So you want to improve your knowledge of Sardinia and you are not sure how to do it. Or you think you know the island well enough. Read on and test yourself with my 20 things to know before you travel to Sardinia!
1. It’s a desert island. Or is it? From the plane you will have the impression of landing in a desert island where villages are small, far from each other and with a desert countryside in between. With slightly more than 1.600.000 inhabitants and an area of about 24.000 square kilometers, Sardinia (Sardegna, Italy) is possibly the Italian region with the lowest population density.
2. Get ready to gain weight. The overwhelming hospitality of the locals and our outrageously good food will conspire against your diet. Be ready, you will hardly be able to resist, both for the genuine ability to tickle your senses with food and wine and for the people’s unrelenting persuasion techniques. Want a sneak peek on traditional Sardinian food? Here.
3. If you are offered rotten cheese, don’t take it as an insult. It’s actually a local delicacy, and a rare one. Declared illegal a while ago, while now the casu marzu, or casu fattizzu depending on the area, is permitted, it remains not very easy to find mainly because it’s not very easy to make. As a matter of fact, to be genuine and authentic, it must be completely natural. First of all, the cheese shouldn’t be too salty, and it needs to bemade with raw (unpasteurized) milk and not treated with chemicals. This way, the milk retains all its natural enzymes which, combined with the “cheese fly” (Phiophila Casei), develop all the little flies that proliferate fast, form their little cocoon from which more flies are born and more eggs are dropped inside the cheese. The best way to preserve it is in a terracotta pot, closed but possibly ventilated and better if kept in a dark place.
The best season for the worms to develop is spring up to June and July because the heat makes worms thrive. Then, when temperatures start dropping, they go to sleep. Worms usually stay quite amassed so you can avoid them easily. In fact, the actual worms don’t really have any taste, they only serve to give the strong flavor to the cheese itself, so you definitely won’t need to do like many tourists who strive to look macho trying to catch the worms at all costs. Even though you don’t actually need to eat the cheese, this is definitely one of the things you should know before you travel to Sardinia that will definitely make you look as if you appreciate the local culture.
I tried it not long ago after more than 30 years of staunch refusal and I still have mixed feelings.
4. Do we speak Italian or Spanish? Maybe Latin. You will hear a different language more similar to Spanish than Italian. Don’t worry, you are still in Italy, it’s just the local idiom. Declared official minority language by the European Union and even listed in UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Sardinian is a proper language. In fact, it bears its own dialects that change depending on the village. From north to south, people speaking their strict dialect might not understand each other. I come from the center of Sardegna so probably mine being contaminated by all surrounding dialects allows me to understand everyone.
5. Are you ready to travel in time? Among the things to know before you travel to Sardinia is that you’ll travel in time repeatedly, ranging from modern towns to small villages where old traditions are still very much alive among adults and youngsters alike. Be it a reckless horse race tribute to an emperor turned into a saint, or a scary black masked legacy of a 2000-year-old ritual, every festival is the perfect excuse for the whole town to get together and catch up with what’s new, old friends we haven’t met for a while and to cherish our own traditions whenever we can.
6. Parties every other day. You will find yourself in wild parties when you least expect it. It might be Italians’ great love for food or Sardinians’ knack for parties, but every village has its own religious festivals, with some going on for days. Directly linked to the point above, if you are lucky enough to happen in the middle of a traditional celebration, enjoy the festive atmosphere and the good food, locals will be delighted to welcome you.
7. We make dinner for the dead. No need to panic for some creepy talks and practices such as making dinner for the dead, it’s a local tradition, not some satanic rituals. This doesn’t happen everywhere, but in some villages for the night of the dead between November 1st and 2nd the family prepare the dinner for their dead and leave it on the table all night. Apparently, this ritual should be respected only where it belongs, and rumors say it isn’t allowed everywhere.
8. Animals have right of way. Always keep in mind that when driving in country roads, cows and sheep have right of way. It’s been argued that in Sardinia sheep outnumber people and I have no reason to doubt that. Moreover, if we add the bovine body, you will really need to abide by the unconventional road law.
9. Go on a tour with a local bandit. Graziano Mesina will take you around his obstreperous village, Orgosolo, to admire Sardinia’s most controversial street art and feel the island’s proud character. Always very little prone to obedience and compliance to the rule, Orgosolo is the only place in Sardinia where Nato couldn’t manage to build a military base, and still today it’s possible to see the ghost town started by the army. Hot-tempered and little patient since the invasion of Piedmont’s former royal family, the Savoia, later become unified Italy’s first and last monarchy clan, Orgosolo’s townspeople always fought against the occupiers, earning this way the infamous nickname of “bandits” that they carried up to today. Not long ago a well-known bandit who was released from prison and is now holding tours around the village. Apparently he’s a very popular and fully-booked tour guide.
***Or was. Graziano Mesina has been arrested again and is now in jail. You can book his tour when he gets out.
10. The forerunner of euthanasia is from Sardinia. The tale of the old woman who “helped” the terminally ill die is not a tale, it’s true: she’s known as S’Accabadora (“the one who puts an end”) and was in charge of the local ancient tools for euthanasia. That’s right, she was an old woman, every town and village had its own Accabadora, nobody really knew exactly who she was, they just managed to let her know when she was needed, when the pain was too unbearable and when medicine couldn’t go any further. And there she was, arriving with her tiny little hammer ready to show mercy and give the sick person some relief and eternal rest.
