We left Alghero right after breakfast and drove to our hiking site. We were to hike across private land. Though our guides anticipated difficulty starting the hike, we had none. Fortunately an inhospitable landowner had had a change of heart. We got a slow start though, trying to decide whether to carry along rain gear. Mine is very small, but I did have to go dig in my backpack to find it.
With this group, you do not want to be at the tail end when they get started! Some of our companions are very seasoned hikers and off, up the hill, they charge as soon as they get the okay. I have mentioned that going up hills, especially long, sustained uphills, is not my forte! The main group would stop to let us stragglers catch-up and them immediately head off again, before we could even catch our breath. Eventually the leaders took some of the strugglers to the front and the whole column slowed down. That helped me get my breathing under control and also meant I had time to occasionally snap a photo. Since the weather is not ideal for carrying a big camera, I have been toting my phone. (you’ll notice the difference in the photo dimensions.
Our hike sends us up the flanks of a dormant volcano, Monte Ferru. along the way, we surprised a small group of cattle. The young, red bull was skittish, but the grande dames just shook their bells. Once at the top, where we stopped for a picnic lunch, the views around us were beautiful. We could see long valleys and slopes covered with plantings. This is wine country. Off in the distance is the sea, shining and shimmering, even though our day is not overly sunny.
The best thing about lunch was being able to just sit and enjoy the view, to be thankful that the opportunity to sit on top of a mountain in Sardinia was even possible, and to bask in the friendship and comradeship of people who were doing the same thing.
For me, again, the going down was easier. We were mostly walking on wide paths, so we could form little groups and chat as we went along. At the base, where we would meet our vans again, was a natural park. We saw large family groups out for a Sunday afternoon picnic under the trees.
For us, there was an enchanted grove of trees, covered in moss, with benches and tables of stone. Grapes and cheese tastes divine when you have been hiking for hours!
Rested and ready for more adventure, before we went to the hotel in Cabras, we stopped along the way to see an important nuraghic site.
The site is called the Nuraghe di Santa Cristina, as there is an early Christian church and novena village at the location. Near Paulilatino, the site is best known for its well temple. The veneration of water was a central theme in the religion of the nuraghic people, and here, it is accompanied by mystery and the occult. The temple and its well are underground. There is a hole in the ceiling over the well – and at each 18 year, one month and 2 day interval, the moon shines directly through the aperture on to the water.
Access to the underground well is via an interesting staircase, built with blocks of stone laid just so, one on another as to create a descending entrance without the use of mortar. The site is important for the excellent state of its conservation, as well as its size; it is one of the largest.
The well was very crowded with tourists when we arrived to see it, but groups descended in an orderly fashion so that everyone could go down and experience the mystery of the structure, and think about the people who built it. Above ground, there are the ruins of walls that demarcate the temple, separating sacred areas from profane areas. We could not see the shape of it from ground level, but we could get the feel. The diagram, above, gives you a good idea. In the research I did on this temple site I found a drawing of what a cross section of the temple looks like: Imagine the side view of a Sherlock Holmes-type pipe: A long stem (the staircase) down to a bowl-shape (the well). Put a little conical hat over the pipe bowl, with a hole at the very top of the cone. That’s how the structure is shaped underground!
We did not visit the novena village (we will see one tomorrow in depth) and we also did not see the actual Nuraghe di Santa Cristina, which is in a field nearby. I suggest you visit them though, as you may not see these at other points in your trip.
Our hotel in Cabras is the Acquae Sinis. Billing itself as a hotel difuso, the rooms are spread out in four (as many as I saw) locations. The building we are in has about 7 guest rooms, a common room (where we had our pre-dinner glass of rosé) and the pool; the main reception building has at least one guest room, and the roof terrace where we ate our breakfasts and where we had our first dinner. Another building was next door to the church, whose bell tower dominates the sky in this part of town, and another was across the street from ours and had a long garden that I only saw via flashlight! We got in a few extra steps in walking back and forth to breakfast as our building was about 3 blocks from the main reception building. The idea of this diffuse hotel is intriguing, especially in the era of Air B&B and small boutique hotels. It certainly allows for a lot of individuality!
Our room is capacious and comfortable. Unfortunately, in this part of Sardinia, or maybe it is just the weather of the last few days, nothing dries overnight. Clothing is not so much a problem, as we packed with redundancy, but my swimming attire and towel are just hopelessly damp. Others are also complaining, too. But, so far there is nothing else that merits a complaint in Sardinia!
Our dinner, as I mentioned earlier was up on the terrace of the hotel’s reception building. Like a large gazebo, the building has plastic walls that can be rolled up when the weather is fine, extending the space to the uncovered terrace too. As our group is quite congenial, our meals are always fun, and the food is always quite good.
