"... lost between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere. Belonging to nowhere, never having belonged to anywhere. "
THE WORDS caught my eye as I glanced at the book my aisle-mate was reading during the flight from Rome to Cagliari, the capital and principal port of entry of Sardinia.The lines were familiar but I couldn't quite place them until a second look revealed that she was holding "Sea and Sardinia," a book I had read in preparation for my visit to the Italian island.
D. H. Lawrence wrote the unusual travel account in the aftermath of the First World War when he journeyed by train and bus through the mountainous central region of Sardinia. Despite the brevity of his stay and his limited itinerary, Lawrence captured the spirit of Sardinia, finding the second-largest Mediterranean island less "Italian" than Sicily (the largest), less even than the multifaceted mainland. Seduced by Sardinia's uniqueness, he produced a book of beauty and insight.
Riding the sea between two continents, Sardegna, as it is named in Italian, continues to be a separate entity, both in geography and culture, as I discovered for myself during a six-week stay recently. Not only does it contrast sharply with the other regions of Italy, it is a paradox within its own borders.
There are two types of landscape in Sardinia: the coast and the interior. Despite their proximity, the two are as distinct as if located in different countries.
Alghero, my favorite among the island's cities, is the sun-bathed center of the "Riviera del Corallo," the northwestern coastal region known for its beautiful coral beaches with transparent, clean waters (as at Le Bombarde and Porto Conte) and other impressive tourist attractions, like the natural cavern Grotta di Nettuno. The important archeological sites of Anghelu Ruju (a Stone Age necropolis) and Nuraghe Palmavera (a Bronze Age tower and ritual center) are also in the area.
Alghero itself has many historically distinguished buildings and fortifications from its days as an outpost of the Catalan monarchy. Its walls and towers from that era overlook the blue Mediterranean and nestle outdoor restaurants (La Muraglia and La Lepanto, for two) where one can sample the frutte di mare -- a salad of local sea delicacies -- as well as feast on a vineyard. On the coast, all is sunshine, seafood and seascapes.
The interior is haunting. In spring and summer, when there is no meaningful rainfall, the island's fields are parched: brown, desiccated, full of thistles and other prickly plants great in variety and effectiveness. The rocks that are strewn everywhere have been there since the island's volcanic period. Archeologists may consider it a boon to find among the rocks the occasional nodule of basalt that will facilitate dating procedures, but farmers must patiently pile countless other rocks to make room for crops. Only the herdsmen appear to be indifferent to the problem, taking sheep, goats and cows to graze on the substandard vegetation of hill and dale.
Yet even herdsmen are affected by another phenomenon of sorts: incendio. Fires occur throughout Sardinia with such regularity that the authorities are unable to cope with the destruction they wreak, particularly on sectors where the deforestation of earlier centuries is being combated with fast-growing evergreens. Fires have decimated many of these new trees, along with the cork oaks that provide an important source of income for the islanders. A few helicopters are available to attack the more pernicious of the fires, but they cannot be everywhere and so the countryside becomes blacker daily.
Many reasons are given for this strange situation. Vendetta, vengeance, is the one that most readily comes up in conversations on the subject. Revenge for some wrongdoing, real or imagined, may take the form of fields being set aflame on some dark night. It is well known throughout Sardinia that farmers have for years burnt their fields after a harvest, giving as a reason the need to replenish lost nutrients. Burning of the fields continues despite the common knowledge that the exposed topsoil can be blown away by the winds that regularly whip across the island, winds frequent and strong enough to bend the cork trees close to the ground permanently.
I suspect that the burning of the fields may also have a connection with propitiation rituals of the island's pagan past. Burnt offerings to hearth and earth deities were commonplace among early European and other peoples; many such offerings were made at large outdoor bonfires. Today, the farmer may not be aware that his practice of field burning has a kinship to ancient rituals, but he continues it because of tradition: It has always been so, ever will be.
Whatever the reason, farmers will not discuss the matter openly. To them, it is a way of life. For the inquiring visitor there is no reply, only a wall of silence.
This attitude stems from a deeply ingrained "fierce singleness," as D. H. Lawrence termed it, an individualism that is one of the most characteristic aspects of the Sardinian male. The Italian hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, himself a great individualist, so loved the fierce spirit of Sardinia that he took up residence on its offshore island of Caprera in 1856, living there until his death in 1882 when he was buried on the grounds of his beloved Casa Bianca, today a national shrine. That same spirit was seen in army contingents from Sardinia, soldiers whose bravery and fierceness earned the gratitude of fellow Italians, as statues in mainland cities attest, and the respect of their foes in several wars.
Lawrence saw Sardinia as one of the last bastions of the "indomitable male" in Europe and lamented that the sparks of that "fierce singleness" were dying out on the island. He need not have worried. Sardinia is still replete with the spirit characteristic of its past. It can be seen in reserved, taciturn shepherds and cowherds who spend solitary days in stony pasturelands; in dour, silent farmers toiling to make the poor soil productive; in men who hunt the cinghiale, the wild boar, whose fierceness has become symbolic of the people of the interior; even in the men who live and work in cities and towns. But most notorious are those men whose fierce faces are featured regularly in the island's newspapers under headlines of theft, banditry or kidnapping and, on occasion, murder. The positive and negative aspects of Lawrence's "fierce singleness" are indeed still evident throughout Sardinia.
