Updated: Apr 6
Barbagia: Orgosolo, Gavoi, Carnevale (Nuoro & Mamoiada)
Diamond in the rough? Or in this case just a rough diamond. The inland hill village of Orgosolo, south of Nuoro is just that. It’s renowned for its murales and banditi heritage. It’s OK, Sardinia is perfectly safe despite the many bullet holes found in village signs in this poor Barbagia region, deep in the heart of Sardinia. Just local target practise!
It seemed like the perfect place to take my mother on a day trip. After all she is a bit of a rebel and as an artist would surely appreciate the murals on virtually every wall. The village is perched on the hillside and offers wide views of the surrounding countryside probably home to various kidnappings from times gone by.
This is no joke, it really is bandit country, when at the end of the 19th century the locals were caught in bitter fights to defend their land and from the 1960’s – 1990’s tales abound of kidnapped foreigners held to ransom.
So anyway, I was curious and always wanted to spend more time on this island! The journey there just highlighted the outlandish nature of this area. Be prepared for a rollercoaster ride from Nuoro to Orgosolo by ARST. Anyone would think the bus drivers were trying to escape said banditi.
Overtaking caravans and other supposedly faster vehicles around the winding roads meant we just had to hold on to the seat in front for dear life. My poor mum who is only a slip of a thing was being slid from side to side but rather than facing it with her usual anxious tones she actually appeared to be enjoying it! I was ready with the apologies but she was laughing and whooping like a child at the funfair. Bless her heart. On another occasion I took my friend, who was up for the ride but ready to vomit on arrival. Plastic bags were found for the return journey.
I told the bus drivers on both occasions that it was troppo veloce but they just replied with their usual shrug and an eh as is so common with Italians when they have no other answer or just don’t care!
This one horse village is more entertaining than it first appears, from Vespa racing through the main street, to men on horseback passing greetings at the café entrance, every surface tells a story from political protests to the daily life and traditions of Sardegna.
Don’t be surprised to see images of war, military, politics, banditi and local folk with their livestock staring out menacingly. It’s not exactly the Cistine Chapel, rather Banksi does Barbagia but with more than its fair share of touriste, they must be a ‘welcome’ sight for the slightly hostile locals.
At the end of my first Sardinian teaching year I was invited to Gavoi, another village deep in Barbagia yet rather more dainty than Orgosolo. Not a bandit or bullet hole in sight. A traditional Sunday lunch was being hosted by one of our students and her family in their rustic yet charming farmhouse overlooking the rest of the village. As is the case with many Italian eating rituals and especially Sardinian ones, we started at around 13:00 for aperitivi and continued until dusk.
I can only describe this feast as a modern day medieval banquet comprising a spit roast sheep. It was a beast on a pole aiming to feed about 20 people. Not sure I would willingly choose the black pudding part of the antipasti again but I could eat prosciutto crudo and panne carasau with ricotta all day. The main event of roughly cut sheep parts was served with roasted white onions and potatoes, a hearty meal for a cold winter’s day, except it was June and around 35 degrees outside.
As if that wasn't enough, I’m sure a pasta dish was thrown in as well. The meal continued with various cakes and fruit. However the pièce de résistance had to be the live insect larvae filled casu marzu cheese wheel, in which my colleague galliantly dug his spoon when it was proffered by the hosts. Not wearing his glasses he failed to realise it had maggots crawling all over it!
However, I did realise and still tried it but avoided the creepy crawlies at all costs. The taste of penicillin at its finest was mirthfully washed away with a fine assortment of digestivi from homemade limoncello to the Sardinian speciality of mirto, made from myrtle berries or flowers depending on the red or white colour. A slightly wobbly stroll into the very pretty village with perfectly maintained dwellings overlooking Lake Gusana finished off our gargantuan feast.
Carnevale (Nuoro & Mamoiada)
On my return to Nuoro 6 months later, the feasting continued with the celebration of San Antonio marking the beginning of carnevale season on 17th January. Local towns and villages create raging bonfires in various neighbourhoods for very social gatherings.
Locals ‘queue’ for a plateful of delicious fave e lardo, a fatty pork stew with cabbage, onions and fave - broad beans or simply a plate of ceci - chick peas, washed down with a miniature sized plastic cup of local red wine (unlimited refills of which I lost count), whilst trying to keep warm around the vast bonfire.
Add to this the incessant accordion playing and the traditional merry jig of the minutest steps and you have yourself a night out ‘Sardo' style. Apparently it’s good luck to walk around the bonfire anticlockwise 3 times. Yes I did that. Incredibly it’s all free and generously provided by the local community.
During carnevale season the Mamuthones - intimidating masked men - emerge from their home town of Mamoiada situated between Orgosolo and Gavoi. Representing animals or slaves in their fur costumes, carved black masks and a multitude of bronze bells on their backs, the Mamuthones are led down the street in two lines by the masterful Issohadores.
These smartly dressed, white masked, Spanish influenced 'matadors' carry a rattan soha or lasso and for good purpose. If you are a lucky female you may be ‘captured’ by an Issohadore with his soha as a good omen of health and fertility.
I have been captured several times during carnevale in Nuoro and Mamoiada and although blessed with pretty good health (unless I get struck down with Covid-19), proving my fertility has always remained elusive.
Meanwhile the jangling of the Mamuthones’ bells signifying the bond between shepherd and beast could be heard all down Via La Marmora as the Issohadore leader conducted the hop, skip and a jump dancing act. A ritual supposedly derived from the Nuragic age. Homage is paid to the peasants, land, livestock and good harvest, warding off evil spirits in the process.
I felt remarkably energised and entranced by this pagan display, wondering what was next in line as yet more ‘creatures’ with blacked out faces wearing animal skins ventured down the road in chains.
Ready to climb up and onto anything they could, from the road signs to the balconies of apartments 2 floors up, these ‘beasts’ from the land are invincible.
They are wild, this town is wild, this region is wild, this island is…wild!
Blacken my face with your tar paint.
Keeping the evil away forever!
This is the reason for living,
under the skin of Barbagia.
The ‘modern’ carnevale is just as wild.
Townsfolk take a theme then dress it up ‘Italian style’;
‘70’s flower power, Il Vaticano, Day of the Dead, Pinocchio, Modern Art, Disney, Latin Dance, Cowboys and Indians, Pirates of the Caribbean, an endless line up.
Sardinian creativity and the celebration of Spring at its finest.
These folk know how to party; proudly, unashamedly and colourfully.
euro pop blaring
smiling and laughing
…this community was alive.
Now more than ever I appreciate having witnessed these incredible festivities over the last 3 years.
Next year, even more reason to celebrate…
Credits: text, images and videos: Lisette King