Article by Kyre Chenven first appeared on Conde Nast Traveller Magazine on 12th October 2018 .
Sulcis may be one of Sardinia’s poorest regions, but it’s rich in isolated beaches, ancient archeology, dense forest—and people whose daily craftsmanship keeps the past close at hand.
These days, to get to my home, you must drive a winding two-lane road through mountains covered in scrub oak, myrtle, and wild lavender. It feels like an act of purification, 20 minutes of twists and turns through clay-colored stone passes that deliver you from one world—airports, highways, and cruise ships—to another: Sulcis, in Sardinia’s southwest. This remains extraordinary to me, because I was raised in a mid-century modern home in the canyons of San Diego, then spent years in various walk-ups in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn before living, most recently, in a Milanese apartment whose lobby is decorated unabashedly in red velvet carpeting. I was, quite plainly, a city girl. But three years ago I moved to Santadi, a tiny town in one of the poorest and most enigmatic provinces of Italy.
Geographically isolated from the rest of the island by steep peaks, Sulcis is half-abandoned, as decades of emigration to find work in Sardinia’s resort towns and European cities have whittled away the population. But this impoverishment is countered by the area’s bucolic beauty, with sheep grazing among scraggly almond and pear trees and lush citrus groves lining the riverbanks. Stone farmhouses crumble by the roadside, abandoned greenhouses are overgrown with wildflowers, and more recent imitations of brutalism, left over from a burst of optimism in the ’90s, stand starkly amid wheat fields. There are plenty of empty open spaces in which to feel lost and alone.
When I was first getting to know Sulcis, I was consistently thrown by these contradictory images. It was not the mild, man-made beauty of Tuscany and had none of the ruffled decadence of Sicily. It was its own quiet world—wild and skittish, compassionate and unaffected. “Do you really think anyone would want to come visit this place?” I was asked repeatedly by locals when I moved here. “Well,” I’d reply, “we have incredible wines and one of the largest forests in Italy, the Gutturu Mannu, at our doorstep. We’re 15 minutes from an array of beaches, in an area that produces olive oil, artichokes, bright tomatoes, lamb, and cheeses. We have archaeological sites, a mild climate. So maybe.”
I first came here in 2005, with Ivano, who would soon become my partner in all things work, life, and home. He was born and raised in Milan, but his family is from Sardinia. He told me about his summers as a child spent at his grandmother’s small stone house: no streetlights, no paved roads, olive trees, and heat. As a boy, he would tag along when the shepherds brought their flocks into the low mountains for water. Later, we were married in a sheepfold overlooking the ribbon of river that winds through small agricultural plots and quiet towns huddled up against the road.
In 2015, Ivano and I finally decided to move here. We wanted to research the particularities of Sardinian craft and culture, and to help connect outsiders (designers, journalists, investors) with local entities that interested them. We bought a cluster of late-18th-century derelict farmhouses and settled in with our two young children as the resident aliens of Santadi, 10 minutes from where Ivano had spent his summers.
Now I’m standing in our new home, looking out at the wild carrot flowers and the wall of prickly pears, waiting for the photographers Paola Ambrosi De Magistris and Murray Hall to arrive. I haven’t seen Paola in 10 years. I have children she doesn’t know; she has married Murray, an affable, sincere, and talented Australian. Paola is tall and slender, with a soft, sweet voice and steely blue eyes. We bonded immediately upon meeting in New York years ago but fell out of touch. To welcome her and Murray here is, to me, one of the deep pleasures of middle age.
Our plan is to show them Sulcis as insider-outsiders, who know a place intimately but still register its uniqueness. We’ve arranged for them to photograph a pair of dark-eyed sisters from our town, each in elaborate traditional dress. We’ll visit a woman who weaves golden byssus, or sea silk, from the solidified saliva of protected mollusks, 30 miles west of us in the town of Sant’Antioco, then sneak into an abandoned nuraghe, the giant prehistoric stone buildings that resemble fortresses and pepper the entire island. We’ll explore the crumbling mines up the southwest coast that—active for thousands of years but now defunct—attest to both the area’s past importance and its current decline. We’ll tour the winery of the Cantina di Santadi and roast a goat with my father-in-law, then drop in on artisans and drink the potent native carignano del Sulcis wine, talking about aspirations new and old. But for now, they pull up in the graveled drive and we usher them inside and marvel at being in the same room.