In all cases, it is the people of the island who make it truly memorable. On arrival in Macomer, the small northwestern city that was to be the center of my stay in Sardinia while working at a nearby archeological dig, I dragged heavy suitcase and weary self from the train station toward the general vicinity of my hotel. I had to walk through the Corso, Macomer's main street. Young men and women in great numbers lined the thoroughfare, sitting on the stoops of stores and cafes in the hot evening hours. As I struggled with my burden, stopping periodically to ask directions, I become the focus of attention of the young multitude -- faces looked intently at me without a hint of embarrassment at being caught staring. Macomer is not a tourist center, and I knew that they must be seeing me as a strange sight, fair game for stares and comments. Every evening is the same for the young people of Macomer, and I provided a transitory distraction.
Similarly engaged on stoops further along the Corso, if in smaller numbers, were the city's old men. Nearly pensioned out of life, they were inactive viewers of the human traffic walking the sidewalks over and over or endlessly lapping the street on motorcycles or in automobiles. They too stared, but theirs was a gaze that sought a Buona sera, to which they replied with gusto and a touch of the cap. They all wore gray worsted suits; the heat did not seem to bother them. The scene of young and old sitting aimlessly is repeated throughout the island. This is the sad face of Sardinia.
Happily, there are more positive than negative impressions of the islanders, images that flip through my mind like a show of photographic slides. They are candid, unguarded flashes of friends and acquaintances, or of people at large, observed being themselves. There are the lovely women with alluring "Sardinian" eyes -- half-moon upper lids and nearly straight lower lids encompassing large dark irises -- somewhat reminiscent of those in Etruscan frescoes. These women grace the island's resorts in up-to-date beach fashions one day and on another appear at folk festivals in the ornate and varied costumes of the past.
At the same folk festivals one is also taken by what Lawrence called the "beautifully male" old men in their traditional costumes of black and white. At one such event, in Silanus, I met such an old man. He was dressed in a short black jacket over black pants, both of a heavy material, and a white shirt; his white mustache and hair were set off magnificantly by a black stocking cap. Although he walked with the assistance of a cane, his body was smartly erect. Dignity was his hallmark. Everywhere he went, people flocked to him with enthusiasm; he was everybody's image of the benign grandfather.
Another picture that flashes before my mind is the habit that men have on the island of "touching themselves," as I've heard tourists put it. This, of course, is not just a Sardinian custom, but on the island it has a dimension unthought of by those who define it as an act of sexual communication with the opposite sex.
I started to notice early on that in certain cases men held their genitals when either men or women approached, continuing to do so as long as the person was close by. I learned that there was a strong superstition on the island concerning the mal d'occhio, the "evil eye." It is held that some individuals possess the ability to cause harm by looking at someone or at something with malicious intent. To protect oneself, there are amulets such as the popular corno, the serpentine horn worn about the neck. Yet even if they are wearing the charms, Sardinian men instinctively hold that part of their enatomy they believe to be most vulnerable to the mal d'occhio.
I witnessed one frightening experience for a garage attendant who was filling the tank of a car in which I was a passenger. As soon as he saw an old peasant approaching whose smile revealed unusually long canines in a mouth almost without teeth, our attendant grabbed his genitals and did not let go until the man left. All this while pumping gas.
Yet another image is that of the young shepherd on whose master's grazing land our group was excavating a prehistoric site. He was 18, handsome, strong and tanned darkly. His smile and polite manner contrasted with the aloofness of other shepherds. And his name was Eliseo. Had his mother read some pastoral novel or poem and extracted the name from the old tome? How very right it would be, I thought, had his Spanish name come from a work by Cervantes, Juan del Encina or Lope de Vega. But he didn't know why his mother had chosen the poetic Eliseo, only that his town, Cabras, also had a Spanish name (the word for goats). The past presence of Spain on the island has left an imprint on the names of both people and towns. Eliseo himself seemed a pastore out of another age and culture, a gentle shepherd whose name brought me to an intuitive realization of what must have inspired the near-idyllic view of pastoral life in the Renaissance.
An artistic image of a different type is of a priest from a small village, a frail-looking man in a dark suit (not the usual black) and sport-shirt who turned out to be an authority on traditional Sardinian musical instruments and the author of the best-known book on the subject. One evening he performed for us on drums made out of the hides of dogs (which had to have died of starvation for the hide to have been properly resonant, he explained sardonically), reed and wind pipes, bells, stringed instruments of all types (one with a pig's bladder as a resonator). All were authentic pieces from his own collection, the most extensive on the island. He played with great skill, explaining with gusto the pagan revels in which the instruments were used. Could it be that in his words and musicianship I detected a secret longing for those days when the pieces in his collection were part of a living culture, even if a pagan one?
