Sardinia’s Wild Heart Beats in Barbagia

The isolated mien of the island of Sardinia is compounded by its insistence on keeping to itself and shying away from mainland Italy. The Sardinians do not repose faith in Rome. Their grouse is that they have been sidelined, rather monstrously. A politician who doubles up as a tour guide, the vivacious Enza, told us about the political climate of her country as she drove us in her trusty old car through the winding mountainous roads of Barbagia. I was enamoured of that dramatic landscape. Villages with their bevy of granite houses and terracotta roofs sat comfortably in valleys that seemed to have been scooped out of limestone mountains. Swathes of green pastures were dotted by ponies and prehistoric stone towers, herds of cows ambled along the roads as if they were out for a stroll, and often rows of wine and myrtle orchards showed up, standing upon modest patches of land. Myrtle, the aromatic berry that stains your fingers a deep purple if you squish it, and which the Sardinians use to make a fine liqueur called Mirto.

In this primitive part of the country that derives its name from Cicero — the Roman orator had dubbed it the ‘land of barbarians’ because the Romans had tough luck here — the mountain people cleave to the Sardinian language even while it is slowly being replaced by Italian elsewhere on the island. Here where they make their living from the land, where milk and sheep’s cheese are staple diet, where gnarled olive trees add character to the craggy surroundings, where bandits still rule strong in villages like Orgosolo, and where shepherds chant songs around fires, it is not unnatural that carnivals exist and that they are a window into times past when pagan rituals were a way of life.

Shepherded by Enza and her cousin Giampaola to a museum in the town of Nuoro, we were introduced to the traditional black ensemble of men and women. The Museum of Sardinian Life and Popular Traditions turned out to be a small affair but packed with details that transported us to another world. I was repulsed, and at the same time, strangely drawn in by the theatrics of the carnival costumes. People in older times surely knew how to work their imagination.

Men dressed in sheepskins, cow bells and ominous-looking masks, enacting the eternal battle between good and evil. In the agrarian culture of Barbagia, it made sense that the carnivals had their roots in Greek rites dedicated to Dionysus, the god of vegetation. They signified the end of winter, and invoked the gods to bless the land with fertility. People indulged in sacrifices and orgies. They dressed like animals and danced wildly after drinking plenty of wine.

Emerging from the confines of an old world recreated within the museum, we found the town of Nuoro to be quietly photogenic. It sat at the foot of Mount Ortobene. Atop it stood a statue of Christ the Redeemer, as if keeping a careful watch upon the life of the few thousand inhabitants of Nuoro who live around its narrow streets in traditional stone houses. Because it was furiously cold that March, the usual windy conditions on the island exacerbated by the northwest wind called the Mistral that blows in from France, we winded up in a small café in Nuoro. I look back upon that moment and smile at one of those apparently trivial memories. Nothing earth shattering. Just four girls chattering over a cup of coffee each and the beginnings of a lovely friendship.


Nuraghe, ancient towers belonging to the mysterious Nuragic civilisation 
Nuraghe and chapel
Orchards around Barbagia
Myrtle berries
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The Museum of Sardinian Life and Popular Traditions
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Fragrant rosemary shrubs
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Traditional costumes of women in the villages of Sardinia
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Dolls in traditional gear
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A child’s garb
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Mamuthones (men in black) and Issohadore (fellow in red) from the village of Mamoiada. The origins of these masked figures are unknown. The Mamuthones, in their vests of dark sheep fur and copper bells and grotesque wooden masks with giant hooks for noses, command a spooky presence. It is almost as if they are checked by the presence of the Issohadores in their red tunic, embroidered shawl and black bandolier. They walk together in processions that end at bonfires in the village that has had the Mamuthones and Issohadores for as long as it can remember.
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Boes and Merdules from a carnival in the town of Ottana.  The men in their white sheepskins, accessorised with plenty of cowbells, wear two kinds of masks. The Boes wear ox-like masks and the Merdules those of old, deformed men. These were part of rituals, meant to protect man against evil spirits. The Merdule served as reminders to man – to overcome his baser instincts and retain his human identity.
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Thurpos (meaning blind or crippled). In Orotelli, a town in Barbagia, men with their faces painted black and dressed in black overcoats, cowbells dangling from shoulder straps, roam the streets during its agrarian carnival. They are allegorical figures representing the triumph of the weak over the powerful, the eternal tussle between farmers and landowners.
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The Mamuthone in profile

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Streets of Nuoro

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  • carolinehelbig

    Thank you for showing me a part of Sardinia that is so different from the Sardinia I conjure up from postcards and narratives from my sun-worshipping German relatives (not that there’s anything wrong with sun-worshipping). These towns look exquisite (especially love your streets of Nuoro photo). I must say that those are some of the most frightening costumes I’ve seen (those masks and hooded figures…enough to give you nightmares).

