The last surviving sea silk seamstress

Article by Eliot Stein first appeared on BBC Travel Magazine 6th September 2017

Byssus, or sea silk, is one of the most coveted materials in the world – but after more than 1,000 years in the same matrilineal family tree, this ancient thread may soon unravel.


The loom Chiara Vigo weaves on has been in her family for more than 200 years (credit Eliot Stein)


Each spring, under the cover of darkness and guarded by members of the Italian Coast Guard, 62-year-old Chiara Vigo slips on a white tunic, recites a prayer and plunges headfirst into the crystalline sea off the tiny Sardinian island of Sant’Antioco.

Using the moonlight to guide her, Vigo descends up to 15m below the surface to reach a series of secluded underwater coves and grassy lagoons that the women in her family have kept secret for the past 24 generations. She then uses a tiny scalpel to carefully trim the razor-thin fibres growing from the tips of a highly endangered Mediterranean clam known as the noble pen shell, or pinna nobilis.


Chiara Vigo prays twice a day facing the sea, once at dawn and again at dusk (credit Eliot Stein)


It takes about 100 dives to harvest 30g of usable strands, which form when the mollusc’s secreted saliva comes in contact with salt water and solidifies into keratin. Only then is Vigo ready to begin cleaning, spinning and weaving the delicate threads. Known as byssus, or sea silk, it’s one of the rarest and most coveted materials in the world.

Today, Vigo is believed to be the last person on Earth who still knows how to harvest, dye and embroider sea silk into elaborate patterns that glisten like gold in the sunlight.


Chiara Vigo has an encyclopedic knowledge of 124 different natural dye variations (credit Eliot Stein)


Women in Mesopotamia used the exceptionally light fabric to embroider clothes for their kings some 5,000 years ago. It was harvested to make robes for King Solomon, bracelets for Nefertiti, and holy vestments for priests, popes and pharaohs. It’s referenced on the Rosetta Stone, mentioned 45 times in the Old Testament and thought to be the material that God commanded Moses to drape on the altar in the Tabernacle.


Sant’Antioco is a quite, salty fishing town on an island of the same name (credit : Eliot Stein)


No-one is precisely sure how or why the women in Vigo’s family started weaving byssus, but for more than 1,000 years, the intricate techniques, patterns and dying formulas of sea silk have been passed down through this astonishing thread of women – each of whom has guarded the secrets tightly before teaching them to their daughters, nieces or granddaughters

After an invitation to visit Vigo’s one-room studio, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with the last surviving sea silk seamstress, watching her magically spin solidified clam spit into gold.


Sea silk comes from thin fibres growing from the tips of a highly endangered Mediterranean clam (Credit Eliot Stein)


I slowly approached the small wooden table where Vigo worked, walking past a 200-year-old loom, glass jars filled with murky indigo and amber potions and a certificate confirming her highest order of knighthood from the Italian Republic cast aside on the floor.

If you want to enter my world, I’ll show it to you,” she smiled. “But you’d have to stay here for a lifetime to understand it.”

Vigo learned the ancient craft from her maternal grandmother, who taught traditional wool weaving techniques on manual looms to the women of Sant’Antioco for 60 years. She remembers her grandmother paddling her into the ocean in a rowboat to teach her to dive when she was three years old. By age 12, she sat atop a pillow, weaving at the loom.


Chiara Vigo uses her fingernails and a nail to embroider a small piece of sea silk cloth (Credit: Eliot Stein)


“My grandmother wove in me a tapestry that was impossible to unwind” Vigo said. “Since then, I’ve dedicated my life to the sea, just as those who have come before me.”

Vigo is known as su maistu (‘the master’, in Sardo). There can only be one maistu at a time, and in order to become one, you must devote your life to learning the techniques from the existing master. Like the 23 women before her, Vigo has never made a penny from her work. She is bound by a sacred ‘Sea Oath’ that maintains that byssus should never be bought or sold.

In fact, despite weaving works for display in the Louvre, the British Museum and the Vatican, Vigo doesn’t have a single piece of byssus in her home. She lives in a modest apartment with her husband, and they live off his pension as a coal miner and donations from visitors who stop by Vigo’s studio.


When held into the light, sea silk transforms from a brownish colour into a golden hue (Credit Eliot Stein)


Instead, Vigo explained that the only way to receive byssus is as a gift. She’s created pieces for Pope Benedict XVI and the Queen of Denmark, but more often than not she embroiders designs for newlywed couples, children celebrating a christening and women who come to her in hopes of becoming pregnant.

Byssus doesn’t belong to me, but to everyone,” Vigo asserted. “Selling it would be like trying to profit from the sun or the tides.”

But that hasn’t stopped people from trying. According to Małgorzata Biniecka, author of The Masters of Byssus, Silk and Linen, until the 1930s the only other place besides Sant’Antioco where the tradition of sea silk harvesting and embroidering continued was the city of Taranto, Italy.

“A woman there forsake the Sea Oath and tried to establish a commercial byssus industry,” Biniecka said. “A year later, it went bankrupt and she mysteriously died.”

