Ancient cultures of northern Sardinia
by Elizabeth Willoughby
On a bus heading south from Sassari in northern Sardinia, I'm listening to my Russian guide, Natasha. Unlike most Sardinians, she is tall and white-skinned with long blonde hair, but like the locals, she talks so passionately about the island's north region, you can tell she loves living here and will probably never leave.
Right now she's describing (in English) the unique attributes of the nuraghe we're heading to: It dates from the Bronze Age; it's one of the best examples of a nuraghe that has been excavated; hundreds more remain underground and others have been picked away over the last century and a half, the rocks used to outline field boundaries and as material to build the north-south main highway of the island.
On she speaks enthusiastically into her microphone with her list of facts, and the whole time I'm wondering, "What is a nuraghe?" Of course it was mentioned in my agenda, but I haven't read that for weeks and forgot that there would be things to see and do other than consuming the excellent cheeses, breads, meat and wines produced around Sassari. I should just ask her what this thing is that she's talking about, but I'm too embarrassed since I should already know.
After an easy 30-minute trip, the bus stops at the Nuraghe Santu Antine (in Torralba), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and now I know. A nuraghe (pronounced ner-Ah-gay) is a conical, stone tower dating from the Bronze Age and they are found around this island, which has been inhabited since the Neolithic age.
In the Middle Bronze Age (circa 16th-15th centuries BCE), 'tholos' nuraghi appeared with tall, round keeps surrounded by an outer wall. Built without mortar, towers were formed by setting rings of stones one upon the next, the largest rocks at the base and each successive row being slightly smaller in circumference, layer upon layer, until there was only a small hole at the top, which was covered by a capstone. The shape is reminiscent of a really big bee hive.
The Nuraghe Santu Antine at Torralba is an exceptional example because it is one of the largest and most complex, and much of it is still intact. Outside of the central tower, a stone wall was built in the shape of a triangle, and beyond that is the partially excavated ruins of a village with small, circular dwellings. Within the triangle's walls is a well in the inner courtyard, and covered passages surrounding the tower's ground floor room. Within the tower walls, a spiral stairway winds 360 degrees around it, with an entrance to a chamber around the halfway point that has natural lighting and a bench, and then the staircase continues to the second level. The third level, which would have made the structure 25 meters tall, no longer remains, but the view from 17.5 meters looks out across misty fields and other nuraghi ruins.
Nuraghi are thought to be military and civilian fortifications built to protect and control land and resources. An archeologist's interpretative sketch of a reconstructed Nuraghe Santu Antine portrays a structure that appears to be a fortress, with a round tower at each corner of the triangle connected to each other by the thick stone walls serving also as walkways. There is still a lot of speculation about the constructions and the people that built them, but the ruins offer clues. As well, the excavated stone figures and bronze statuettes – depicting things such as a tribal chief carrying a scepter, a woman holding a slain man, a soldier with a simple weapon, a warrior with complex weaponry, and other weapon pieces, symbols and animal figurines – have helped researchers begin to unravel some secrets of the nuragic society.
Another ancient ruin about 40 minutes north, on the other side of Sassari, is Monte d'Accoddi, a prehistoric step pyramid from around 4000-3500 BCE. What is left is a long, stone ramp leading up to a base, and containing different types of constructions that occurred over different periods. Open to the public today, it makes an interesting stage for performances.
On this particular day is a performance by the Koi Cantando Danzavamo modern dance group. It depicts an antiquated ceremony where villagers donned androgynous scary masks (mamuthones) to keep the devil out. Wearing dark cloaks, and lumbering awkwardly and creeping unnaturally toward the audience, the dancers appear menacing. This line from Sergio Atzeni's novel of the history of Sardinia, Passavamo sulla Terra Leggeri, explains the ritual: "When we saw the enemy coming from the sea, we went on tall stilts and moved our arms to scare them away."
Other points of interest:
• Nearby Monte d'Accoddi is Ristorante Li Lioni, the perfect place to break bread. Besides a traditional menu, guests can instead partake in a menu of bread dishes – there are over 400 types of bread on Sardinia. Li Lioni's bread menu includes Pane Zichi as a main course with tomato and meat sauce, zuppa Gallurese made with Pane Tundu from Osilo, Pane Frattau made with Pane Carasau that becomes Pane Guttiau once you add oil, salt, and rosemary, ... along with quality wines of northwestern Sardinia.
• Visit Castelsardo a few kilometers northeastwardly up the coast. This 12th-century Mediaeval town is a must-see. Steep twisting roads and staircases wend their way around and in between homes and shops up to the Castle of Doria, overlooking the sea and port. If you're lucky, the Gregorian choir might be practicing in the church just downhill from the castle.
• On your way back from Castelsardo, dine alfresco at La Risacca, an excellent seafood restaurant overlooking the waters, and be ready for a feast. You can't eat any more fresh and local than this. Many of the offerings are extracted within a kilometer off the coast, and accompanied by wine made from vines 500 meters away that are said to hint of aromas of the sea and the land. Start with an appetizer plate of swordfish with aubergine, prawn with tomato, and artichoke with old ricotta, oil, and fish roe. Then try award winning oysters from San Teodor in the northeast, just south of Olbia. Next comes fregula with vongole (pasta with clams) and vegetable soup. A fruits of the sea plate should follow, with calamari, fried veggies, and Mediterranean prawn and fish, all lightly breaded and grilled, plus homemade tomato sauce. Save room for dark green ravioli (the color is from cuttlefish ink) stuffed with shrimp, rosemary, vongole (clams) and artichoke sauce, and then a plate of squid, dorado fish, Mediterranean prawn (langoustine) and lemon. A plate of sliced fruit, including pineapple, melon, strawberry, banana, kiwi and persimmon (sharon fruit) is the sweet ending to the feast. Plus limoncello, naturally.
Le Ragazze Terribili originally produced the modern dance production for the Festival Abbabula.
Learn about the Sassaresian cinofra, an enviable attitude towards life.
How to visit Sardinia? Try this inbound tour operator: Visit Sardinia
Images, video and article ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2015
This article was originally published at Examiner.com 2016
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