Sardinia/ travel essay by Carole S. Ford

Sardinia

We were lost in Abbasanta after receiving some arcane directions from the car rental company when a kind person led us to the correct turn. Soon after a brief delay, the result of a traffic jam caused by a flock of sheep crossing the narrow country road, we arrived at our small agro-tourism hotel in the mid-western part of the island. 

The Mandra Edera, still a working farm even after its conversion to a hotel, is set amidst cork and olive trees. It’s so named because the owners breed championship horses. Mandra means stable in Sardu, the language or dialect—it’s controversial—is the closest language to Latin that is spoken in the world today. The hotel is perfectly situated to explore the island’s rich history. 

The first people who lived in Sardinia were the Nuraghe. While there is no written record of this civilization, there are numerous artifacts dating from the neolithic, which tell a great deal about this complex society. How it came to an end, however, is not known. Since then, the island has been inhabited by Phoenicians as well as numerous Europeans including Romans and Greeks, Italian principalities, and the Catalan house of Aragon. It wasn’t until unification in the 1870s that Sardinia became a province of Italy.

On our first morning, Barbara, the hotel manager, booked private tours for us with an archeologist who would take us to see some pre-historic sites, and then with a historian who would guide us around Caligari, the major southern city and Capital of the province, and its surrounding area. Our plan included cooking lessons and wine-tastings, perhaps some horseback riding lessons.

On that first day we drove southwest to the little town of San Giovanni di Sinis where we saw some traditional and particularly interesting fishermen’s houses. Now abandoned, they’d been constructed from wood and reeds which were made into a kind of thatch that covered the roofs and walls of the houses. We were told they’d provided excellent insulation. 

From there, we continued on to Tharros, the remains of a Roman city that sits on a spit of land overlooking the Mediterranean, the Capo San Marco. The view was stunning on this clear and bright day. Tharros had been originally built around 730 BCE by the Phoenicians on the site of a still-inhabited Nuragic village. It was subsequently taken over by the Romans who expanded it into a sophisticated Roman city with baths, temples dwellings, a commercial area with millstones and baking ovens, an arena, and a necropolis. It had amenities such as cisterns and a drainage system, and paved pathways. As we wandered around and walked through the remains of some of the houses, we were profoundly moved by the idea that we were standing in the same place where others stood—living, breathing, working—thousands of years ago. 

There is much more to explore in Tharros than we were able to see since only about one-third of the area has been unearthed. Archeological digs are still fairly recent in Sardinia as they only began to explore ancient sites around the mid-twentieth century. 

When we headed back to the hotel, we knew that a wedding party had moved in. The ceremony would have already taken place, but the guests were staying overnight and we’d been invited to dinner. Because we thought we had plenty of time, we decided to take a brief detour along the way to see flamingos that were nesting on a nearby beach. We followed a route that had been marked for us on a map, which seemed straightforward enough—until the road came to an abrupt end and we ended up spinning our wheels deeper and deeper into the sand. The saga that followed of trying to get unstuck involved a group of sympathetic teenagers from a nearby high school who were certain they’d get the car out—until they couldn’t. A tow truck also got stuck in the sand, but its patient driver ultimately prevailed. 

By then we were sure we’d be late for dinner, but we got back to the hotel in time for a marvelous, joyous celebration. Dinner was wonderful: two vegetable antipasti; two pastas; a roast suckling pig served on a giant cork board and, finally, a dessert that would remain one of my favorites and which I learned to prepare a few days later. It was made with layers of liqueur soaked sponge cake called bagna di pasticceria; the layers were separated with a filling of thick whipped cream blended with melted chocolate, and then the cake was dusted all over with cocoa powder. It was the first of our memorable evenings at Mandra Edera. Every night was a dinner party with friends, with Steve acting as host, but even better—someone else was doing the cooking. 

The next day Alessandro, an anthropologist and tour guide, picked us up for a visit to an ancient Nuragic settlement near Abbasanta where we had our first sight of the truncated, cone shaped structures, nuraghe, from which that ancient civilization got its name. There are over 7,000 nuraghe in Sardinia; the earliest examples consist of single towers built of stone, without mortar. Later the nuraghe were expanded to serve as both dwellings and fortresses. The most complex were walled-in villages with multiple towers in their midst. When we clambered after Alessandro into a nuraghe through a low opening in the wall we came into a large chamber with alcoves off to the side. Then we climbed to the top of a staircase, again mindful that it had been used by those who lived in this bygone civilization some four thousand years before. It was the same feeling we had visiting other ancient sites but no less wonderful.

The following days were filled with a visit to the city of Caligari and drives around the island. In Caligari, we were met by another tour guide, Paola, a historian and former school teacher who showed us the sites of city such as its cathedral, and then took us to the archeological museum which we were eager to visit after our day of climbing around Nuragic sites. We had lunch at a waterfront restaurant where Paola recommended two typically Sardinian dishes: fregola, a type of couscous served with tiny clams, and culurgiones, Sardinian ravioli with a touch of mint in the cheese and potato filling. They were both delicious. 

We had tickets to see a violin prodigy perform a Mozart and Mahler concerto later in day, but Paola said we had enough time to see the salt-flats on the outskirts of the city and be back in time. And it was there that we finally saw the breathtaking sight of dozens of nesting flamingos.

After a wonderful, but jam-packed day, we were happy to get out of the city and back to the Mandra Edera without incident. We’d enjoyed the days we spent with our tour guides but were glad to have the remaining days to spend on our own, exploring the island, its mountains and seaside.  The two areas are in stark contrast with each other. The landscape of the interior is very unforgiving. Boulders, strewn by glaciers, cover the countryside. Sometimes you’re not sure if you’re looking at a sheep, or a huge stone until it moves. Brownish-red cows graze on the mountainsides seeming to negotiate a 90° angle. The drive along the sea, lungomare, on the western coast to the city of Alghero was totally different but quite spectacular as was lunch of lobster drenched in garlicky olive oil and lemon juice.

In the evenings we were treated to enjoyable dinners and wine tastings. My cooking lessons helped prepare the meals on our last few nights at the hotel. One night the chef, Mauro, let us make the wonderful torta I’d enjoyed at the wedding feast and learned how to prepare it. We made meat pies, empanadas (the same in Spanish) and prepared asparagus and wild mushrooms which Mauro had picked, trusting that he knew what he was doing. Along with our meals, Danielle, our host, treated us to local wines: a cannonau, a very young vernaccia, and a nieddera.

 Dinners were very companionable and festive. Steve continued to be at his most entertaining, so much so that Danielle asked us to come back for the summer. We were sorry we had to decline his offer: to Steve for a job as a social director while I would have been sous-chef. 

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Read more travel essays by Carole S. Ford in previous issues of Lightwood. Click on Search.

Carole Bell Ford is a Hudson Valley writer. Her books include The Girls: Jewish Women of Brownsville, Brooklyn 1940-1995 (State University of New York Press). The Women of CourtWatch: Reforming a corrupt family court system (University of Texas Press, 2005) was selected by the national organization, Justice for Children, as an outstanding work. After the Girls Club: How teenaged Holocaust survivors built new lives in America (Lexington Books) was published in2010, and in 2013 an essay “Letters from Riverside,” based upon letters written by a young, mid-19th century feminist, was included in the award-winning anthology A Slant of Light: Contemporary Women Writers of the Hudson Valley. (Codhill Press, 2013). Her newest book, On and Off the Beaten Path: The best road trips in twenty years of travel in the U.S. and Canada, is available through online sources or through Lightwood.

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