More recently, a Japanese businessman approached Vigo with an offer to purchase her most famous piece, ‘The Lion of Women’, for €2.5 million. It took Vigo four years to stitch the glimmering 45x45cm design with her fingernails, and she dedicated it to women everywhere.

I told him, ‘Absolutely not’,” she declared. “The women of the world are not for sale.”

Neither is the painstaking process behind her pieces, which she slowly revealed during my four-day visit.

After harvesting raw byssus from the depths of the sea, she desalts the fibres by submerging them in fresh water for 25 days, changing the water every three hours. Once they dry, she cleans the threads with a carding brush to remove any remaining sediment.

Then comes the hardest part: separating each strand of pure sea silk from the tangle of raw byssus. Because sea silk is three times finer than a strand of human hair, Vigo peers through a lamp with a magnifying glass as she delicately plucks each thread of silk using a pair of tweezers.

“It may seem easy now,” she said. “But my fingers have been practicing this for 50 years.”

On several occasions after Vigo extracted a thick tuft of fibres, she ordered me to close my eyes and extend my hand. Each time I felt nothing. After about 10 seconds, I’d open my eyes to see Vigo rolling a weightless cloud of sea silk back and forth on my palm.

Next, she twists the silk manually around a small wooden spindle, usually singing in Sardo – the closest living form of Latin – during the process. When the fibres form a long thread, she grabs a jar of cloudy yellowish liquid from the shelf.

“Now, we’ll enter a magical realm,” she said, dropping the thin thread into a secret concoction of lemon, spices and 15 different types of algae. Within seconds, the thread becomes elastic and she excitedly ushered me outside to show how it shimmered in the sunlight. Vigo has an encyclopaedic knowledge of 124 natural dye variations made from fruits, flowers and seashells.

Finally, Vigo intertwines the spun silk into the linen warp using her fingernails. It takes 15 straight days of extracting and dying raw byssus to create enough threads to weave just a few centimetres. Some pieces, like a 50x60cm cloth of pure sea silk weighing just 2g, take six years to stitch. Others, like the larger tapestries draped atop her loom depicting Biblical passages and pagan deities, take even longer.

“There are 140 patterns in my family, eight of which will never be written and have been passed down orally from generation to generation,” she said.

But after more than 1,000 years in the same matrilineal family tree, this ancient thread may soon unravel.

According to tradition, the heir to the byssus secrets is Vigo’s youngest daughter, Maddalena. Like her own grandmother, Vigo began teaching her how to dive and embroider at an early age

The only thing she’s missing is the formulas for the dye potions,” Vigo told me.

But there’s a problem: “My mother and I are very different,” Maddalena said from her home in Dublin, Ireland, where she’s been living for the past two years. “People have always told me that I’d be a fool to allow this art to die, but I’m desperately torn. My life is mine.”

What’s more, after creating the world’s only museum dedicated to byssus in 2005, Vigo awoke one day last autumn to find that the government of Sant’Antioco had unexpectedly closed her free Museo del Bisso, citing that the building’s electrical system wasn’t up to code.

“The ‘electrical problem’ was me!” Vigo snapped. “The municipality tried to force me to charge entrance fees and write down my patterns and secrets. But I will defend this sacred oath with my fingernails as long as I breathe!”

The news drew national attention, spurring an online petition that garnered nearly 20,000 signatures – including that of the President of Sardinia – to no avail.

Recently, two young artists started a crowdfunding campaign to help Vigo rent the one-room studio where she now works. Ironically, it’s the same room where Vigo’s grandmother taught her how to spin sea silk 50 years ago. Unless they can raise €85,000 to purchase the rent-to-own property by November 2018, the town will evict her and the world will no longer be able to watch its last sea silk seamstress spin byssus into gold.

On my last evening with Vigo, she led me to a secluded cove where women in her family have prayed for as long as she can remember. As the sun melted into the sea, she stood at the edge of a tidal pool, closed her eyes and began a mystical, almost shamanic chant.

She then reached deep into a bag, pulled out a clump of 300-year-old byssus from a vial, and spun a long thread of sea silk.

“The secrets may die with me,” she said, tying the thread around my wrist. “But the silk of the sea will live on.”

Article by Eliot Stein first appeared on BBC Travel Magazine 6th September 2017




Wild and woolly with Sardinia’s shepherds

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


Orgosolo Mountains  – Photo Sakanatravel 2017


“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.


Panifiziu Santu Juanne Gavoi – photo Sakanatravel 2017


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.

article by Stephanie Ravanelli first appeared on the Guardian Sunday 1st May 2010

Jefford on Monday: Sardinia’s Secrets

article first appeared in Decanter Magazine 25th April 2016 by Andrew Jefford.

