Retracing the scent of summer and the footprints of the past
The fragrance of the helicrysum rubbed between my fingers a few hours before was still persistent, even after driving miles back to the South of the region. I could inhale the zest pervading the air while, since ancient times, local women created their homemade essence from the ‘Helicrysum Italicum’ – one of the many varieties of this shrub that grows in the Mediterranean area. A precious serum, meant to fight skin ageing and cure all sorts of ailments, would be extracted from the delicate flowers and leaves of the plant. As place and memory have their scents, helicrysum became the fragrance of my summer, in particular of my two weeks spent in Sardinia.
Back in my hotel cottage after the trip, I felt rewarded by a tiring but enriching day, the highlight of an otherwise exclusively ‘sun, sand and sea’ Sardinian holiday. The beach of Costa Rei is over 8 km long, the sand fine and the turquoise sea crystal-clear, but my wish was to find some traces of the past in this rich and incredible land. My plan was strongly supported by my daughter.
Therefore, we set ready to go. After a few negotiations with the hotel receptionist – renting a car was going to become a crazy and super-expensive treat – the woman proposed an odd but attractive offer: I could rent one of the owner’s ‘courtesy’ cars for the sum of Euro 40 per day, no questions asked. Despite the dusty and aged look, that car came as a Godsend just when I was almost giving up the idea of exploring at least a tiny part of the mysterious grounds of Ichnusa, as Sardinia was known in ancient times.
At first, we had various doubts about where to go and what to see. Finally, we decided to drive Nort to Barumini, to visit ‘Su Nuraxe’, the biggest ‘nuraghe’ area in Sardinia and a World Heritage Site, dating back to 1500 BC. It took us a good couple of hours to get there. As we got off the car, we were met by a scorching sun that bathed a wide, dry and harsh plain. Above it, the remains of an ancient and complex civilisation were telling the story of towers and fortifications once proudly standing and dominating the nearby area. Following our guide, we visited the towers, peeped into bottomless wells and corbel-vaulted dark and cool chambers, and tried to picture the life in the village that developed around the towers. We also wondered how those huge slabs of stone could have been transported in such a remote area in such remote times. Still today, it seems an unresolved mystery.
After this visit and with our mind endlessly wandering around the megalithic structures, we drove past Oristano and met our Sardinian friends, Ciriaco and Antonello, in Cabras. As it was not yet time for the scrumptious seafood lunch awaiting us, we dropped by a medieval village, San Salvatore di Sinis. Its abandoned houses, called ‘cumbessias’, are only inhabited once a year for three days, during the celebrations in honour of Saint Salvatore. For the rest of the time, the village is a ghost town. What lies underneath the village’s small and charming church – erected in the XVII century – is a pagan sanctuary of nuragic origin, later used as a temple for Roman gods, divided into five rooms. On the walls there are still traces of drawings and inscriptions, in Greek, Latin and also Arabic characters.
We were not surprised to get to know that the eerie village had been often used as the setting for ‘western-style’ movies. As we got ready to move on to our next and welcomed gourmet experience, I could visualise hordes of peregrines arriving at the village, dressing up, opening doors and windows, and gathering outdoors for the religious celebration.
As expected, the seafood lunch was delicious and it was followed by another detour suggested by our friends, so that we could get a feeling of the nearby area. We reached a sandstone quarry – an open and vast space where concerts take place in the long and breezy summer nights. Surrounded by silence and huge brown-coloured vertical slabs of stone – which were once used to build the ancient city of Tharros – we walked one level up to enjoy the spectacular sea view. It was there that I made acquaintance with the helicrysum and its persistent and unusual scent. This ‘turning around gold’, as the name suggests, dotted the area with its discreet presence and painted it with yellow brushstrokes.
I was not able to see much of Sardinia in one day, I admit, but I appreciated how even quick visits of unexpected places gave me a perception of the region. Very near the quarry, we drove into a tiny dirt road leading directly into a big pond with salty waters. In summer, the water evaporates and the area becomes dry and covered by a thick layer of salt. The name of this small lake is Sal’e Porcus and it appeared to us as a vast white desert. The pink flamingos find this place attractive and suitable for nesting. It seems that every summer one might get a chance to watch thousands of them, as they migrate from the African coasts. The lake was a weird and mysterious place where I would have loved to spend more time: during the day to watch the flamingos flying or standing on one leg – like elegant ice-skaters wearing a fluffy pink costume – and at night, to get lost in solitary thoughts under the blinding reflection of the moonlight over the crystallized salt.
Finally, after greeting our friends, the last stop of our trip was the visit to the Giants of Mont’e Prama, at the ‘Museum Giovanni Marongiu’ in Cabras. The Giants are towering representations of mighty warriors, archers and boxers carved in sandstone during the Nuragic civilisation, around 11th century BC. Theirs is a fascinating history of discovery and reconstruction, as the statues were originally fragmented into more than 5000 pieces, buried underneath the nearby farmland that hosted a necropolis at the foot of Mont’e Prama, and found by chance. Were the Giants adorning a temple, close to the necropolis, erected to commemorate the victories against the Carthaginian invaders and dedicated to Sardus Pater (a mythological hero of the Nuragic civilization)? Or were both statues and necropolis part of the same complex and reminiscent of the Giants’ graves? Definitely, the mighty presence of these heroic warriors is still transmitting its visitors – as it did its enemies – a message of power and authority.
Ancient history and natural wonders – past and present: the long drive to go and to come back from one side to the other of the region was definitely worth it. And now, my next stop will have to be Barbagia, the area so well described by Grazia Deledda… and Ciriaco. I know I will get there, sooner or later, in search of some more magic, charm, mystery and inspiration, while following the recovered sillage of a familiar fragrance.