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Delving into Sardinia's history and heritage

Over the millennia, numerous communities have left their mark on Sardinia, marking its mineral-rich landscape with stone circles, burial sites and extraordinary mining towns

By Julia Buckley
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:20 BST
The Strait of Bonifacio
The Strait of Bonifacio
Photograph by AWL

Do you know about the fluidi — the fluids?” Alessandra Ragnedda asks in the middle of our chat about Alessandra’s hometown, Arzachena, just above the glittering shores of the Costa Smeralda. Up here in the mountains, tourism has never really been a thing. Until the past few years, that is, when, little by little, people have started to trickle up from the beaches, drawn by the astonishing prehistoric remains littering the uplands around this little town.

In her sandwich bar close to the 6,000-year-old burial site of Li Muri, Alessandra has been telling me how good it is for Arzachena that visitors are heading inland, and how proud she is of her town. This is a theme in Sardinia — I’ve rarely met people as excited about the place they live as here. And Alessandra is sure her pride was shared by the people who settled here during the Iron Age. “These people were more sensitive than us,” she says.

Sardinia is awash with mysterious stone circles, sacred wells and monuments that trace the path of the stars and catch the moonlight on the solstice. “For them to have chosen a place like this, means they saw something in it,” says Alessandra.

How you feel about all things spiritual, she says, will depend on what you make of the fluidi — energetic, fluid-like forces said to be emitted by the rocks making up the necropolis. If you don’t believe in them, you’ll see a whirl of four stone circles, which once surrounded semi-spherical burial mounds, each brushing imperceptibly against the next.

But if you do, you might feel a healing energy pulsing from the stone, Alessandra says. One visitor, she explains, told her it had calmed their anxiety. A basketball player said the stones cured his back pain. Others have prayed here. And although Alessandra hasn’t felt anything herself, she still believes in its restorative powers.

As for me, when I get there, I don’t feel anything. But then, I’m rather distracted by the setting: the 6,000-year-old graves, each marked by a small menhir — a prehistoric gravestone, archaeologists think — and the stone caskets between them, ready to be filled with supplies for the afterlife.

This is a rippling plain, covered in màcchia mediterrànea — scrubland scented with wild olive trees, juniper, mastic and Sardinia’s signature myrtle. Behind us are outcrops of boulders, as rounded and white as cotton wool balls. In front, the ragged mountains that rear up behind the Costa Smeralda. The clunking of sheep bells comes from somewhere among the màcchia; birds tweet from the bushes. It’s a scene that’s as Sardinian as it gets.

The island is known for its beaches, of course. “Like the Maldives,” said my colleague, who’s been to both places. But to see Sardinia through its beaches is to ignore the spirit of it. Since invaders always came by sea, life has always been lived inland.

Sheep in Perdaxius
Photograph by Getty Images

Cultural roots

This is an ancient land. Geologically, it’s older than the Italian peninsula. There are no earthquakes here; volcanoes burned out millions of years ago, too. Sardinian isn’t an Italian dialect; it’s a language of its own. And although the island has been occupied by various forces: Spanish (they still speak Catalan in Alghero), French, Piedmontese and finally Italian, the culture that started out with those stone circles has survived the whole way through.

Arzachena is one of several centres of prehistoric culture. This is the island of the Nuragic people — mysterious Iron Age clans who littered the land with strange conical towers called nuraghi, usually surrounded by a ‘village’ of circular buildings. Drive along the single north-south motorway that cleaves Sardinia in two, and either side of the road you’ll spy them: sometimes piles of rocks, sometimes sagging valiantly, often standing proud, as sturdy as when they were first built.

There are said to be 10,000 of these structures left, although the best preserved is at Barumini, a UNESCO World Heritage Site set between conical hills east of Oristano. Su Nuraxi is a sprawling village, built around 1700 BC and discovered fully intact. Nothing has been restored, the guide tells me, leading the way through stone huts towards the central, bastion-belted tower. Its drystone walls are so robust they’ve never collapsed. We wind along the ramparts, down through an internal spiral staircase and feel our way into the corner bastions through dark, winding corridors. It’s like a castle from a gothic fairytale.

Barumini may be the jewel in Sardinia’s archaeological crown, but with its coachloads of visitors, there’s something curiously un-Sardinian about it. Because the island really isn’t a place of mass tourism — at least, not inland. Rather, it’s a place of slow, thoughtful travel: where you might stay in a remote agriturismo, eat local food, and wander unimpeded around world-class archaeological sites that anywhere else would be teeming with visitors.

Which suits it perfectly, because this is an island of mystery. An ancient tomb isn’t just a tomb, here it could be a ‘giant’s tomb’ (a large stone chamber with oversize menhirs marking the front) or a ‘fairy house’ (a small hole in rocky land used as a grave).