Delving into this type of quirky traditions, of which the island is very rich, is definitely one of the most important things to know before you travel to Sardinia!
11. Discover King Solomon’s favorite fabrics. Sardinia boasts the last priestess of the ancient art of weaving the sea silk, popular craft of the Mediterranean countries dating back thousands of years ago. Her name is Chiara Vigo, she lives in Sant’Antioco, the small island facing Sardegna’s sourthernmost coast and she’s definitely one of the things to know before you travel to Sardinia. The silk, called “byssus” is a fine fabric obtained from the velvety strand of the noble pen shell, an endangered fan-shaped mollusk native of the Mediterranean seabed, where Chiara dives herself in order to get the raw fiber without killing the precious shell. The finished product would cost up to 500,000 euro, but like for every true legend, there is the trick: selling is off the table. Chiara and all her family members before her took a oath: the byssus cannot be sold nor used for personal gains, it belongs to everybody, just like the sea.
12. Women wear headscarves. Or they used to. And some still do. Among the things to know before you travel to Sardinia, in fact, is that you will very likely stumble on women wearing long black skirts and headscarves. You weren’t whirled to some conservative Middle Eastern countries, you are just experiencing some reminiscence of the Arab presence in the island’s past. There are different models, colors, shapes depending on the town, but the core principles are the same: long skirt, intricate and sophisticated jewelry, headscarf.
13. We have fairies’ houses and tombs of giants. For as uncanny as it sounds, these are Sardinia’s archaeological vestiges. Get lost in the myriad of fairies’ houses, giants’ tombs and sacred wells scattered all over the island, the remains of a lost civilization still shrouded in mystery. With new discoveries being made every day, such as the army of huge stone statues in Mont’e Prama, Prama Mount, called the Giants of Mont’e Prama, much of Sardegna’s ancient history is being re-written these very days. Overall, historians agree that native nuragic civilization was very advanced and pursued profitable trades with the other Mediterranean populations.
14. Look for the elixir of life. Sardinia is one of the places with the highest number of over-100 people in the world, and this blessing couldn’t miss the list of the things to know before you travel to Sardinia. You can ask any of the local old people about their secret to longevity, they’ll be happy to reveal it to you. They regularly blame it on the trend of the moment, be it the red wine, the Mediterranean diet or the village life. The trick, however, is well-known and involves all of them: a simple life, eating healthy, barely having dinner and a glass of red wine every day.
15. Carnival is not always a burst of colors and wild parties. In fact, in traditional Sardinia, it means scary ugly masks dancing around the fire all night. It might sound monotonous but it’s actually one of the most fascinating times of the year, and in some of the most traditional places festivities directly linked to our ancient heritage are more popular than modern pop-music-led parties. Should happen in Sardinia around February, don’t miss intriguing celebrations such as Mamoiada’s Mamuthones, a 2000-year-old propitiatory ritual to please the gods, and Oristano’s Sartiglia, involving acrobatic stunts from the horses’ saddles.
Like for the horse race of point #5, being aware of our habit to mix pagan and Christian beliefs is one of the things to know before you travel to Sardinia and will definitely improve your knowledge of the island!
16. It’s a small-scale continent. Roaming from village to village during your holiday in Sardinia, you’ll have the impression of being in a small-scale continent as you will find a different language, different dishes, different traditions and different mentality in each of them. That’s right, each town, even the smaller ones, will welcome you with its own costumes, festivals, products, handicraft and food, bearing as a common trait almost only the sense of hospitality.
17. The last species of Europe’s wild horses lives here. One of the things to know before you travel to Sardinia is that you are bound to find some ancient flora and fauna. The “Giara di Gesturi” plateau in central Sardinia is the natural habitat for these beautiful creatures. They are not ponies, just small horses, basically as small as they were 10.000 years ago. Protected by the regional administration, today their only natural dwelling is this Gesturi’s plateau. It’s forbidden to bring them food and to interrupt in any way their daily routine. Here’s a short video I shot when I went to Giara di Gesturi, trying not to get too close to avoid interfering with their wild living.
18. In Sardinia stones bleed and sing. At least when in the hands of unconventional sculptor Pinuccio Sciola. Visionary to put it mildly, Sciola makes stones appear alive. The true backbone of Sardinia and of the whole planet, . Here’s a short video I shot while Sciola was “playing” his stones that will make you revise your idea of minerals.
19. We remove the evil-eye. Not everyone, just the people with a “call”. Mostly women, sometimes also men, can cast a spell to protect you against the evil-eye someone delivered to you. There is no class for it, they were just born with a special gift. They have their own tools, which can be coffee or a stone. They strictly do not accept money because theirs is not a job. If someone asks you for money, don’t trust them, they are fake. Although I doubt in Sardinia they would, the “malocchio” (evil-eye) is something taken very seriously.
20. Not only beaches, please. Please. All the things above happen far from the beach. Think about it. I know, I know, Sardinia is an island. Surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea and with some 1.900 km of shoreline, it bears the heavy record of Italy’s most beautiful beaches (I’m Sardinian, allow me some bragging). Even though most of the tourists pour in in summer, limiting your holidays in Sardinia to its coast will greatly narrow the opportunities to delve into local life and traditions.
This is definitely on of the things to know before you travel to Sardinia so you arrive with some good alternative itineraries as a break from your beach time.