We had breakfast on the roof terrace of the hotel. Lightning was flashing out over the water, and thunder rumbled around, threatening. We changed our plans for the morning; though it had not started raining yet, it was forecast, so our hike was postponed for a few hours. The good news was, that this allowed us time to visit the Civic Archeological Museum of Cabras, a treasure!
From the outside, the building doesn’t look like much, though there is a wonderful stone figure (a fertility symbol?) in the front yard. Inside, this is one of the nicest small museums I have visited, and definitely head and shoulders above my expectations for regional museums. Our introduction to the collection was given by a young woman who really knew what she was talking about. She made her presentation to us in Italian with our guide Stephano translating. She gave us a brief history of the times and the sites covered in the various rooms of the museum, which are arranged chronologically by the dates of the sites. It is an excellent view of the early history of this region – Cuccuru is Arrius, Sa Osa, Mont’e Prama, Tharros and the island called Mal di Ventre (Stomache Ache!).
Here, we found artifacts from the archeological digs at sites in the area – tools, pottery, beads, etc. that helped to flesh out the civilizations who built the nuraghe. The items are captioned only in Italian, but if you cannot figure out the use of the item by its shape, you can probably work your way through the Italian words, or figure it out from the context. Everything is beautifully displayed with perfect lighting. There are also grape seeds – evidence that grapes were grown and domesticated as early as 8th century BCE.
The most impressive items in the museum are the so-called Giants, I Giganti of Mont’e Prama. These are figures of stone, slightly larger than life-sized, that were found in pieces. Experts have reassembled statues from over 5K fragments and the results are striking. Almost all the figures are of men, boxers, archers and warriors to judge from the items they are holding. It was remarkable that this burial site focused on only this class of people (young, manly men). Why is still a mystery.
The giganti were hidden away for a long period of time, again no one knows precisely why they were put into the basement of the museum and never revealed to the public, but they do know who did it…don’t you love a mystery? (I do!) Now, some of these statues are on display – you’ll see the pictures below. They are arresting – especially their eyes – which look like the prototypes used for CP3O in Star Wars. As part of their display there is a poetic exhortation to the viewer to feel the power of these figures and search what they are trying to tell us. I liked that call to inter-action.
Another important find in the museum is the cargo of a Roman ship that sunk off Isola Mal di Ventre (the name may be a mis-interpretation of Mali Venti or Bad Wind, though ironically it could be the same meaning…). The cargo, coming from Spain consisted of almost a 1,000 lead ingots.
While we were in the museum, it rained hard, but by the time we finished, we could see the sun and plan our hike for the day. So we loaded up our vans and headed out to explore the Sinis Peninsula.
We started our hike in the village of San Giovanni di Sinis, a small beach community surrounded by gorgeous spiaggie (beaches). Our first stop was the village church, also named for San Giovanni di Sinis, a paleo-Christian church built in the 5th century, the second oldest church on Sardinia. From the outside, it looks like no style of architecture I have ever studied, but inside you can see that it may once have been a Greek cross plan (four arms equal size), enlarged to a Latin cross (long nave with transept), and finally squared-up with the addition of side aisles. Definitely, take a look inside. Despite renovations in the 10th C. very little has changed since then!
The area around Cabras is dominated by the largest lagoon in Europe, the Stagno di Cabras. There are other smaller lagoons, or ponds, in the area, too. The lagoon is brackish water, but connected to the sea so it is salty enough to support the salt water fishes that are common in the diet of both Sardinia and Corsica. The flooding of the lagoon maintains the water level and brings in new fish to the gene pool. Fishing is a major source of activity and income for the people who live near here. The lagoon also means there is lots of ground water, so agriculture is also important. We saw artichoke fields, but had to take it on faith that rice is also grown here.
And, this area has been fertile and important since ancient times. Tharros, an archeological site we could see from our hike, began as a nuraghic village. When the Phoenicians arrived, they built up a colony. Subsequently, it became a Carthaginian port and, finally, a Roman city. I was disappointed that I did not get to walk among the ruins (on the list for the next visit), but we could clearly see the town and its layout from our walk on the hill up near the 16th century watch tower.
Here is a funny story about Tharros: The iconic element of the ruins of Tharros are two columns – made of modern cement. The story goes that the excavating archeologist needed more funds to continue the work but the powers that be (probably in Rome) were cooling on the site as it was not producing much of significance. The archeologist built the columns and set an ancient capitol on top of one of them, sent the picture to Rome and, voila! More funding!
