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Sardinia: The murals of Orgosolo

Mural in Orgosolo, Sardinia. Photo by David Lansing.

If, fifty years ago, Orgosolo was best known for its bandits, today its claim to fame are its murals—hundreds of them, painted on the stone walls and around the doorways and windows of just about every little business in town. They say the first murals were painted by an anarchic group of students known as the Dioniso in the late 60s. Remember this was an incredibly poor region; the populace has always felt ignored by the national government and harassed by the carabinieri. So maybe when the first mural went up, probably overnight, expressing some pissed-off student’s outrage over the conditions of life on Sardinia, instead of painting it over, they left it. They probably thought, You know what, that guy is right. Besides, it’s not a bad painting.

And then maybe another mural went up outside a bar and a week later someone painted a scene on the ancient wall of an old house and before you knew it, there were 20 or 30 murals around the village and Sardinians who used to hurry through this slightly-dangerous little berg started stopping, taking photos, and maybe even buying a cold beer or a wedge of sheep cheese. Unwittingly, the anarchists had kick-started a little tourism, giving the community another way to make a few lira besides kidnapping strangers. Commerce was created.

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How to cook a suckling pig

Baby pigs roasting on an open fire. Photo by David Lansing.

At the Santa Greca Festival, I hung out with Nicola and Sabrina Manconi at one of the outdoor barbecue booths, Gastromomia da Tonino, picking up some pointers on how to properly roast the suckling pig that they call porceddu. First of all, says Nicola, you only want pigs that weigh between 5 and 6 kilos. At that point they’re still nursing. Anything bigger than that and they’re on the pig feed and it changes the whole taste of the pork.

Then you should cook them very slowly over a wood fire, carmelizing the skin (which, frankly, is the best part of the little porker as far as I’m concerned). But the most important part comes after the pig has been roasted. That’s when you take the pork and wrap it in aluminum foil with branches of myrtle on top. The hot pork sort of steams the myrtle leaves, releasing their oil and fragrance, and the flavor is picked up in the pig.

So I bought a quarter of a pig plus some grilled intestines (just to snack on) and Nicola threw in some red wine, which he poured from a barrel into a recycled plastic Pepsi bottle, for free, and hunkered down on one of the long wooden picnic tables, eating the porceddu with my fingers and washing it all down with a long swig of rustic wine from my Pepsi bottle and I’ll tell you what—I was in pig heaven.

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Sardinia: Sparrows on a spit

The things in the back that look like intestines are actually grilled eels. In the front are sparrows on a spit. Photo by David Lansing.

Several people wrote me after I blogged about the Santa Greca Festival in Sardinia yesterday and said, “You’re such a lier! They don’t eat eel shish kababs and stuffed sheep and horsemeat!”

Well, that’s not exactly what they said, but pretty close. Actually, it was worse. But they do eat that stuff in Sardinia. And probably a lost of other places as well. (In fact, I just read this week that some guy in New Mexico just got approval to open a horse slaughtering house so he can sell horsemeat steaks. Yum, yum!)

But that’s not even the worst of it. I didn’t want to gross people out so I didn’t tell you the worst thing they were selling at the festival: sparrows on a stick. They catch the birds by putting up giant nets near orchards so that the birds (which are migrating—or at least, trying to) fly into them and get trapped (yes, it’s illegal). Then they drop them in boiling water, pluck off the feathers (but leave the heads, tails, and feet on), and then roast them on a spit with apple slices (for flavor).

You eat the whole thing (except the head). And they don’t take the guts out. And guess what? They taste like chicken.

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Sardinia: Santa Greca Festival

It's all smoke and lights at the Santa Greca Festival in Sardinia.

Last night I headed into Decimomannu for the Santa Greca festival. The thing I love about the saints of the Catholic Church is that most of them probably never existed. Like Santa Greca. Here’s her story: About 400 years ago, give or take a decade, this little town in Sardinia decided to build a new church. So they started digging around and came across an old tombstone dating back to the 4th or 5th century saying that an unnamed Greek who lived two decades, two months, and 19 days, was buried there on Jan. 21 in some unknown year.

That’s it. That was all the information they had: She was a woman, she died when she was 20, and she wasn’t from around here. So the archbishop of Cagliari decides that since this woman was from Greece, she probably came to Sardinia because she was being persecuted by some nasty Roman emperor. Probably because she was a Christian. So he decides, what the hell. Let’s name the church after this woman who, because she has no name we’ll just call Santa Greca, and lets have a festival to celebrate her. And that’s what they did. And are still doing.

So how do they celebrate this mysterious Greek saint? Basically by having a five-day barbecue in which they roast hundreds of suckling pigs as well as eel shish kababs, stuffed sheep intestine, and donkey sausages. You can also get a nice cut of horsemeat if you want, but I don’t recommend it; it costs about double what a plate of suckling pig goes for.

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Sardinia: Flamingos

Flamingos, like buffalos, intrigue me. They just seem so prehistoric. So obsolete. So ridiculous. You look at their spindly legs and long necks leading to tiny, tiny little heads, which they like to stick under the water for long periods of time, and you just have to think, How did you guys ever survive?

They survived, I suppose, because they have no real predators. Fortunately for them, they like to live places no one else can stand. Like salty, mosquito-infested lagoons.

Driving along the Golfo di Cagliari in southern Sardinia, I was amazed by the massive colonies of flamingos. I mean, they are everywhere. They say that as many as 40,000 of the pinkish-orange birds live in the Molentargius and Santa Gilla marshes. And they’re kind of cool to watch. Particularly when they’re performing this weird mass courtship ritual where hundreds of tightly packed birds move in a coordinated walk, sort of like a marching band, across the mud flat, suddenly switching direction, without warning, and marching off in a different direction. Did somebody blow a whistle? I mean, give these birds some drums and bugles and they’d probably kick ass on Stanford’s marching band.

The flamingos on Sardinia used to migrate down to Africa but around 1992 they decided to stay home. Now they winter here instead of in Morocco or Tanzania. Ask an Italian naturalist why that is and they’ll shrug and tell you they have no idea. I have my own theory. I think they just got tired of the commute.

The Sardinians call these birds gente rossa—the red people. Because when they fly in large flocks over the rooftops, they call to each other in a loud voice which they say sounds like people in the marketplace.

I’m surprised Disney hasn’t made an animated movie with a flamingo lead. It seems a natural. For one thing, they have a lot of human traits. Like flamingos are monogamous (I suppose a few stray and, with those pink feathers, god knows there has to be a healthy contingent of gay flamingos doing their own thing). They often stay together for 20 or 30 years. And both the male and the female are responsible for raising their chicks. They build the nest together and then both incubate the egg. After it hatches, they both feed it, regurgitating a creamy pink liquid called crop-milk. And then they work their butts off for the next 18 years trying to gather up enough brine shrimp to put it through college. Okay, I made that last part up. But the rest of it’s true.

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