Shepherd Gioacchino, seen here in rural Medio Campidano, has been tending flocks for 60 years. Goat’s milk, which is rich in zinc and selenium, is believed to boost the immune system and promote the long, healthy lives enjoyed by islanders.
Sardinia – Long Read

Ruggedly beautiful, with a deeper, darker secret

Photo by Francesco Pistilli

Sardinia – Long Read Ruggedly beautiful, with a deeper, darker secret

Hello Sardinia, the Italian Mediterranean island so different from the motherland that it supports a vocal independence movement. A reputation for sunny beaches brings summer visitors who often fail to discover the year-round charms of a ruggedly beautiful interior that also holds a deeper, darker secret.

Teo Butturini
Teo Butturini Travel Writer

It is early in the morning when my ferry docks in Olbia after the 11-hour crossing from Genova. So, in the best Italian tradition, I stop at a bar for an espresso and am soon talking to the barman, Marco.

“You picked a good time to visit Sardinia,” he says. “Now, in spring, everything is green compared to summer, when rain is scarce and the landscape turns yellow. If you want somewhere quiet, go to Santa Teresa di Gallura and then on to Capo Testa. This time of the year you won’t find many people around. Once there, ask for directions to Valle della Luna (Moon Valley). It’s more or less an hour’s drive, but well worth it.”

Outside the window, the vegetation is lush and the expanse of green is broken only by a lonely house or a small town. The panorama both in the interior and on the coast is amazing, a never-ending series of small beaches and valleys shining between the rocks like hidden gems. Many friends have told me how beautiful Sardinia is, as it’s a popular destination for summer holidays. I can see they were right. But those of my friends originally from the island have also warned me that it’s just one side of the coin. Under the image of this island as a summer paradise lie problems such as a lack of opportunity and, in some places, heavy pollution, problems that made it difficult for them to build a future here.

Despite Marco’s words, finding the valley turns out to be not that easy. After a few wrong turns I meet a local who points me to a gate on the side of the road, hidden in the vegetation. He tells me to follow the track behind it.

Small bushes cover a landscape that is dotted here and there with rocks, carved by the wind into gently curved shapes. As I near the sea, the rocks dominate more and more. One looks like a face screaming, and I am to discover that more such faces appear throughout the day, as the direction and intensity of sunlight changes and shadows move. At the bottom, the valley opens up and ends with a small beach. The water is amazingly clear, bright turquoise, and it’s easy to see the bottom even well beyond the shallows.

I leave only if winter gets too cold

Walking between the rocks I find a small hut and meet Giulio, also known as Gora, a man in his 60s but whose eyes shine with a light that makes him look much younger.

“I live here now,” he says, “I leave only if winter gets too cold. It’s a sort of hermitage for me, even if in the last few years the place has been getting too crowded and noisy during summer months, with youngsters that come to rave. That’s not the real spirit of the valley. Before it was always very quiet, a place to meditate and enjoy nature in total freedom. This change is creating some tensions between the older residents and the new ones, but we try to live in peace.”

At the age of five he left Sardinia, together with his family, heading to Milan where it is easier to find a job. The family did well, but he always felt like he had lost his homeland. During the 1970s, he was close to Italy’s left-wing community, but left for Mexico when things started to turn violent.

“I traveled in Chiapas for some time and then I moved to India, where I joined the Hare Krishnas and learnt about meditation,” he says. “Since then my life has completely changed. It was as if I started having my own revolution, a completely peaceful one, starting from myself, inside myself. And then I decided to come back to my homeland.”

Sardinia has this wild side that seems to inspire people like Giulio. I meet another on the ferry taking me to the tiny island of Asinara, off north-west Sardinia. His name is Enrico Mereu and he is the only official resident. Asinara held a maximum security prison until 1997 and Enrico worked there as a guard. When it closed and the island became a national park, everybody left – except for him.

“I’m in love with this place,” he says, “It’s the only place where I feel at home. My wife and daughters love to stay on the mainland, but after a while I feel the need to come back and stay here, better if alone. Some people come here and they can’t wait to get out. A day on Asinara, with the silence, is already too much for them. But for me, it’s home.”