Andrew Jefford visits Italy’s ‘other’ wine island and discovers four reasons (or more) to take it seriously…

Suddura’s Stazzo vineyard, Sardinia. Credit: Dino Dini

Wines from Sardinia

It had been a dry winter, everyone told me, but the heart of Sardinia was still vividly green at the end of March. A chaos of hills rippled away in every direction (almost 70 per cent of the island’s landmass is hilly, with just under 14 per cent classified as mountainous), often scored by sheep tracks, echoing to the sound-mosaic of hundreds of sheep bells. Sardinia is home to four million sheep, roughly half the national herd and source of most of the milk for Italy’s Pecorino Romano PDO cheese. Some 80 per cent of the cork produced in Italy, too, grows on Sardinia. The airy cork forests, as the spring equinox passes, are golden with swaying broom flowers.
This is the Mediterranean’s second largest island – pipped only by a Sicilian whisker; its southerly neighbour is just six per cent bigger. In terms of wine production, though, Sardinia is only Italy’s fourteenth largest region (Sicily, for example, produces six times as much wine). Many Sardinian vineyards are tiny, almost hidden, especially up in the highest hills, around Nuoro and Oliena. Their fascinating wines deserve to be better known.

Let me give you four reasons why. The first is Vermentino: maybe the world’s best? That’s a question which merits a separate answer – which I’ll try to provide in a later blog.

The second reason is Carignano. Italy in general grows much less of this variety than does France (Carignan) or Spain (Mazuelo, Cariñena, Samsó), but I suspect that many Languedocien wine growers, at any rate, would be shocked to discover the rich textures and flavours which this variety can acquire in Sardinia. Carignan is often a piercing alto in Languedoc, and best blended; in Sardinia it can be warm and comforting bass, and works well on its own. Never better than in the sandy soils of Sulcis, in the island’s southwest, and especially on the large island of Sant’Antioco (Italy’s fourth largest in its own right), connected to the Sardinian mainland by a bridge. The soils in Sulcis are so sandy, in fact, that much Carignano de Sulcis is ungrafted. I’d be surprised if Sardinian Carignano didn’t feature somewhere in the top twenty of any serious competitive blind tasting of this variety.
The third reason is Cannonau. Once again, Italian plantings of this variety are dwarfed by Spain’s Garnacha stocks and France’s walletful of Grenache – but Sardinia’s efforts with the variety are of compelling interest, and comprise the island’s ‘noblest’ reds. The variety is grown in a number of different locations and different soils, but the best for me came from the granite uplands around Nuoro, and particularly the lonely village of Mamoiada.

Up here, at between 600 m to 800 m, the variety sheds its lowland sweetness and takes on an airy freshness and stony purity. This is not, though, the kind of mountain Grenache which tiptoes gracefully into Pinot territory. It remains strong, masterful and firmly structured, with often hugely impressive tannins. Cannonau, in other words, can be a wine of unusual completeness and authority for this variety.
And the fourth reason? That would be Sardinia’s own indigenous varieties (it claims up to 150) and specialities (including both sweet, dry and botrytised Malvasia di Bosa; as well as the complex, flor-affected Vernaccia di Oristano). Genetic intricacy is always of interest for its own sake, and I enjoyed the examples I tried of these rare varieties, often salvaged with great efforts (including the white Arvisionadu, Alvarega, Nasco and Semidano and the red Monica, Muristellu, Bovaluddu, Bovale Grande, Bovale Mannu, Bovale Sardo, Barbera Sarda and Cagnulari), even if some were, in the vinifications I tried, only shyly characterful.

At least I thought that the twelve just mentioned were all indigenous — but a little research after I got home in Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz’s Wine Grapes suggested that Bovale Mannu and Bovale Grande are in fact the same as Carignano, while Muristellu, Bovaleddu, Bovale Sardo and Cagnulari are identical to Graciano. Some of this is contested on the island, where Dr Gianni Lovicu, one of the island’s leading viticultural researchers, says that Bovale Mannu is in fact another synonym for Graciano, while Muristellu and Bovaleddu are not in fact Graciano but a different variety altogether.
Whatever the truth, Cagnulari certainly seemed to make the most interesting wines after Vermentino, Carignano and Cannonau – in a rather less stern and more voluptuous guise than Graciano can often assume, for example, in Rioja.
Canny readers will have noted just how much vine material Sardinia seems to share with Spain, and this is usually attributed to a long period of Aragonese rule in Sardinia (between the arrival of the Catalan army under Crown Prince Alfonso of Aragon in 1324 and the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713). Catalan is still spoken in the northwestern Sardinian port of Alghero. The Sardinians themselves, though, point out that the trading Phoenicians may have been moving these grape varieties around before the Aragonese ever arrived – and they would dearly love to prove that Cannonau is in fact an indigenous variety which the Aragonese took back to Spain. There is, for the time being, no comprehensive genetic proof of this – though some 2010 research by Manna Crespan and others claimed that Cannonau is more genetically diverse than Spanish Grenache, suggesting possible anteriority. Other researchers cited by the Wine Grapes authors, though, have found the opposite. The question will be tussled over for a while yet.
Anything else? I haven’t mentioned the usual plethora of DO and IGT names since the island’s leading wines usually contain the variety name in the DO or IGT formula. You might be foxed, though, by the critically important, pan-Sardinian IGT ‘Isola dei Nuraghi’ — since no such island can be found in any atlas. It’s a cultural reference to the mysterious towers called Nuraghe which dot Sardinia, and which date back to 730 BCE to 1900 BCE. The problem, apparently, was that since ‘Sardegna’ already featured in a number of DOC formulae, it couldn’t be used for an IGT. Though why not? Using it on its own, perhaps, would have been more helpful to consumers than sending them scurrying off for an island which doesn’t exist.

