For reasons unknown to me now, S and I found ourselves one day in December Googling festivals in Sardinia. As it turned out, the weekend that we’d be there in January happened to be the weekend of the St. Antonio festival, which kicks off the carnival season and involves bonfires and the passing around of wine and snacks. Food, wine, and bonfires …no need to think twice about that.
After day one of the trip, which involved sitting on the runway in Frankfurt for three hours due to an Italian air traffic controller strike, a quick two hour flight, and gorging ourselves on Sardinian meats, cheeses, raviolis, and wines in Cagliari, we set off for the unknown and often unexplored interior. While Sardinia’s coastline is what tends to draw vacationers, its interior — covered in rolling hills and mountains, which in turn are covered in greenery and spotted with decaying, but picturesque towns — is where you’ll find authentic local traditions and breathtaking natural beauty.
Eventually, we arrived in the teeny tiny town of Oliena, which sits in the shadow of a white rock face on one side and overlooks a lush, green valley on the other. We chose the town for its proximity to a number of wineries, which for reasons you’ll soon see, we never visited. Shortly after our arrival, our host informed us that the St. Antonio festival in Oliena was the night before (naturally), but that a nearby town was celebrating that night. So we bundled up (it turns out its really cold in the mountains in January, even on the Mediterranean) and set off for Mamoiada. Here, the villagers had set up fires all over town and by this I mean they dug up tree stumps, threw them around town in the middle of streets – roots, dirt, and all – and set them ablaze. Totally normal and totally safe. We popped around town, warming ourselves at each fire and sampling the free cookies and homemade wine being passed around in repurposed plastic containers…think 4 gallon juice jugs. At one point, we stepped into what we’re still not sure was a restaurant or a private home, and found the one thing that I had really been hoping to find on this trip. It’s a cheese that’s not exactly legal, or at least not legal to sell, and it’s made using worms (or maybe maggots). In explaining the cheese’s illegality, some new local friends commented, “But we’re in the middle of Sardinia. Who’s going to stop us?” A license to party if I’ve ever heard one. We tried some cheese and quickly chased it with the strongest grappa/diesel fuel of all time to kill any of the creepy crawlies still in there. When in Rome? When I blocked out the idea/reality of the worms, it tasted like a hard, spicy blue cheese. I am now not ashamed to say that I ate worm cheese and I loved it. S, on the other hand, was completely grossed out and refuses to speak of it to this day.
From there, we wandered around town sampling more wines and enjoying the festival. Of course we blindly stumbled into the year-round headquarters for the festival. While inside, we were adopted by a Sardinian from the northern coast with absolutely no affiliation to the town or the headquarters, who took it upon himself to teach us all about the goings on of the night through a private, but apparently somewhat illicit tour of the headquarters. We soon learned that this festival was a huge deal in Mamoiada and is what the town is known for across the island. After some more wine and more cookies, we were lead into the costume room, where, of course, we weren’t supposed to be. We had already eaten illegal cheese (renegades!), so why not trespass. It’s the middle of Sardinia! Once inside, S was instructed to try on the costume of the wild man who, during the festival, is lassoed by some guys in red. We didn’t really understand why, but that’s what they do. So, S wore this huge floor-length fur vest (now that I’m back in Frankfurt and it’s freezing, I really wish we had brought some of these home with us!) and slung 25 kilos of bells over his shoulder. Our new friend then yelled at him to jump and ring the bells. It was one of those bizarre, hilarious, and even, under a certain lens, a bit frightening experiences that I tend to find myself in when traveling with S. (I’m fairly certain that anyone who has ever met S has a story to be told on this topic.) After we were inexplicably, but kindly kicked out and given some calendars (the locals needed to protect the trappings of their heritage from S, but maybe also wanted us to tell our friends about it) we blessedly, after a night of sampling intensely potent homemade wines, found the best pizza place to ever exist in the history of the world. The wine may have had something to do with that rating. We waited an hour because it may have also been the only restaurant open in town and then split three pizzas in a matter of seconds. Still hungry for more, S charmed the guys in the kitchen (after striking out with our waitress and the burly Italian matriarch up front) into making us two more pizzas. And some fries. This may have been the greatest triumph of the weekend and, for that matter, 2015 thus far. Perhaps inspired by S’ perseverance, our waitress served us a bottle of wine that her dad made in his basement. Because that’s a thing in Sardinia. I don’t think it was on the menu, but I guess we looked like we needed more wine. We didn’t. Anyway, it was delicious! Finally, smelling of bonfires, full of pizza, and bleary-eyed from basement wine, we made the trek back to our little B&B in Oliena.
The whole experience was so incredible that the rest of the trip doesn’t even matter. I mean, it was great, but the details pale in comparison to S in a fur vest. What I really mean is the rest of the trip, for me at least, involved recovering from basement wine.
If you’re heading to Sardinia, I highly recommend the following:
Hotels: The Place in Cagliari and Giardino dei Limoni B&B in Oliena
Wine Bar: Inu Sardinian Wine Bar, Cagliari
Restaurants: Sa Domu Sarda and Ristorante Antica Cagliari, both in Cagliari
In addition to a certain black market cheese, I also highly recommend trying traditional culingionis, a local version of raviolis, filled with mint and mashed potatoes. I ordered a version topped with olive oil, cheese, and nuts at Sa Domu Sarda and it was simply divine.