Why not take a swim?

Enrico creates beautiful sculptures using driftwood. He takes me to see his collection, kept in a cell of a former jail above Cala Oliva, near his house. There’s a huge statue of St. Francis, valued at hundreds of thousands of euros, and other smaller creations. “I choose only the pieces that send me a message,” he says. “It’s as if I can see from the very first moment what sculpture will come out of it.”

We drive along the coast, passing Cala Sabina and other small beaches nestled between the rocks. The color of the water is absolutely amazing, especially at sunset, and nature is wild, with small green bushes and strange plants with vibrant red leaves. As we stop, Enrico says: “I’m going over there to see if the current washed any wood ashore. Why not take a swim?”

The silence is absolutely perfect as I walk into the water. It’s slightly cold, small fish are everywhere around me and, as I look back to the shoreline, there’s an albino donkey, common on Asinara, staring back at me. It’s just like being on another planet, in perfect harmony with the wild nature that is everywhere around me. I’m already falling in love with this place, and I can perfectly understand Enrico’s feelings. Loneliness never felt so good.

We spend the evening cooking some pasta allo scoglio and grilled fish, drinking Vermentino wine made by a farmer friend of his and talking about Asinara. “Did you notice that red plant today near Cala Sabina?” he says. “It’s called Euphorbia, and is slightly toxic if you scratch it on your skin. Once we had a prisoner who was new to the island, who used it as toilet paper when we were working in the fields. After ten minutes he started screaming, because his testicles had swollen as big as oranges. Don’t forget it.”

Our people have been uprooted

Sardinians have the reputation of sometimes being closed with outsiders, but offering real kindness and hospitality once you get to know them. A friend puts me in touch with Cristiano Sebino, a member of the independence movement, who is no exception to this rule. We meet in Porto Torres and he drives me to Sassari, his hometown, for lunch in a small restaurant. We enjoy coppa steaks and Ichnusa beer, the Sardinian staple. Then the waitress serves some Mirto, a typical local liquor made from fruit very similar to blueberries, usually brought to the table after the dessert or the coffee.

“Sardinia is advertised as a paradise, and partially it really is,” he says. “There are beautiful beaches and wonderful food, lush woods, hills covered with olive and grape trees. But on the other side there’s a hidden Sardinia where the Italian government place 70 percent of the military bases of the whole country, which pollute the land and are closed to the people who always lived there. When I tell you about the levels of heavy metals in the water under Porto Torres, you’ll be shocked. Our people have been uprooted from their traditional way of life and, once the party finished, they’ve been left with nothing.”

As we drive through the interior of the island, we stop here and there to visit old churches and enjoy the countryside. In the small provincial towns, I notice that a generation is somehow missing: I can see kids and older people, but it’s as if the youth has been decimated by war. They’re not dead or ill, though. Like many of my Sardinian friends, they left to study, either in Sassari, Cagliari, or on mainland Italy, and seldom come back to their birthplace. Lack of opportunities keeps them away in the hope of a better future.

They became linked to the carnival

Franco Maritato is in his late 30s. I meet him in his shop, called Caratzas, where he carves and sells Merdules, the traditional carnival masks from Ottana. “The masks come from Sardinia’s Bronze Age Nuragic and pre-Nuragic traditions,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to ever know their true origins, but they were likely part of the agricultural rituals. That’s probably why they became linked to the carnival, which falls right before the time when the fields are prepared for sowing.

“Sardinia has always been a great place for shepherds and farmers: life was difficult, but the land gave us everything we needed to survive. After World War II there was a big project to industrialize the island and to exploit the subsoil by mining, activities that radically changed the culture of the people and created heavy pollution in some areas. Once those activities became too expensive and less fruitful, all the big companies pulled out, leaving behind unemployment and economic depression. That’s why I quit my job as an industrial worker and started working on my own here: I wanted to rediscover the traditions of my homeland. They are the only thing that will save our people and our land.”

He invites me for a pre-dinner beer, another taste of the legendary Sardinian hospitality, but the ritual becomes longer then I expected. I’m introduced to more and more friends, who give endless tips on how to enjoy the rest of my stay. More than two hours, and lots of beer bottles, pass before I can leave the bar.