A Taste of Sardinian Reds
Carignano del Sulcis (Carignan)
Bentesali, Carignano del Sulcis 2014
This wine, made from 100-year-old ungrafted bush vines on the island of Sant’Antioco and exposed to the ‘salty wind’ that gives the wine its Sardinian name, is dark in colour, with a rich aromatic mixture of scents, both fruity, floral and savoury. The palate is very deep and fleshy for Carignan, with ample tannic mass, concentration and rigour. 90 points

Carignano del Sulcis Esu


Nero Miniera, Enrico Esu, Carignano del Sulcis 2014
This is a much lighter wine than the Bentesali (50 year old vines and with 10 per cent Monica), yet it has superb concentration and tannic grip behind the rose, cherry and liquorice flavours. 90

Cannonau di Sardegna (Grenache)
Fòla, Cannonau di Sardegna, Siddùra 2014
A relatively lightly coloured but classy Cannonau with resonant and harmonious aromas combining stony and meaty notes, and a deep, searching, penetrating palate of considerable refinement and gastronomic aptitude. The month of maceration with the skins was time well spent. 91
D53, Cannonau di Sardegna Classico, Cantina Dorgali 2012
An older wine fermented and aged in large wooden vessels, this is translucent and recognizably varietal, with sweet spiced plum scents and rich, warm, generous plum and cherry flavours. Artless generosity of fruit – but the firm tannic support gives it an authentic Sardinian stamp. 89
Montanaru, Cannonau di Sardegna, Tenute Bonamici 2014
A Cannonau (grown at 750m) marked above all by saline, ‘mineral’ notes and rich tannins. There is plenty of sweet backing fruit but in a warmly subdued guise which allows the unfruity flavours and ample textures to take the lead: delicious. 90
Cannonau di Sardegna, Olianas 2014
A Cannonau mixed with 10 per cent Tintillu and amphora-fermented before being aged in both amphora and older barriques. Classy, refined, settled aromas and pure, drinkable, fine-grained flavours mark this mid-weight wine with a wider allusive repertoire than some of its peers (seaweed and blood orange). 90

Ballu Tundu, Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva, Giuseppe Sedilesu 2010
The two superb 2010 Riserva-level wines produced by Giuseppe Sedilesu (one called Ballu Tundu and the other, top wine just a plain Riserva) prove just how exciting Sardinian Cannonau can be. This wine, grown in Mamoiada vineyards at an average altitude of 700m, has earthy, gruff, planty aromas with dense, exciting, almost shocking flavours which combine plentiful extract with intensely earthy, almost medicinal flavours and vivid plumskin acidity. 93

Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva, Giuseppe Sedilesu 2010
This extraordinary wine, produced from selected Sedilesu bush vines of 50 years or more in the best years only, harvested in October and given a month’s maceration, is drama incarnate. Billowing scents suggesting red fruit, wild lavender, wild mint, crushed stone and perfumed plum skins is followed by a dense, dark, rich, chewy flavour which, metaphorically speaking, seems to explode in the mouth and send granite shards, dripping with herbal blood, splattering round your palate. It has bright, flavour-saturated acidity, packed with plum and cherry, too, invigorating its warm, swelling mid-palate, and it finishes lushly and richly. This elemental, force-of-nature wine is magnificent now but will surely see out a decade or two without trouble. 96

Cagnulari (Graciano)
Bàcco, Cagnulari, Siddùra, Isola dei Nuraghi 2014

photo Decanter

Some Sardinian Cagnulari can be very savoury, but the Siddùra version is full of peppery fruits. The wine has harmonious scents and vivid, enticing, smooth-textured flavours – yet it grows in complexity and stature with time in the mouth; the finish is stony, pungent, bitter-edged and thought-provoking. 92
Cagnulari, Chessa, Isola dei Nuraghi 2014
Smoky, earthy, spicy, even tarry: this Cagulari smells nocturnal and byzantine. On the palate, it is rich, weighty, dense, vivid and expressive, with both red and black fruit notes freighted with more exotic incense spice. Despite this generosity of style, the wine is very well-judged, and both satisfying and refreshing to drink. A masterful rendition of what can often be a difficult grape to vinify. 93
Cagnulari, Podere Parpinello, Isola dei Nuraghi 2014
Very dark in colour, with complex scents: both sweet and savoury, suggesting both plants and fruits. On the palate, it is another wine which seems smooth and rich when you first sip, but which acquires texture and flavoury grain as it lingers in the mouth, broadening and filling as it does so. Searching and complex to finish. 92


Cagnulari, Bagasseri, Enrico Melis, Isola dei Nuraghi 2015
An astonishing young Cagnulari: intoxicating primary fruit and flower aromas come storming from the glass, while in the mouth this is a very showy, lush and luscious wine of huge exuberance and impact. There is ample tannin to counterbalance its very sweet style of fruit (though the producer assures me the wine contains no residual sugar). A head-turner, best enjoyed in all its youthful glory. 91

article first appeared in Decanter Magazine 25th April 2016 by Andrew Jefford.