Near Sassari, I visit the Monte d’Accoddi, thought to be a ceremonial altar dating back to around 4000 BC. This being Sardinia, though, it’s not just any altar; it’s a roughly square, layered pyramid with the top nipped off, accessed via a long ceremonial ramp that, according to archaeologists, is a dead ringer for a Mesopotamian ziggurat temple. I walk up the ramp; it’s embedded with bits of shells left as offerings to the gods 6,000 years ago. From the top, the landscape unfolds beneath me: fields, mountains and what would, on a clear day, be the sea.

Most astonishing of all is the Pozzo sacro di Santa Cristina, a sacred well, built in around 1100 BC, in Oristano province. In the middle of an olive grove, a triangle has been cut into the ground. Twenty-five steps lead into the abyss, the stone cut so smoothly it seems machine-sanded. As I reach the spring at the bottom, the walls squeeze in like an MC Escher sketch. A sphere of light pierces a skylight — it’s through this that the moon has blazed every solstice for the past 3,000 years. There’s a strange, sci-fi feel to the hushed chamber. On the other side of the olive grove, in a glade of Tolkienesque trees, is a ruined Nuragic village, drenched in moss, buildings sprouting up amid the màcchia.

The ties to the land go deep in Sardinia. Being an island, the people here have had to be self-reliant; and that makes for a culture that treasures the earth. “We have the oldest olive tree in the Mediterranean,” says Francesca Minaudo, my host at Agriturismo Il Paradiso in the south west. I assume she’s joking — until I get to Villamassargia and see the signs for S’Orto. Here, on a plain between two mountain ranges, is an olive grove like no other. It’s not unusual to see centuries-old olive trees in Italy, of course; but it is unusual to see an entire grove, their thick, whorled trunks dividing, reaching out and up, striking dancers’ poses in the dusk.

Planted by monks between 1300 and 1600, about 700 remain today. And across a track, in a field to herself, stands the queen of them all: Sa Reina, the size of a mature oak. Green-leafed and bushy, branches spilling out like cheerleaders’ arms, she’s the same height as a three-storey house, her thick, wattled trunk the largest in the Mediterranean. Her every fold is a sculpture in itself: an eye here, a cat there, a stretched-out face like Munch’s Scream. The sun sets behind her, tingeing the mountains pink.

The Cavalcata Sarda parade on the Piazza Italia in Sassari
Photograph by Alamy

Industrial heritage

Although this is an island where humans live to the rhythm of nature, Sardinia also has an industrial past. There have always been lead, silver and zinc mines here — the Greeks called this ‘the island of silver veins’ — but the industry really took off in the 1930s, centred around Iglesias and Carbonia.

Of all the things Sardinia has to offer, fascist architecture is the one I least expected to be impressed by. Yet here I am in Carbonia, mesmerised. In front of me is a Roman-style theatre, framed by classical columns. Beyond it is the main square, a modern reconstruction of Aquileia’s 11th-century bell tower, a graceful art deco box of a theatre, a grand, brutalist-style square colonnade outside a former working men’s club, and a threatening, dark, square tower (the former party headquarters).

Italians coyly refer to this architecture as being in the ‘rationalist’ style, but there’s no mistaking its fascist roots — especially in Carbonia, founded by Mussolini himself. Sanctions imposed after the dictator’s invasion of Ethiopia meant the country’s coal supplies dwindled. Italy needed to become self-sufficient, fast — which is how a mediocre seam of coal in southwest Sardinia came to be earmarked as the country’s power source. The regime’s finest architects were engaged to build a new city for the workers.

The town is extraordinary: blocks of flats and posher houses spiralling out from the main square, the skyline dominated by two ‘square colosseums’ like the ones in Rome’s fascist EUR suburb. But it’s the museum set in the former site of the Serbariu coal mine that really opens up the island’s history.

The ‘lamp room’ — where miners once got changed and collected their lamps — houses exhibitions about Carbonia and the people who worked there. A huge, train station-size building — intended to be a jewel in the crown of the fascist regime — it’s an impressive display of glitz, designed by the architect responsible for Rome’s Termini station. The terrazzo flooring is like that of a Venetian palazzo, sunlight floods through the art deco windows, and the walls are clad in marble — even the worktops where the lamps were handed out are marble.

The largest coal mine in Italy, Serbariu closed in 1971, but a kilometre-long stretch of tunnel is open for tours. Museum director Mauro Villani, whose grandfather worked here, leads me down into the bowels of the museum, and then into the shaft. “There are seven floors below here,” he says, just as my claustrophobia is kicking in.

The tunnel displays a range of mining techniques, from the dangerous early years of Serbariu to cutting-edge modern methods. The smell of sulphur wafts up from a pile of coal chiselled from the walls; Mauro points his torch down a back-breakingly low shaft, where the workers — nicknamed ‘mice’ — lay on their backs to chip away at the walls. Political prisoners were dispatched here by the regime, he says — following in a tradition of mining slavery that dates to Roman times.