The images in my recollections become broader as I recall participating in special social events. Together with other Americans, I was invited to a festa given in our honor by the Coro "Melchiorre Murenu" di Macomer, a choral group named after the city's most famous poet. Men from all walks of life and of all ages have formed this organization to sing, mostly without accompaniment, the songs of the Marghine and Logudoro regions of central Sardinia. Since poetry also plays an important role in the cultural life of the island, many of their songs are settings of poems, including those of the man for whom the group was named. The singers' exciting blend of polyphonic voices performing folk and religious songs has been heard at prestigious international music festivals in Europe. Their performance for us was interlaced with the camaraderie of sharing good wines and cheeses; several of us even dared to join our voices to theirs in a few well-known American songs.
The coro represents one type of "male bonding," the strong social relationship between men, so prominent in Sardinia. A less formal aspect of this institution became evident when I was introduced to a group of men who met regularly at a caffe in Macomer for a morning cappuccino, an afternoon vernaccia (a potent wine), an evening acquavite. When it came item for the ployoffs for the World Cup in soccer, I was very pleased to be invited to join the group in watching the series on TV.
On those nights we gathered at the home of one of the men, in a large room with rustic beams and whitewashed walls decorated with brass objects, wool hangings, ceramic plates and jugs, animal hides and other items of traditional Sardinian life. We sat at a very long planked table on the chairs and benches that complemented the room's decor. It was styled like a typical taverna, of the type that Lawrence describes, but the particular taverniere who owned the room entertained only male friends in it.
We watched the ployoffs intently, of course, for soccer has been raised to the level of sacred ritual by Italians and, despite a tendency toward political independence, Sardinians are no exception. But there was a place for humorous repartee, especially when night after night it became evident that Italy had a chance to win it all. Each victory was relished, as were the pasta, cheese and wines consumed during the anxious moments of the partita. Our joviality became pandemonium the night that Brazil, the biggest obstacle to an Italian championship, was defeated by the Blue of Italy. The streets of Macomer, as everywhere else in the country, were filled with people in a spontaneous show of national pride.
"Viva Italia!" could be heard everwhere, and even the police rode through town with flags flying. The usually calm Sardinian night was overcome by a roar that lasted to early morning hours. A similar demonstration took place when Italy defeated West Germany in the finals, one of the most emotional moments in Italian sports history. Our group celebrated the grand victory with a lobster and spaghetti feast that will live forever in my memory. What a time to be in Sardinia. Even I felt Italian.
Another memory was provided days before my departure. At the invitation of a new friend, I attended a large gathering at his hunting-style lodge overlooking Macomer. It was a much larger setting than I'd seen elsewhere, the main room featuring a circular hearth for roasting on a spit and the second room containing a bar and storage for a large selection of wines from various parts of the world. On the hearth was the pecora, lamb. It was surrounded by an array of pates, cheese and fruit, all displayed with artistry. The festa was capped by a stirring performance of folk dances put on by a group from the town of Itirri, brought in for this occasion and accompanied by the mayor.
In traditional Italian fashion, our host insisted that we drink and eat heartily, leaving no food or wine unsampled. "Mangia! Mangia!" he said to one and all, but when he took me to the buffet and offered one of the cheeses, I could not oblige him. I stood before that particular delicacy with fear in my heart. The Italian equivalent of "Try, it, you'll like it" resounded in my ears as others joined the host in childing my reluctance. The words of my host were easier to swallow that what he had placed before me: formaggio di vermi, a creamy off-white cheese literally crawling with hard-working maggots.
Afraid to offend my host, I ate a piece. To my amazement, I survived. My Sardinian friends were delighted with their triumph. My host hugged me contentedly and went on to other social encounters. Fortunately, I did not have to face other culinary exotica -- raw boar's liver or granelli (the innocuous name for pig's testicles) -- out of Sardinia's wild past.
The exuberance of such private feasts is matched only by that shown in the numerous festivals held throughout the island. Many of these are religious and civil events dating back to seasonal rites practiced in antiquity.Besides nightly fireworks, almost all the celebrations include parades with horses and, perhaps, horse races. The Sartiglia (ring), the major event in the carnival of Oristano, has masked horsemen riding roughshod through the streets in quest of a ring, in recreation of a scene from Cervantes' "Don Quixote" as homage to the city's Spanish heritage.
The most notorious is L'Ardia, held in Sedilo July 6 and 7, which commemorates Constantine's victory at Ponte Milvio in 312 A.D. But the central feature of the festival has little to do with the historic event that provided the setting for the emperor's conversion to Christianity. What has made L'Ardia a unique event on the island's folk calendar is the cavalcade of horses ridden through the streets of the small town over and over at breakneck speed. Thousands of spectators throng the course to witness hair-raising feats of horsemanship. But every year, as the horses make ever faster, more reckless turns around the course, many people are trampled. For danger, L'Ardia is rivaled only by the running of the bulls in Pamplona.
These are the images of Sardinia I remember most vividly. With its unusual landscapes, its beaches and tourist resorts along the Emerald Coast, its rich archeological sites, the rugged people generous in friendship and in sharing, and, of course, unforgettable food, Sardinia is truly "an acquired taste," one I hope to savor again.