A Tour of the Nuraghi, Sardinia’s Bronze-Age Mysteries

Article first appeared on CN Traveler magazine June 9th 2017 by Eliot Stein.


nuraghi 1
Su Nuraxi-Barumini was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site 20 years ago. Photo by Alamy


Away from its famous coastline, Sardinia’s rugged interior is home to one of the world’s most intriguing architectural marvels: 7,000 mysterious stone towers known as nuraghi. Built between 1600 and 1000 BC, the circular structures aren’t found anywhere else on the planet, and their origin and purpose remain largely unknown.
Most archaeologists believe that these fortresses were originally built as territorial markers between clans. By climbing one, you could almost always see another, and they formed an ingenious island-wide communication chain. Over time, this early Sardinian society surrounded many of the earlier single-tower structures with protective ramparts, spiral staircases, and as many as 17 connected towers—transforming lone bastions into colossal Bronze Age castles.

Today, these otherworldly monuments are still so common throughout the island’s twisting valleys that they’ve come to symbolize Sardinia itself, and the long lost Nuragic civilization that designed them is finally gaining recognition as one of the most advanced in the ancient world.


nuraghi 3

The site at Arrubiu-Orroli is the largest nuragic complex in the world. photo by Alamy


This year marks the 20th anniversary of Sardinia’s most famous nuragic site, Su Nuraxi di Barumini, being named a UNESCO World Heritage site. To celebrate, “Sardinia’s Stonehenge” is hosting a series of tours and cultural events from June through December, including folk and classical music concerts held inside the site’s megalithic walls. It’s an enticing invitation to come face to face with one of Europe’s great mysteries, but with thousands of remarkable nuraghi to choose from, why limit your visit to just one?

Here are five of the most impressive nuragic sites in Sardinia, along with must-see recommendations nearby for after you get your history fix.

Su Nuraxi–Barumini
Climb 11 towers, thread needle-tight escape routes, and dip into more than 200 homes of a remarkably well preserved prehistoric castle complex that once guarded a surrounding village. Considering that much of humanity was still living in caves and wooden huts when Su Nuraxi was built, its three-story citadels, functioning canal system, and retractable wall entrances are mind-boggling feats of engineering.

Nearby, don’t miss: The Giara di Gesturi, a 600-foot basalt plateau, where the world’s only breed of miniature wild horses (cavallino sardo) roam free among the dense cork forests, lagoons, and 26 crumbling nuraghi.

Santu Antine–Torralba
Su Nuraxi may be the most famous nuraghi in Sardinia, but Santu Antine is the crowning opus of this mysterious culture. A vast network of passageways made from massive basalt boulders in the 16th century BC leads to spiral staircases that climb 57 feet up to the central spire of a four-tower fortress.
Nearby, don’t miss: Alghero, a picture-perfect medley of medieval sandstone palaces, colorful campaniles, and seaside promenades directly above the crashing Mediterranean sea. Thanks to 400 years of Iberian rule, residents here still speak Catalan.


Nuraghi 2
The ruins of Nuraghe Prisgiona-Arzachena reveal not only remarkable architectural prowess, but also evidence of a seafaring civilization far ahead of its time. Photo By Alamy


Artifacts recovered from the sprawling settlement surrounding this three-tower castle show that the nuraghi builders were also one of the most prolific seafaring societies in the Mediterranean, sailing as far as Cyprus. Ancient Sardinians buried their dead in enormous “Giant’s Tomb” grave sites, and Coddu Vecchiu, nearby, is the most impressive and well-preserved on the island.
Nearby, don’t miss: The cerulean seas, puttering yachts, and international jet-set around the dazzling Costa Smeralda. If you splurge on one thing, spend a night at the achingly beautiful Hotel Romazzino, whose whitewashed, bougainvillea-draped facade overlooks an infinity pool and private beach.

This is the largest nuragic complex in the world, an imposing five-towered fortress built with red-tinted stones. The central bastion has crumbled from 90 feet to 46, and the whole thing was once connected to 12 additional lookout masts by a rampart.
Nearby, don’t miss: The Trenino Verde, an antique steam locomotive and Italy’s most popular tourist train. Pack a copy of D. H. Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia and retrace the author’s famous jaunt from Mandas to Sorgono by plunging, climbing, and twisting through some of Sardinia’s most stunning—and least explored—landscapes.

Two turreted stone walls, a maze of hauntingly lit internal corridors, and steps wrapping around a central tower once made Losa a formidable megalithic fortress. It’s still a site to behold, especially when staring up at the perfectly preserved truncated dome of the 40-foot wide central tower.
Nearby, don’t miss: The little riverside town of Bosa, whose arching bridge, pastel-painted homes, and Renaissance castle overlooking olive groves is one of Sardinia’s greatest surprises.

Sardinia is an island you’ll treasure

article first appeared in IOL -South African Independent Online on Europe / 30 March 2010, 12:34pm /


 San Cristoforo Tower – Oristano. Credits: milosk50/ License: CC BY-NC-SA


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.