“Attention, tourists! Sardinia is not Italy!” exclaims Murray, and we all laugh: He is referring to the graffiti on the side of a nearby ruin that serves as a welcoming, if forward, missive for anyone arriving in Sulcis by car. Yes, we nod, that is also true. Even if Sardinia has been part of Italy for more than 150 years, it has its own traditions, its own mythologies, its own languages and dialects. Sardinians refer, without irony or meanness, to other Italians as continentali, and still feel a deep connection to the native Nuragic civilization from the Bronze Age. The omnipresent prehistoric sites (more than 7,000 of them) on the island are a source of much pride, as well they should be.
And so we start by taking Paola and Murray to the ancient burial site of Montessu, above the town of Villaperuccio, a few minutes away. At first, Montessu looks like a plain hillside, but it gradually opens into a natural horseshoe of a valley with numerous stony pockmarks on its grassy face, caves that were gouged directly into the volcanic rock around the third millennium b.c. to serve as communal graves. They have intricate carvings on the walls and include wide, damp chambers. The larger ones have the appearance of giant staring skulls.
Sardinians used to believe these domus de janas (fairy homes) were the dwellings of mythical sprites. Paola, though she’s Italian, has never heard of the janas and is interested to know about the island’s legends. So I tell her some of the stories I’ve heard. My father-in-law says we’re not supposed to go to the forest springs in the evening so as not to anger the fairies—that is the time for wild animals to drink in peace. And a friend, a young businessman, recounted how a powerful jana could be heard beating the weft of her loom in a nearby cave. We walk slowly along the ridge where the empty graves sit stonily, and I tell her about brebus, prayers and rituals that Sardinians use to rid themselves of the evil eye. It isn’t hard to imagine the caves filled with spirits, remnants of our shared ancestry. We’re the only ones in the immense basin, and the sun begins to slant to its golden hour.
A few mornings later, we head west to the whitewashed town of Calasetta to board a friend’s vintage wooden sailboat for the island of San Pietro. Carloforte, its only town, has a complicated history. It was founded in 1739 by coral fishermen from outside of Genoa who had spent the previous 200 years off the coast of Tunisia. When the coral there was depleted, King Charles Emmanuel III gave them this island in order to repopulate the western coast of Sardinia. We pull into the small, shining port and set out to explore the tiny island.
Murray worked as a boatbuilder’s apprentice when he was younger, so we find one of the last shipwrights here, walking up the coastline to the industrial part of town, seven minutes from the center. Tonino Sanna welcomes us into his cluttered, sawdusty workshop, which holds the enormous skeletons of multiple vessels. Some are here for repairs, but Sanna smilingly shows us one hulking frame he began building from scratch in the local style. Sure, it’s for sale if anyone wants it, he says, but he expects it to sit in his workshop for a while. Carloforte was once famed for the skill of its boatbuilders, but the industry has declined drastically in recent years. There is a small crowd of men gossiping and sipping coffee. As the group explodes into chuckles, Murray looks over at us to translate. “They speak a completely different language,” Ivano says, shrugging. “I don’t understand a word.”
Sardinia contains many worlds: the glitzy Costa Smeralda; the Catalonian retreat of Alghero; the wild mountain coastlines both east and west; practical, insular Barbagia; the rice fields of diligent Oristano. The island is like a miniature nation, Ivano always says. And truly the differences in language, food, and temperament between lively Carloforte and the rest of Sulcis are a perfect example. In Sulcis, we talk about our isolation. But Carloforte has become a haven for vacationers, despite being a small island off the coast of our own island.
