article by Stephanie Ravanelli first appeared on the Guardian Sunday 1st May 2010
There’s only one way to see Sardinia’s wild interior, and that’s with the shepherds who tread its ancient trails
“Shepherds are distrustful of new people – you have to earn their respect,” whispers Piero, my tour guide, as he introduces me to Toni, a weather-beaten pastore (shepherd) from the Sardinian highlands. “They may not say anything but they’ll be observing – to see if you pass their test.” Toni glares at me with wild hazel eyes as I, in turn, stare out nervously from the 1,020m-high Passo Silana on the limestone massif of the Supramonte.
Virgin forest stretches below us and underground rivers spew forth from the cliff face. Far to the south are the snow-capped peaks of the Gennargentu.
Less than three hours from the white-washed houses of the Costa Smeralda lies the rugged mountain wilderness of the Barbagia, in the province of Nuoro.
Dominated by the vast expanse of the Supramonte, the region offers remote villages, endless flocks of sheep and, for those who want an alternative to the cosmopolitan ambience and expense of the coast, an immersion in the simple shepherd culture.
The best way to explore, Piero says, is along ancient trails, known only to generations of shepherds. And so he hands me over to Toni who is to lead me from the village of Urzulei through the wildest part of the Supramonte into one of Europe’s deepest gorges, the Gola di Gorropu.
At once, he bounds off down the mountainside, leaping from one rock to another – I stumble, off-balance like a toddler, behind him. So steep is the descent that even the ancient holm oaks and junipers dangle backwards into the ravine unable to resist gravity’s pull.
Determined to catch up, I slide down sections on my backside. After a gruelling hour I feel I have gained some respect. Toni picks up a handful of droppings and shoves them under my nose, showing me the different shape and texture of the sheep (hard and round) and wild mouflon (soft and long) excrement that marks our path. He points to a golden eagle as it soars overhead, then tugs at the spiny leaves of medicinal shrubs for me to sniff between his fingers: from wild mint to erba di gatto (catnip), used by shepherds to clear their sinuses. In me it sparks a 20-minute sneezing fit –
By the time we reach the bottom of the gorge three hours later, I am crawling on my hands and knees like a sheep faithfully following my shephered.
We pass an abandoned pinnettu – a circular shepherd’s hut made from stone and silvery juniper branches, one of many that were once inhabited for six months of the year when the shepherd led his flocks into the highlands for summer. We pause for lunch, and Toni produces a bundle of pecorino cheese, bread and chive-flavoured prosciutto from his leather satchel – all home-produced. The pastore once made ricotta cheese and smoked prosciutto in the mountains; they returned to the local village only once a month to renew supplies of carta da musica (paper-thin bread). The salty lunch leaves me gasping for water; instead Toni hands me a flask of deep red cannonau (local wine).
After lunch, Toni leads me to another near-vertical rock face and a 200m drop. My vision blurs (fuelled by a cocktail of alcohol and vertigo) and I lurch giddily on the cliff edge. After 30 minutes of my tearful protestations (my credibility is totally blown), we abandon the climb and trek back on ourselves for several hours to find an alternative route. This turns out to be equally arduous, involving leaps of faith over terrifying drops and being lowered by a piece of rope tied around my waist.
By the time we reach the northern side of the gorge, dusk has fallen. But the beauty of the limestone Gorropu Gorge overcomes me. We suck at handfuls of spring water, then, by moonlight, silently begin our 8km climb; scaling giant boulders that line the canyon bed.
The final stage of my 12-hour initiation test is a thigh-burning 3km vertical climb back up the mountainside to Urzulei. At the top, Toni rewards me with a hearty slap, a shot of filù e feru (local moonshine) and a sleeping bag on the floor of a pinnettu. Inside, fat hams swing from the ceiling as the juniper branches crackle and rustle in the wind, but I sleep without waking.
“A shepherd’s life is hard, eh?” says Piero the next morning as he drives me to the nearby village of Orgosolo.
Having earned some local respect, I am invited to a traditional shepherds’ lunch at Campeggio Supramonte, a campsite and restaurant run by local shepherds. My wooden plate is piled high with rosemary-scented lamb and potatoes, porchetta (a pork spit-roast over an open fire) and pecorino, washed down with a heavy cannonau. Afterwards shepherds Pietrino, Gaetano, Egidio and Martino huddle together in a tight circle as if in an intimate embrace. Suddenly their bodies vibrate in unison, summoning a low guttural hum in four parts (mimicking a cow, a sheep, the wind and a lonely human voice) – a primordial shepherds’ song – the canto a tenore.
That afternoon we go to Egidio’s house to make ricotta cheese, squirting milk from the sheep’s udders directly into metal pans to heat indoors on the fire. At dusk, Egidio demonstrates how to round up his flock on the hillside – using whistles, clicks and calls.
Next morning I rejoin the modern world in the fishing port of Arbatax, where I bask gleefully on a sunlounger on the terrace of Il Vecchio Mulino, sipping among the luxuriant banana palms. Later, I take a boat trip along the coastline, to where the limestone cliffs drop into the waves. But I am unable to forget my new-found training, even at sea. I spot a lamb teetering on the edge of a rock face straining to reach the laden branches of a fig tree. Alarmed, I shout out – but the stray sheep has already leapt backwards, called by its shepherd to join the safety of the flock.