Eleonora D’Arborea Statue – Oristano – photo Sardegna Turismo

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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This man has been living alone on the island for almost 30 years.

originally appeared on Travel and Leisure magazine – Trip Ideas-Island Vacation – Sardinia, article by Andrea Romano 2nd August 2017


Mauro, alone in a Paradise Island
Mauro Morandi on the island of Budelli -photo by Michele Ardu









No man is an island… except, perhaps, this man.

When Mauro Morandi’s failing catamaran was carried to Budelli Island 28 years ago, he decided to make his home there, almost completely alone.

Soon after Morandi landed in 1989, he found out the island caretaker was about to retire. Morandi’s dilapidated catamaran mirrored his physical, mental, and emotional state at the time. So, he decided to change his life and take on the job.
Budelli Island, a tiny piece of land between Sardinia and Corsica, is one of the most beautiful of the seven islands that make up Maddalena Archipelago National Park. Only a few tourists come and go on certain areas of Budelli per year, so for the most part, Morandi lives alone.


Budelli – photo by Luca Picciau Reda&co/UIG Getty images

“What I love the most is the silence. The silence in winter when there isn’t a storm and no one is around, but also the summer silence of sunset,” he told National Geographic.
Budelli Island’s rare Spiaggia Rosa, or Pink Beach, was declared a place of “high natural value” by the Italian government in the early 1990s, which affected the island’s tourism. The beach was closed off to protect its fragile ecosystem.



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Morandi on the island of Budelli – photo by Michele Ardu


In 2016, the Italian government even challenged Morandi’s right to live on the island. However, a petition protesting Morandi’s eviction gathered more than 18,000 signatures. His expulsion from the island has been delayed indefinitely, which is a good sign, but it’s no guarantee.
“I will never leave,” Morandi told National Geographic. “I hope to die here and be cremated and have my ashes scattered in the wind.”

Even though Morandi is extremely isolated, he seems well connected to global issues. He spends his days collecting juniper logs and carving them into sculptures. He then sells his sculptures to tourists and donates the money to non-profits in Africa or Tibet. He also meditates, is an ardent reader, and dabbles in photography.
Now an internet company is bringing Wi-Fi to Budelli, which means Morandi will be connected with millions of people worldwide. But instead of being put off by this interruption to his solitude, he is optimistic it will help people far and wide see his tiny fortress for what it truly is.

“When you love a person deeply you see him or her as beautiful, but not because you see them as physically beautiful…you empathize with them…It’s the same thing with nature,” he said. “We think we are giants that can dominate the Earth, but we’re just mosquitos.”

article by Andrea Romano 2nd August 2017

Olbia, Sardinia – how to get there, where to stay and what to do

article by Emma Curry first appeared 5th August 2017 on Manchester Evening News.

There is more to this coastal city than meets the eye.


Olbia Port – photo by Shardan


The city of Olbia sits on the coast in northeast Sardinia in Italy. From its palm-lined waterfront and traditional restaurants tucked away town cobbled streets, to its archeological museum and squares dotted with cafes, there is plenty to explore.

Must sees for free
Take a walk through the city, from the bay and historic port, into the streets and piazzas. Piazza Margherita is a pleasant place to people-watch, while Piazza Mercato is home to the city’s market.

The Museo Archeologico sits on the harbour, on its own tiny island, and takes visitors through Olbia’s history, from the battles between Carthaginians and Romans, to the growth of maritime industries. There are exhibitions of artefacts taken from shipwrecks and the museum hosts occasional concerts in the summer. Open Wednesday to Sunday 9am to 1pm and 5pm to 8pm.


San Simplicio Olbia photo by Lupo


The church of San Simplico sits in a back street and is an example of the Pisan-style churches which were built in Sardinia during the 11th and 12th centuries. Open daily 7.30pm to 1pm and 3.30pm to 6pm (4pm to 7pm in summer).

Top sees for a fee
The prehistoric monuments of Arzachena sit around 20 miles north of Olbia. This cluster of monuments include burial sites known as ‘giants’ tombs’ and nuraghi (megalithic stone towers found across Sardinia). The site is open daily from 10am, closing at 8pm from June to August, 7pm in May and September, 6pm in April and October, 5pm in November and March, and 4pm in December and February. Tickets cost €3.50 for each site, €18 for all.

Take a tour of Tenute Olbios estate, which takes visitors through the wine-making process. At the end, head down to the cellar to taste three types of wine. A 90-minute tour costs €10, while a longer, two-hour tour includes a walk through the vines for €15. For another €5, guests can also sample regional cheeses, salami (cold cuts of meat) and antipasti. Tours are available in English and Italian.

Getting around
Olbia’s airport, called Olbia Costa Smeralda, sits just outside the city and is connected by buses run by operator ASPO. Within the city, bus tickets cost €1 for a single, €2.80 for a day, or €10 for a week, and can be bought from newsagents, some bars and the tourist office. Driving can be confusing in Olbia, due to the one-way system.