We move on to a languid lunch of local tuna and cascà—a dish that resembles couscous, a holdover from when the Carlofortini lived in Tunisia—on the sunny terrace of the endearingly shabby Al Tonno di Corsa. The tuna is prepared six different ways—boiled, braised, dressed, smoked, salted, cured—and gets progressively more intense as you work your way up the plate, culminating in a last sliver of tuna so powerful I slip mine stealthily onto Ivano’s dish. Afterward, we drive to the far side of the island and visit the natural reserve where Eleonora’s falcons breed on cliffs of ragged sandstone before they head back to Madagascar for the winter. It’s getting late, and we’re due back at the ferry in town. But Paola and Murray stay on, sitting under the shade of four enormous ficus trees, watching the locals and tourists mix noisily in the main piazza.
Back in Santadi a few days later, we meet up with a group of women at Sa Domu Antiga, a small ethnographic museum. The low-slung, modest home with river canes lining the roof and thick mud-brick walls is a sort of living museum—everything inside has been donated by local families, and as such the town views it as a communal space. At times, someone will host a lunch there, and during the Matrimonio Mauritano (a wedding staged in the traditional local style) the bride is dressed at Sa Domu Antiga. Today, we’ve asked to use the typical round oven to make a bread called coccoi; the dough is trimmed with scissors and baked into extravagantly decorated shapes. This is the bread offered to brides and made for religious occasions, one that often feels too beautiful (now that bread is abundant) to eat.
Murray is worried about the light, since the low-ceiling room is painted a dark pink and crowded with baskets, ceramics, and linens. The women are fretting over the dough, afraid the harsh Sulcis heat will dry it out before they can work it into rounds and points. “If we could just move outside,” Murray suggests. “Then it won’t come out beautifully,” the women counter. This moment feels emblematic of my life here: We often act as cultural translators, as the bridge between two worlds, attempting to explain on each side the richly cultural presumptions we all unknowingly hold.
When I first began coming to Sulcis, I could not reconcile the richness of the various crafts—brightly colored, complexly patterned textiles; minutely over-decorated ceramics; hand-shaped knives that seemed to be in everyone’s pockets—with the region’s all-too-apparent poverty. Attention to detail was something that I associated with the luxury of free time and wealth. But there is a pride here in making things beautifully, and a need to honor the past. For these women, this bread is sacred because it is the bread they baked with their mothers and grandmothers in years that now seem lifetimes away. Many Sulcitani in their 60s grew up without shoes or running water; now their grandchildren have smartphones and Nikes, and almost no one bakes their own bread. So, for these women, this is a ritual that brings them back to the years in which a loaf of bread was still a precious commodity. And they have invited us to be there with them, which is the most decent gift of humanity.
We begin to understand each other. I convince the women to move a table into the shade on the side of the house. They knead the dough, blushing, self-conscious of the photographers at first. But Paola peppers them with questions, and soon they begin to relax and trade quips, all the while muscling the white dough over the old wooden tabletop. They gather plump pieces and industriously snip them into intricate designs. The molded loaves sit dutifully in the large flat baskets, shrouded by a linen cloth. The day is shockingly hot; even standing in the shade of a large oak tree we are all subdued and sweaty. The women use bunches of dried rock-rose branches to light a fast-burning fire in the oven, and the fragrant smoke that fills the courtyard will let everyone in town know that someone is baking bread today.
Now they load the oven. One woman steps forward with a handful of flour. She says a prayer and crosses herself, kissing her fist, and then throws the grains into the hot oven. Turning to us, she laughs mirthfully, and I hear Paola whisper to no one, “That was amazing.” They move quickly, scraping out the ashes from the fire and loading the oven with the heavy wooden paddle. In just a few minutes, the bread is ready and they pull out the loaves: first a horseshoe decorated with little nesting hens, then a doll-shaped loaf, and next a puffed-up loaf with a tiny star shape on its middle. The women cluck humbly about how clumsy each loaf looks, but they’re merry and proud. They divide the loaves between us and deliver them each with a kiss on our cheeks and a warm squeeze of our hands.
The Lowdown on Seeing Sulcis
When to come: It’s no use saying not to visit in July and August—the heat is grueling and the beaches are crowded—but all of Sardinia is best at any other time. Winter is mild, the countryside a lush green; spring is filled with wildflowers; and autumn has a soft evening light. Look out for local festivals—there’s the Sant’Anna Arresi Jazz Festival in September, the Narcao Blues Festival in July, and Settimana Santa a Iglesias before Easter.
