantly: a 5th-century BC terracotta mask, with a line of buttons on the face that resembled a sardonically (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 unspoilt as we remembered it being on that perfect Mediterranean morning when we first drove there — 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 (£4; tharros. sardegna.it).

Alone again, we pottered along ancient streets, past re-erected columns, the forum, baths and a theatre. Nearby stood the thick-walled, buttressed 6th-century San Giovanni di Sinis, probably the oldest church in Sardinia, 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 ate a lunch of heavenly spaghetti and clams with chilled vermentino, Sardinia’s perfumed white wine.

That afternoon, we passed bright-pink crowds as we drove north along the peninsula towards Cabras. Fortunately, they weren’t sunburnt and human, but ornithological and rather photogenic: flamingos, 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 6ft high, warriors and boxers with eerie, perfectly round concentric eyes that stare into your soul.

There were six of them in the Cabras Museum (£4; museocabras.it), along with mini nuraghes, the size of dolls’ houses, that were found at the same site. Dating from between the 11th and 8th centuries BC, the statues are 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 in front of a small village bar. 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 the 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 boar’s head trophies, then ordered a round of Ichnusa beers as we sat. Everyone on the terrace had followed us in and looked expectantly at Piero, who joined three friends at the bar. 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 chimed in for 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.

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