Eating out
Sardinian cuisine is varied and influenced by other Mediterranean populations, including Romans, Arabs and Spanish. Seafood plays a large part in dishes, especially in coastal towns like Olbia, where mussels and clams form the basis of many dishes. There are plenty of reasonably priced restaurants on the main streets of Olbia such as Corso Umberto. Many are aimed at tourists, with menus in English, but heading down the side streets nearby will lead diners to more traditional – and often cheaper – options. Da Paolo on Via Garibaldi is a trattoria offering local dishes, while the Antica Trattoria on Via delle Terme offers a lively atmosphere, an outdoor patio and a generous buffet of antipasti. There are fresh pastas such as gnocci galluresi, as well as pizzas in the evening.

Going out
There is a variety of nightlife in Olbia. Many hotels and restaurants offer happy hour from 4pm to 8pm. La Tasca is a cocktail and wine bar on Via Cavour, which is a good choice for live music and offers a long list of drinks. For clubbing, head to Capricorno on Via Catello Piro, one of the biggest clubs in Olbia, which stays open until 6pm.

Luxury: Ospitalita del Conte Hotel e Spa: Located in Olbia’s old town, this boutique hotel sits in a 19th century mansion and has six double rooms, two junior suites, a rooftop terrace and a lounge bar. Via Papandrea. From £131.
Mid-range: Hotel Royal: Set in a whitewashed building, this simple hotel offers welcoming rooms with balconies and wooden floors. Breakfast is served in the relaxed restaurant and there is also a bar and an outdoor pool. From £79.
Budget: Hotel Cavour: On a cobbled street, a few minutes’ walk from the station, this hotel offers rooms with free wi-fi, flat screen televisions and minifridges. There is also parking and a breakfast buffet. Via Cavour. From £49.

Fact file
Currency: Euros (€) – £1 = €1.13.
Time zone: GMT+1hr.
The flight: EasyJet flies direct from Manchester to Olbia. Flight time: 2hrs 45mins. From £135 return.
: The weather is pleasant in Olbia for most of the year. The warmest months are July and August, while the coldest are February and March. Prepare for rain between January and April.
Visas, injections and precautions: None.

article by Emma Curry first appeared 5th August 2017 on Manchester Evening News.

All in roe: the secret of Sardinia’s bottarga

article by Liz Boulter appeared Sunday 4th June 2017 on the Guardian -the foodie traveller.


Bottarga (cured roe) Photograph by Getty Images


Still think spaghetti carbonara is best made with bacon – or pancetta if you’re being authentic? One taste of the Buzzi brothers’ version at their A Galaia restaurant in Carloforte, Sardinia, and the piggy version will probably never cut it again. That’s because they make their carbonara with bottarga, the cured, air-dried roe of grey mullet (in Sicily they use tuna).

Thought to have been introduced by the Phoenicians 3,000 years ago, bottarga (from the Arabic battarikh) is made in several places around the Med, but the variety made in the Cabras lagoon in the west of Sardinia, is regarded by many as the best.

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Pasta with bottarga . photograph Alamy


It has started finding a market outside Italy, and Cabras producers are campaigning to get EU protected origin status (DOP) for their bottarga (which, as it happens, marries extremely well with one of Sardinia’s other DOP products, its intensely flavoured spiny artichoke).

Mouthfillingly savoury but with a hint of sweetness and a clean, almondy scent, rich amber-coloured Cabras bottarga is also wonderful served in thin slices drizzled with olive oil as an appetiser with drinks – or grated like cheese over a simple pasta with fresh tomato sauce.

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Grey mullet roe. Photograph: Alamy


Cabras’s climate and waters are just right for grey mullet, which are caught in September when they’re at their fattest. The pairs of egg sacs are extracted whole, steeped in salt and pressed. Three months or so of air and sunshine then do the job of drying it into the prized “Sardinian gold”.

Stock up at Bottarga e Affumicati, 64 Corso Italia just outside Cabras centre, then head off for a picnic among the wild beaches and farmland of the nearby Sinis peninsula. And if you’re in Sardinia in mid-August, don’t miss Cabras’s bottarga festival, with street stalls offering all manner of bottarga products to taste and buy.

Diving in Nora, Sardinia: the sunken road to Roman ruins .

article by  Andrew Purvis

On land it is easy to imagine what the ancient Roman town of Nora looked like. Standing at the crocevia (crossroads) of the ruined coastal settlement, on a sun-baked peninsula 20 miles from Cagliari in southern Sardinia, I looked north to the near-intact Roman theatre, east to the clearly identifiable Temple of Aesculapius, and south to the Terme A Mare (Spa by the Sea), complete with rectangular bath tubs, the remains of furnaces and brick pillars that once supported an upper pavement with underfloor heating.

There are more than 150 sunken cities and ports around the shores of the Mediterranean
Photo The Telegraph

Extending west from the junction is a Roman road, made from blocks of volcanic rock with the famous “donkey’s back” camber that allowed water to drain off into culverts. It runs rod-straight to the water’s edge, then plunges unexpectedly beneath the surface of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The active mind infers a highway shooting 200 yards out into the bay – and that is exactly what members of the Mensura Diving Team found in 1964 when, inspired by Dr Nicholas Flemming from the department of geography at Cambridge University, they conducted the first underwater survey of the site.