Getting there: You’ll need a car to get to and around Sulcis. Cagliari, the largest city on Sardinia, is only 90 minutes from most of Sulcis’s towns, which makes flying in and renting relatively easy. Roads are in good shape, though the signage isn’t. Don’t be deterred—get lost and ask a shepherd for help.
Where to stay: Sulcis is only starting to open to tourists. However, the area more than makes up for this lack of accommodations in hospitality and authenticity. Local architect Francesca Manca has renovated her family home, Antica Casa Manca, in the town of Masainas, with its large garden and original tile floors. Thirteen miles northwest, the old fishing town of Is Loccis Santus has been painstakingly rebuilt by Antonello Steri and family, and christened Rosso Porpora. The village has seven simple farmhouses, most with access to an organic veggie garden. And the refurbished Villa Santadi offers simple rooms in an early-20th-century Spanish building.
Where to eat: There’s a surprising range of cuisine in this small area, and most restaurants offer excellent food at great prices. Osteria Vineria Cibus in Santadi prides itself on serving strictly local products and classic dishes like sappueddus, a roughly cut durum-wheat pasta served with a rich tomato sauce. Mario e Pinella is a wonderfully rustic beachside shack offering ultrafresh fish: There are no frills, but the food is fantastic, and the lovely cove of Cala Sapone is across the road. The island of Carloforte is off the western coast and can be reached by ferry from either the industrial port town of Portovesme or the charmingly whitewashed Calasetta. It shows its Liguria–meets–North Africa roots in its food: Expect tuna, pesto, and cascà (a local version of couscous) in endless variations. Or just grab a delicious cheese-filled focaccia from a bakery. And don’t forget to visit one of the many wineries, which all specialize in native carignano and vermentino varietals. The winery Cantina di Santadi produces the world-renowned Terre Brune, which is intensely flavorful, just like any true carignano. Book a tour ahead, or just stop in for a tasting (and marvel at the table wine that’s dispensed to local farmers from a sort of gas pump). Cantina Mesa is a newer winery, founded by the publicist Gavino Sanna and located by the marshes near the beach of Porto Pino, 10 minutes southwest of Masainas. They make excellent vermentinos that are dry, fruity, and floral all at once.
What to see
If you are interested in prehistory, there are many sites to check out, including the vast necropolis of Montessu in Villaperuccio. In the town of Santadi is the recently opened site of Pani Loriga, which contains the remains of a large Phoenician-Punic town that was abandoned before the arrival of the Romans. There are also many nuraghe on the island that can often be spotted from the road. These huge conical structures can vary in size, condition, and accessibility. Nuraghe Seruci is a beautiful one that is open to the public (hours change by season, so check before you go). The history of local mining—for obsidian, iron, copper, silver, coal—also goes back thousands of years. Book a visit to the Montevecchio mines in northern Sulcis, with four guided tours. Or visit the mines at the stunning Porto Flavia, which opens onto the Tyrrhenian Sea. Rosas, a 20-minute drive from Santadi, contains recently restored mines dating from 1832. The town of Carbonia is less than charming but is home to a fascinating museum dedicated to the local coal mines, built by Mussolini.
If you are looking for nature, walk two hours into the mountains of Villacidro to the waterfalls of Piscina Irgas, which cascade from a granite cliff, or visit the forests of the Gutturu Mannu (just outside of Santadi). Up the western coast, Arrampicata Sardegna leads rock-climbing tours along oceanside cliffs, or deep ravines farther inland. For a less strenuous outing, check out the marshes near Is Solinas. Many flat, easy trails wind around canals, vineyards, and the coastline. There are a few simple towers for bird-watching, where you can peek at white egrets, wild flamingos, and herons in the marsh. And be sure to stop by any one of the area’s well-tended ethnographic museums to learn more about Sardinian traditions—you can find them in Santadi, Nuxis, or Sant’Antioco.
Article by Kyre Chenven first appeared on Conde Nast Traveller Magazine on 12th October 2018 .