Italy > Travel Notes

Pagan Festivals of Sardinia | February 2015

The "Pagan" trip to Sardinia was fabulous, fascinating, and fun. Only offered every third year or so, this was a special Wilderness Travel trip, arranged by one of their great leaders, Stefano Baldi, who has a long love of, and great connections in, Sardinia. Sebastiano Leone, a smiling Siciliano, watched over the laggards on the trail (Alida) and tried to keep everyone in the group healthy and happy. 


Eight days of hiking, with visits to prehistoric Nuraghic towers and tombs in cork-oak groves and giant-fennel-dotted sheep meadows; 2-3-hour lunches AND dinners daily, some in private homes of Stefano's old friends; nonstop wine consumption; a hands-on pasta-making class in a lovely agriturismo on top of a hill; a traditional flatbread-making demonstration in a village home; a winery tour with excellent wines and a great meal; and at least four different kinds of pasta a day (somewhat more pasta than our unrefined palates can truly appreciate). PLUS, the focal point of the trip, crazy traditional street parties day after day in different villages.


In Gavoi, all the town inhabitants, infant to great-grandfather, dressed in traditional black and white, with charcoaled faces, beating dog-skin (or donkey or sheepskin) drums, playing pipes and accordions, sharing homemade wine from goat horns or plastic cups, paraded through the cobblestoned lanes of the hilly town all evening long. They were reenacting part of an ancient tale, when Zeus tried to hide his infant love-child (or lust-child), Dionysus, from his enraged murderous wife, Hera, by surrounding the baby with constant noise and music to mask his cries. 


In the most viscerally enthralling of events, in the village of Mamoiada, groups of men dressed in bright-red-jacketed military garb, some with expressionless white masks, wielded ropes and lassoed bystanders (especially young ladies) for a kiss, clearing the way for their counterparts. They were followed by teams of men, wearing long-haired dark sheepskin capes, with clusters of heavy bronze bells with bones for clappers on their backs, and coarsely-carved somber black wooden masks on their faces, stomping threateningly through town in dirge-like unison. Two separate guilds of men roved through town for hours until dark, herding masses of onlookers and creating an atmosphere of foreboding and darkness. Young sons of these men also participated, often in the lead, the traditional roles being passed down through the generations. Meanwhile, the crowds of spectators, many of them families with young children in a variety of costumes, wandered through the streets, visiting pop-up restaurants serving special holiday treats. Much wine is consumed. Groups of people in the main square linked arms and danced in a circle to traditional accordion music, played by a very talented teenage boy. 


In Santu Lussurgiu, pairs of beautifully groomed thoroughbred horses, their costumed riders with arms linked, thundered downhill through town on a black-volcanic-sand-packed street lined with local villagers, showing off their equestrian prowess. Their paired costumes ranged from traditional medieval to cowboy-and-Indian. There was a recurrent appearance of this western theme among the costumed children who attended these carnival-season events, to our surprise. 


On the west coast of Sardinia, Oristano seemed like a big city compared to the mountain towns we had visited. The streets were thronged with partiers who had come from all around for the Pre-Lenten festival. The culmination of festivities on Tuesday (Mardi Gras) was a jousting tournament, where men (and one woman) rode at full gallop down a sand-packed street, sword aloft, attempting to pierce a metal star suspended on a string above the course. The target in the center of the star is a hole about an inch in diameter, so it requires much practice and skill to achieve this. The participants and their entourages wear medieval satins and velvets, and parade ceremonially down the street before the tournament begins. Each rider's attempt at the star is preceded by a warning call from trumpeters stationed along the course and accompanied by the thrumming of a large band of drummers. The more stars that are gathered, the better the harvest will be the following year, so all successes are greeted with jubilant cheers by the audience packed into grandstands on the sides of the course.


On Ash Wednesday, Ovodda, another mountain village, celebrated the wildest and most contemporary of the street parties we attended, though there were many references to tradition as well. The main street was filled with colorful, imaginative, thrown-together costumes; partiers leading goats and donkeys festooned with flowers or bundles of bones through the throngs in the streets; incredible rowdiness and friendliness at the same time; people smearing your face with a sticky concoction of olive oil and charcoal, then offering plastic cups to share their homemade wine from plastic liter bottles. Everyone is participant as well as spectator. There is dancing in the main square, alternating between traditional circle-dancing to accordion music, and jumping around to disco. With a lively performance to the popular anthem "Y.M.C.A.", a personal favorite, I was able to thoroughly mash a unique and fragrant mixture of donkey-shit and bubble gum into my vibram soles. Young men smashed a small caravan-type trailer to smithereens while dragging it through town, then set it on fire and threw it over a bridge into the river, followed by some burning couches and mattresses (which unfortunately seemed to have been treated with flame-retardant). This led up to the peremptory trial and sacrificial burning of a giant effigy of Don Conte, who is held responsible for all bad things that have happened in the village for the past year. Gives a whole new meaning to "Burning Man"! What a night!


Ciao! Alida+Christopher