Another sunken road runs parallel with the first and slightly to the north, the two ending abruptly where the water depth increases suddenly from 10ft to about 40ft. This, we now know, is the edge of a quayside where ships once moored, part of a harbour, the Porto Nord Occidentale, which is now completely submerged. It and two others, on the south-west and north-east shores, would have more than trebled the land area of today’s Capo di Pula peninsula.

On the north side of the headland, the story is still more graphically told. As I walk from the car park where coachloads disembark for guided tours of Nora above water, I peer down into the shallows fringing the shore and can clearly see a submerged causeway, 50 yards long, built from slabs of stone. It, too, is a Roman road, running straight and true 4ft beneath the surface until it collides with a cliff rising from the water, and stops abruptly. Where did the rest of the road go?


Nora Anfiteatro Romano -photo


Diving the world best shipwrecks

At some indeterminate date, in either the Punic or Roman periods of settlement, the whole seaward section of the peninsula appears to have dropped by 15ft or so along a geological fault, fracturing the road and causing it and Porto Nord Orientale to slip beneath the waves. At the same time, the landward side may have risen a little. There was no recorded earthquake at the time, and no tsunami, so the slippage may have been gradual and was probably the result of coastal erosion along a fragile shoreline.

The same must have occurred at the other two ports, meaning there is a vast underwater Nora to explore, dwarfing the preserved Roman town of latrines, frigidaria and mosaics that landlubber tourists know.

For good reason, the site is protected and a licence is required to dive it. That privilege is held by the Pula Diving Centre, a local club which has an arrangement with Forte Village Resort Sardinia, the upmarket Eleganzia-owned property, six miles south of Nora, where watersports are on the agenda along with spa treatments and Michelin-star dining.

Non-divers can be picked up by boat from Forte Village beach to snorkel in the shallow waters of Nora’s north coast, following the submerged road. Certified divers can explore the Porto Nord Orientale, at depths of up to 40ft that require scuba. This is what I did with Matteo Contu, a local diver with a fortunate knack for interpreting a seemingly featureless seabed and extrapolating from it a Roman port.

Rolling backwards off the boat, I waited for the bubbles to clear and glimpsed an expanse of poseidon grass below, interspersed with patches of sand. Dropping down the anchor line to 22ft, we set off across the seabed and immediately spotted some broken amphorae – ceramic jars once used to transport grain, wine or oil. Apart from that, all I saw was a reef of black rock covered in marine encrustations and weed, like many I have seen in the Med. Only as I swam along it did I realise that the “reef” is perfectly rectilinear, disappearing into the green gloom like a motorway into fog. It is clearly man-made and comprises, I soon recognised, a series of stone blocks positioned to form breakwater walls. At their base we discovered more amphora fragments. The most intact containers have been found in deeper water and come from Chios, a Greek island famous for its wine, and Spain, colonised by the Phoenicians.

The World’s best dive sites

Nora had clearly been a trading port before the Romans inhabited it. The Phoenician amphorae contained fragments of bone, suggesting they were used to transport meat; some Roman jars were used for fish sauce and defrutum (literally “cooked” wine, used to make a condiment).


Nora Underwater -The Telegraph

We finned languidly along the west side of the submerged breakwaters, passing an 18th-century Spanish anchor before returning along the east side. Close to the anchored dive boat, Matteo waved me closer and we settled on the seabed. He moved his hand back and forth over the sand, spiriting the grains away to reveal what I took to be a flat rock bottom. On closer inspection, it bore the flecked, variegated pattern of a marble flagstone.

This is the bare floor of the ancient Roman quayside, running unbroken but covered in silt and Poseidon grass to the shore. Nearby we find what Matteo later described as “the ruins of a port building”. To me it looked like a jumble of builders’ rubble.

Still, it was one of those Eureka moments – like the time when, as a child, I’d noticed the imprint of a potter’s thumb in a shard of Roman terracotta found in a field in Yorkshire. The past was palpable, and I felt a human connection with the people of ancient Nora which was somehow more profound underwater. It’s the same thrill that lures divers to wrecks, working vessels that are frozen in time and haunted by the ghosts of the past.

That is not to say the above-water experience at Nora is unrewarding. One-hour tours depart from the ticket office every few minutes, and the site’s highlights (the baths, the well-preserved Roman theatre, the Temple of Tanit, a housing district and an area filled with artisan workshops) have numbered signs matched to relevant “chapters” of an audioguide, in English, that informs without overwhelming.

If diving and snorkelling are not your thing, combine one of these tours with a visit to the Giovanni Patroni Archaeological Museum in Pula, dedicated to Nora but with a section about underwater archaeology. Exhibits include amphorae, anchors and pottery recovered from the site by divers.

There is also an aquarium and education centre in Pula, showcasing marine life from the lagoon to the north of Nora where Phoenicians and Romans fished.

Most of Nora’s underwater treasures reside in the archaeological museum, but many have been removed illegally by amateur divers over the years.

“The site is protected,” Matteo told me on the boat ride back to Forte Village, “but this is Italy.”

Decades of casual looting explain why diving Nora is not quite the experience I naively expected: a clearly set-out submerged Roman town, as intact and bewitching as Atlantis. Without Matteo as my guide, I would probably have swum right over it. Let’s hope any potential collectors do the same, preserving what is left of La Citta Sommersa.

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