    • dippydottygirl

      They are rather wild, those costumes. I would run for the hills if I saw the figures in person. Thank you for indulging me, Caroline. It is a rather fascinating side to this country which is otherwise known for its posh beach resorts. These villages are not like little time capsules. xx

  • InspiresN

    Fascinating post and photogenic places indeed ,it is interesting to read about the traditions and see the various costumes of those days, the sheepskin one and others must have been so labor intensive to make.

    • dippydottygirl

      They are odd things. I am glad they were just dummies and not the real thing! Thanks Jamie. My photos were a bit too tinted in those days but too late now to do anything about it. Except return 🙂 xx

  • josypheen

    I have always wanted to visit Sardinia, mostly for the food, but this region founds fascinating and fun to visit too!

    So, what are myrtle berries? What do they taste like?

    • dippydottygirl

      I remember and also this that you got hold of marvellous sunny weather while I caught the worst of its winds! 🙂

      • kasiawrites

        We were there in August so chances of good weather were high. It was still windy. I think it’s always windy there! 🤷🏼‍♀️ I’m sure it was still stunning!

        • dippydottygirl

          You are right, it is always windy. I wonder if it compares to Chicago! Since I have not been there I have no idea but I hear such tales about Chicago’s windy climes.
          It was stunning, quite brooding, and we had the island quite to ourselves because it was off-peak season. Blue skies would have made for perfect beach weather, but well, more reason to return! xx

  • lexandneek

    Barbagia is such a fascinating place! I can only imagine how it must be to encounter a procession of supernatural – looking beings marching down the peaceful streets with a cacophony of ear splitting bells. Would love to see that! 😉 Wonderful post! Neek

    • dippydottygirl

      It would be spooky and thrilling, right? Quite an experience in itself, I am sure, and might make me believe in the reasoning of the people who could conjure up such frightful visions 😉 Thank you Neek! I appreciate you lending your imagination here. xx

  • Osyth

    There is much to be said for being true to oneself and not adhering to what one is told one must join to. These people, this place is a shining example of real self-sufficiency – that which means your minds are not molded by whatever the authorities (in this case the church in Rome) says you must do. I love the wildness, and I love the simplicity that shines through your writing of this very evocative piece. Xx

    • dippydottygirl

      Thank you Osyth. I fell in love with it too…that simplicity of Sardinia which was completely at odds with what I had heard of it as the playground for the famous.
      How is the process of the move coming along? xx

  • Sheree

    Fascinating! Our short road trip in Sardinia merely hugged the coastline, we didn’t venture into its heart. However, looking at those masks and costumes, maybe that wasn’t so bad. A lovely tale and gorgeous photos as always – thanks for sharing.

    • dippydottygirl

      Tee hee those masks would give me a proper fright if I witnessed the carnivals in person — though I think it might be quite the experience too. The coastline is a solid dose of beauty and I cannot raise my eyebrows 🙂 Thank you Sheree! xx

    • dippydottygirl

      Haha Diana, thanks 🙂 They could travel to Siberia and possibly keep warm! Possibly being the keyword here. Hope you are well. xx

    • dippydottygirl

      Happy Easter Jo! Are you heading somewhere for the bank holiday? We are planning to head to catch the Easter Parade in NYC and scoff a few chocolate eggs 🙂

      • restlessjo

        Sounds great. 🙂 🙂 Been giving our UK house a little much needed TLC before the estate agent gets here. It’s wet outside and I tend to avoid Bank Holiday crowds. No need when you have all week. But if I were in the Algarve there is a magnificent Flower Torches procession on Sunday.

        • dippydottygirl

          Flower torches! Stokes the imagination. I shall look it up. Your heart is all the Algarve’s 🙂 Have fun anyway. It is wet at our end too and I am hoping it clears up with sparkling skies this weekend.

    • dippydottygirl

      Thank you Annika 🙂 You are most kind and the food would probably thrill you just because it is different. xx

  • TheresaBarker

    It seems so ancient, the landscape and the countryside. And then you’re in the village or the town and you see the stone buildings with iron railings, which seems timeless. The costumes! They seem like something from a movie. Wow. 🙂

    • dippydottygirl

      I quite fell for the quaintness of those stone houses and the wrought iron work. And well noted on the costumes, they do look so theatrical that you would be forgiven for thinking that they were conceived on the sets of a play/film. xx

  • oldhouseintheshires

    Those costumes?! Games of Thrones springs to mind (sorry). They are scary, no? I imagine Sardinia to be all beaches and sunshine so it’s lovely to see a different side to it for a change. I’m purging your posts all on one Sunday to catch up -how lovely!

    • dippydottygirl

      Thank you for the Sunday attention 🙂 My blog is feeling the extra love. Sardinia is indeed lovely beaches and sunshine too. I have so many posts from there but going to put them up slowly.
      Oh yes, those costumes are certainly ominous. I can imagine them in GoT 😉 xx

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