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Sailing to Sardinia

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Photo: Christopher Baker

Part Five: The Hour of the Old Women

The nearby village of Orgosolo, and the whole Barbagia region, is famous for several things. One of them is murals painted on the walls of buildings depicting the old ways of life, especially old women in traditional Sardinian black-lace headdresses—what you might wear to a funeral if you were a bride and also a nun. The other thing it’s famous for is actually living these old ways of life. After wandering the quiet streets in Oliena, and buying some excellent olive oil at the olive oil cooperative (socialist gastronomy at its best), I am sitting in the main piazza at a bar drinking coffee when I witness the Hour of the Old Women: from all the shuttered row houses, old ladies emerge in their funeral/bridal headgear and walk quietly through town. Some of them congregate at benches near me, lowering themselves creakily under a mural depicting old women in Sardinian headgear. Art imitating life imitating art.

Not more than 40 minutes away is the postcard version of a Sardinian inland town, Galtellì. Cobblestoned streets, countless baby churches (and a large, beautiful cathedral on the outskirts of town), all the buildings in the historic center preserved immaculately. There are also more tourists here than we’ve seen so far, taking pictures of what the island interior is supposed to look like (what it actually looks like: breathtaking vistas seen from cinder-block houses). At the foot of the town, outside the center, the quaintness gives way. We have a beer at a bar called Fena, which is actually a collective (socialist alcoholism at its best), where some of the shortest, saddest, drunkest men in Sardinia are whiling away the afternoon in big rubber boots still muddy from field work. They explain that Galtellì, and places like it, are dying. All the young people leave to go to school in the bigger cities of the island and never come back. These are villages of the elderly.

Part Six: A Bisected Pig

From here it’s less than an hour to the best restaurant in the region, Su Gologone, which is located in a hotel of the same name, the area’s finest. Before dinner we go for a hike nearby through the national park, for which the hotel is named. The park is dedicated to water, specifically one extraordinary spring that flows out of a great fissure in the rocks. It’s in a shaded nook, next to a sheer rock face, surrounded by ferns and moss and, possibly, enchanted goblins. At first it seems to be a pool that works as a perfect mirror of the high cliff above, until you realize that you’re actually gazing through clear water, hundreds of feet deep, into some chilly netherworld. It’s creepy, like some medium for time travel or mind reading.

The proprietor of Su Gologone, a spunky woman from Oliena who owns the place with her mother, says she believes the spring is a center of great cosmic energy. And she also says the water here makes the bread and produce and everything else taste a little better. The hotel is a “rustic” building (i.e., built in the local style to look like a big, white, very beautiful farmhouse) with a pool surrounded by hedges and extensive grounds with mature, fragrant plantings. When you walk into the restaurant, you can see the signature dish waiting to be prepared: baby pigs fed on wild nuts, sawed exactly in half with scientific precision and skewered on metal rods to be roasted. I eat pasta with wild-fennel pesto, and a very tender, very flavorful, very anatomically revealing cut of pork.

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