The town was eventually moved inland, to the current location of Oristano, for defensive purposes. You can see from the pictures that it was vulnerable by attack from the sea on all sides.
The area is lovely. Once again, the emerald and sapphire waters of the Mediterranean stretch to the west, gentle waves dance along the rocky shoreline, and lap against the pocket sand beaches dotted here and there. The waters of the lagoon, like a lake, reflect the color of the sky, a deeper, stable blue. Green vegetation and golden sand provide the perfect color contrast.
Today really was a day of small discoveries. I had an aha moment! I had been reading Grazia Deledda’s Canne al vento before I came on the trip, to practice Italian and to get into the mood of Sardinia. In the book I was confused by a description of a festival, where the women were in little cottages and the children were playing in a square; young people were courting and there was dancing… I thought it quaint and odd, nothing I remembered from living in Italy had shown me anything like that, and though curious, I hadn’t followed up.
Well, this particular afternoon we also visited a novenario (what I earlier called a novena village). This is a little community of rustic accommodations – small houses lining a large open square. The focus is a small church dedicated to a saint. For the 9 days leading up to the saint’s feast day, the little village fills up with people. Now I know that this is what Deledda was describing. I listened again to that portion after seeing such a village and the whole passage came alive.
The one we saw was dedicated to San Salvatore. Under the little church is a nuraghic well, much like the one we saw yesterday, but smaller in scope and surrounded by other chambers. This underground structure had been many things throughout the ages including, perhaps, a prison. There is graffiti on the walls – quite interesting – purported to be ancient – but oddly not protected from defacement.
This village and the festival associated with it is marked by a race called the Corsa degli Scalzi (The Barefoot Race), a re-enactment of an ancient legend associated with saving the sanctuary’s Christian statues from invading Saracens.
Today, in this novena village the houses are privately owned and serve as second homes – the beach is nearby. In others, the houses may be owned by the church and rented out to pilgrims. Traditionally they were only used for the nine days of the novena and remained empty for the rest of the year. Here, today, most of the houses are closed up, one is undergoing repairs and updates; some are well cared for, others seem a little sad.
For lunch, we head to a seafood restaurant nearby and we are served a sumptuous lunch of all different kinds of fish, notably a whole mullet grilled with herbs. Mullet is a fish I have rarely eaten in the US, but especially in Sardinia we have been served it often. It is a white fleshed fish, mild and tasty. It was fun to dust off my rusty whole fish boning skills… I only had a few bones in my bites. (I am working on finding the name of this restaurant … pazienza!)
The first dish was an antipasto made of chopped celery and bottarga (mullet roe), a specialty of this region. Reactions to the roe were mixed; I didn’t try it because of an allergy to black caviar which makes me wary of all fish roe. Just as if we were real Sardinians, we dallied over our abundant lunch, and only quit the table after coffee and mirto. (Mirto is an after-dinner drink made from myrtle and really just too tasty, but also hard enough to knock you over the edge. In the interest of staying awake during the afternoons, I have given up both wine and mirto at lunch!)
We went back to the hotel after lunch and the group split up. Gerry had a massage. Two of the other women and I put on our bathing suits and headed back to the area we hiked earlier this morning for a swim. The water was a little wavy but so refreshing! In the shadow of the 16th century tower, swimming is a treat one doesn’t get to enjoy in many parts of the world. This was my chance and despite my aversion to wearing a bathing suit, I wasn’t going to miss it.
The afternoon was getting on toward 5:30 pm when we finally returned to Cabras; shortly after I returned, Gerry came back from his massage, needing a nap. We made plans for dinner at 8:10 to meet up with members of our group, so, ready early, he and I took a passeggiata and walked along the edge of the lagoon. There was a sunset of sorts, but the real interest was the pre-teens – young (!) love and all that stuff; boys over here, girls over there, just one couple flaunting decency, everybody with his or her bike! What must it be like to be a kid in a small Sardinian town!
We met our friends for dinner and after finding our first choice closed, asked a local man for a recommendation and ended up at a place called “I Giganti.” Our waiter, Paolo, was fun, the place was very busy and the service relaxed. The food was delicious! Gerry had fettucine allo scoglio, fettucine with mixed shellfish which he found excellent, the rest of us had malorreddus, home-made pasta that looks like little flat shells (not to say little beetles) with beef ragu. It was also very good. We eat so much on this trip that a small portion with the flat Sardinian bread called carasau or Carta di Musica (sheet music) is really all we need. Except, that we also need to share a bottle of wine!
It was a wonderful day.
Just one more installment for this trip – the final one. Plus a bonus: Thoughts about the trip.