article first appeared in IOL -South African Independent Online on Europe / 30 March 2010, 12:34pm /
Re-write all the history books. I have discovered the Straight Tower of Pisa. It’s true. The Pisani, as the folk from Pisa call themselves, can build as straight as a die. And, no, I’m not indulging in the exquisite Vernaccia di Oristano and standing at a tilt myself.
I’m sitting in the grand Piazza Roma in the heart of Oristano, one-time capital of Sardinia. Bar Arru makes it hard for customers watching the fashionably dressed passing parade. The freshest Italian coffee, gelato to die for or an icy-cold Ichnusa beer topped by a small serviette to keep the summer heat out. Too much choice.
My eyes are riveted on the setsquare straight tower centre stage in the piazza, jutting 19m into the Mediterranean-blue sky.
Life in Oristano was once ruled by the toll of its ancient bell. Pisani builders laboriously erected the Tower of Mariano II or of San Cristoforo – two names popular in Sardinia – in the 13th century as part of Oristano’s new fortifications. A good idea as everyone wanted a piece of the prosperous city – Phoenicians to Saracens and finally the Spanish moved in for a couple of centuries. The Sardinians got their own back; their king became King of Italy after unification. History lesson over.
Time to join the evening passagiata along the Corso Umberto – previously Via Dritta – where retail therapy has been honed to an art form. Smart clothes and stylish shoes in elegant window fronts, art galleries, a music shop, local handicraft and gift shops and fine dining. Browse, pass the time of day and pull up a chair at a pavement cafe for more coffee and an irresistible mustazzolus or two.
I noted down the recipe for Sardinia’s oldest sweet biscuits. The passagiata pauses in the Piazza Eleonora, ready for the return stroll. Steps and seats to rest and space to kick a ball. All under the watchful eye of Eleonora d’Arborea, whose statue stands outside the neoclassical town hall.
Known as Sardinia’s Joan of Arc, the hand of the 14th century queen clutches her Carta de Logu which revolutionised women’s rights across the island. Under her talented watch, Oristano ruled most of Sardinia, standing firm against the invading Spanish.
Not far away, where her family were buried, stands the mighty Duomo Cathedral, its onion-domed bell tower an icon of the city’s skyline. Built in the 12th century on top of a Byzantine temple, a major facelift in the 18th century gives it a Baroque look and feel.
Still standing in a side chapel is a delicate wooden 14th century sculpture, Annunziata, by Pisa’s Nino Pisano. Apart from two names – Aristanis is the Sardinian version – Oristano has two sites.
It has lived 4km or so from the Gulf of Oristano for more than 1 000 years. Before that, the local bishopric called Tharros, or Tharras, home, on the stunning Sinis peninsula which the citizens abandoned after too many visits from unfriendly Saracen pirates.
It was the birthplace of recycling. The Phoenician town made its appearance in the 8th century BC and was recycled by the Romans, who added some straight-as-an-arrow roads. The Sardegna with a mix of Vandals and Byzantines were the final recyclers. An old saying goes: “They’re bringing cartloads of stones from Tharros.”
A clue to where the building blocks for Oristano originated.
With the blue Mediterranean by your side, stroll by the ruins of thermal baths, temples and the trademark Corinthian columns in Tharros. Shivers up your back – guaranteed. I almost missed another treasure where the ARST bus stops – the 5th century sandstone church of San Giovanni di Sinis, the oldest Christian building on Sardinia.
The bus skirts the extensive Stagno di Mistras, where the lucky will see the livid pink flamingos, the protected area teeming with birdlife. I recognised the village of Cabras on the way though – where some quick-draw Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s were shot.
Enough of the hard work.
I deserve a plate of pasta and grated bottarga, the Mediterranean caviar. A delightfully rich flavour, made from the roe of mullet which fill the Gulf of Oristano. Another mullet must, if it is on the menu, is mrecca. The fish is boiled, rolled with zibba grass and dried. For contrast, can you resist the gueffus, the almond balls wrapped in brightly coloured tissues? Wash them down with a glass of Malvasia, the straw-coloured wine which, I reluctantly admit, is strong. Food for a king or queen. So that’s why I saw a smile on Eleonora d’Arborea’s face.
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