The town’s gold mine closed in 2008

Furtei is a small town 50 kilometers north of Cagliari. Cristiano has recommended I come here to see the dark side of this island and meet with Angelo Mascia, also a school professor and former major of Sardara. He is the author of L’isola dalle vene d’argento, a book about the history of Sardinia narrated through the history of its mines. The town’s gold mine closed in 2008, leaving a legacy of pollution with heavy metals.

He drives me into the hills outside the town, until we reach a hole from the open-cast mine filled with blood red water. “This liquid is waste from the mining, it’s contaminated with mercury and cyanide,” he says. “A foreign company acquired the mine in 1997, and eventually failed. It’s quite scary to think that Furtei is just a ten-minute drive away. The company says that the situation is under control and everything is safe, but it’s difficult to believe them, as you can imagine. There are many places like this, here in Sardinia, that have been heavily polluted because of the neglect of the people that used to run them.”

The description of paradise being just next to hell comes to mind, and it’s hard not to agree with those who believe that only a return to tradition can take this island back to prosperity.

We found a way out of this problem

Pietro Lilliu waits outside his house in Ussaramanna, in the center of the Marmilla, and welcomes me with a strong handshake. We go for a drive on a dirt track up a hillside to have a look at his vineyards.

“We don’t have much rain in this part of Sardinia, but we found a way out of this problem,” he says. “It took some years to prepare the soil, but now it’s dry only on the surface, while underneath it’s still humid. Can you see?” He kicks some soil loose and brings a handful up to my nose. It smells like moss and mushrooms. “This smell means that the soil is alive. We started with organic agriculture, and then switched to a mixed approach. Now we never use chemical fertilizers, just a little bit of systemic antiparasitic if really needed. I don’t even give water to the plants. Sure, my harvest is smaller than others’, but the sweetness of the fruits is unrivaled.”

The production, in fact, is just 20,000 bottles a year, but I have to admit that the results are absolutely incredible. We try some Cannonau, a typical Sardinian grape variety, here vinified in rosé instead of the traditional red. We pair it with some local guanciale, a cold cut made with the cheeks of pork. It’s amazing to think how a few simple things – wine, bread and some pork – can be so delicious, if made with love and patience.

“Let’s try something special, that is not yet for sale,” he says, walking to the cellar. “I had the idea of making a traditional passito with Moscato grapes, but I wanted to test some new things I had in mind for a few years. Basically we stop the fermentation using just a very small amount of sulphites, combining them with other techniques. The result is a very balanced wine, not too sweet, and with just a trace of the chemicals that sometimes give headaches when drinking a little bit too much.”

I have to look for perfection

Not too sweet, I just love it even if usually I’m not a fan of passito wines. It’s a perfect sample of what this land can produce when a local like Pietro, with his imagination and determination, takes care of it. I ask him to sell me a bottle of it, but it’s impossible to convince him. “It’s too early,” he says. “It’s 20 years since I started with this dream. If I want to do better and better I have to look for perfection. It has been hard, me and my wife wanted to do much more, indeed, but unfortunately we didn’t get the cooperation we expected from the local government. This land has so much to give, if we take care of it and stick to the traditions.”

When I ask him if he supports the independence movement, he looks at his wife Roberta and they both start laughing. “Let’s say we’re neither independents nor ‘dependents’. We are non- dependents. I think we don’t have to leave Italy, but at the same time it’s absurd that Sardinia imports 85 percent of its food, when the land is so rich.”

I stop above the Giara di Gesturi to enjoy watching cavallini, the distinctive small horses brought here by the early Phoenicians, running in the wild. Some of them drink at the paulis, the ponds that during spring are full of flowers, while an amazing sunset colors the clouds in shades of red.

Looking at this beautiful but delicate countryside, I realize how easy it is to change such a place into a dead zone, as has happened on the hills above Furtei. It’s hard not to agree with people like Pietro or Cristiano and Franco, who ask for more control over their own land, especially when the present policies are depriving Sardinia of its youth. Like any paradise, it has a lot to offer if we can just treat it right.

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