In fact, the saint who brought Christianity to Sardinia was one of these slaves: Antiochus, a North African doctor, condemned to work in the lead mines on an island five miles west of Carboni, which today bears his name: Sant’Antioco. Here, underneath the cave-like Romanesque basilica of Sant’Antioco Martire, are catacombs dating back to the Phoenicians who lived here in the sixth century BC. This is, legend has it, where Antiochus preached in secret, and where he died, too (a sarcophagus purports to house the saint’s body). There are regular tours during opening hours.

It’s only a few steps below the church, but it’s muggy — “it’s 90% humidity,” says my guide, as I fan myself. She takes me past niches originally used by the Phoenicians and co-opted by the Christians. Some have traces of wall paintings — a rainbow above an arch here, remnants of a shepherd and a sheep (an early Christian motif) there. There are amphorae that formed part of the death ‘dowries’ the Phoenicians placed in graves. One niche, edged by scarlet-and-white alabaster columns, is fourth century — too late for Antiochus, who died 200 years earlier — but clearly created for a VIP.

I’m still wondering who it belongs to when, across town, I climb up to the tophet — the sacred Phoenician burial spot reserved for infants. Eager to cast their enemies as villains, the Romans claimed tophets were places of child sacrifice. But research shows that, rather, they were places of mourning; yearning, too, in a society where eight out of 10 babies didn’t survive infanthood.

Parents would cremate their dead children at the foot of this outcrop, then wedge the ash-filled urn in a hollow in the rock. Women would lay sculptures with exaggerated feminine features — either as an offering for a dead child or to give thanks for a birth.

Compared to the rest of Italy, the Romans hardly feature in Sardinia, due to the surfeit of other cultures that thrived here. The exception is Tharros — a Phoenician settlement turned Roman citadel, on a thin peninsula jutting off the coast near Oristano.

It’s an extraordinary sight. I wander around, treading on grooves made by 2,000-year-old wheels, past the baths, temples, sewers. Only a third of the city has been excavated so far, so I perch on a Roman doorstep on the main street, imagining what could lurk beneath the màcchia.

That’s when I see it — my first fabled Sardinian beach. On the other side of the bluff are people basking in the October sun. The sea is Tiffany-blue, the sand creamy. It rubs up against the dunes underneath another tophet and a barely visible nuraghe tower.

Yes, I think, I get the Maldives analogy; why the beaches are so special. But I’ve seen a different Sardinia. And the whiff of a myrtle bush pulls me back to the màcchia.

Q&A: Laura Sedda, archeologist & guide

What makes Sardinia special?

Sardinia has the highest number of archaeological sites of any Italian region. The island also has unique cultural aspects — you can only see nuraghi (conical towers) here.

In addition, we have Roman and Phoenician cities, medieval castles and mines. Being in the centre of the Mediterranean, Sardinia was colonised due to its important strategic position, for its forests, and for its minerals — the Greeks called it ‘the island with silver veins’. It also has a wealth of Romanesque churches.

We have an Italian influence, but unique characteristics. Because of our isolation, we’ve kept ancient traditions — musical instruments like launeddas, which are 3,000 years old, and a carnival that has pre-Roman origins. We also have endemic flora and fauna.

Why are Sardinians traditionally so proud of their culture?

It’s a very beautiful land, and you find yourself creating a very strong link with it. And because we’ve had a difficult past, with suffering, poverty and colonisation. I think that has made our feelings of identity stronger.

If a visitor wants to try to understand the island, where should they go?

I’d say don’t miss the mining area around Iglesias and Carbonia; Barbagia and the entroterra [the mountainous inland], where you can still see women in traditional dress; and Ogliastra, whose forests finish at the crystalline sea. Then there’s Tharros and the Sinis peninsula — I could go on and on.

What is there to do in the mining area?

Now the mines of Iglesias are closed we’re discovering a beautiful area, with a wild, underdeveloped coastline. You can travel miles without ever seeing anything made of cement: just nature, the sea and old abandoned mines — places like Masua, Buggerru and Piscinas.

Which is your favourite cultural site?

I think the nuraghe of Santu Antine at Torralba. The hypogeum of San Salvatore near Tharros is a magical place — you feel an extraordinary spirituality. And Mont’e Prama is a special site.

How to do it: Sardinian Places has seven nights at Hotel La Playa in Alghero, B&B, including flights and transfers, from £655 per person.

Essential Sardinia has double rooms at Villa Asfodeli on the Bosa coast near Tharros from £80, B&B.

Agriturismo Il Paradiso near Carbonia has doubles from £75, B&B.

Year-round flights to Sardinia include Air Malta to Cagliari from Gatwick and easyJet to Alghero from Luton.

Published in the Sardinia 2019 guide, out with the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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