A cobbled path twists its way through an olive grove to an ivy-covered villa made from stone quarried in the great limestone massif of the surrounding peaks of the Supramonte. Step inside to a fin de siècle setting straight out of a Merchant Ivory movie: copper pots and pans hang on cobalt-blue walls in a candle-lit dining room that smells fragrantly of myrtle and rosemary. Racked before the hundred-year-old fireplace is the restaurant’s signature dish: suckling pigs, skewered on metal rods, roasting before a glowing fire. Su Gologone, a country inn tucked away in a valley along the island’s mountainous eastern coast, is known for two things: its romantic setting (Madonna, Richard Gere, and Stella McCartney have all taken refuge here) and Signora Palomera’s authentic Sardinian cooking—roasted suckling pig known as porceddu; homemade ravioli stuffed with wild fennel and pecorino; and seadas—a type of fritter stuffed with cheese and lemon peel, then drizzled with local chestnut honey. Order a bottle of the region’s famed blood-red wine, Nepente di Oliena, make a heart-felt toast, and put your appetite in the hands of Signora Palomera. She won’t disappoint. Tomorrow morning you can work it off with a trek along an ancient shepherd’s path to an overlook where, on a clear day, you can see the tiny fishing village of Cala Gonone 10 miles away.
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We were winding our way along the Orientale Sarda Road, a torturous road through some very remote and rugged mountain valleys in eastern Sardinia, when I said something erudite like, “Who the hell lives here? It’s so isolated.”
“Strong people,” said Paola. “Very strong people.” In fact, she said, the people in these valleys are very fit and healthy and tend to live forever. Evidently National Geographic or somebody had done a story on the three or four places in the world with the highest rates of longevity and one of the spots they came up with was the village we were just entering, Villagrande Strisali.
“Everyone here is at least a hundred years old,” she said. Okay, probably she was exaggerating. But that sounded very cool. A mountain town full of old people. Like McCain Ville. So I asked her if she knew anyone here and she didn’t but our driver did. He made a couple of phone calls and next thing you know, we’re drinking Nieddera, the local black wine called vino nero, with Buttau Pascuale, who isn’t really an old guy since he’s only 95 (and he’s married to this young chick, Grazietta, who is 92).
Buttau and I hit it off immediately. “I drink wine every day,” he said. “It’s what keeps me alive.”
I told him I couldn’t agree more. Then I asked Buttau what he did and he shrugged and said, “ As you see. I eat a little something, I drink a little something.”
Uhm, no, I said, I meant what did you used to do? When you were younger. Many things, he said. He was a soldier in Africa during WWII, and then he was a shepherd. Later he worked for the town council planting trees in the forest.
The secret to life, he said, was to laugh. “Don’t take life too seriously.” And it helps, he said, if you live in the mountains in the countryside and walk everywhere. “Walking is healthy.”
I asked him if there was anything he didn’t particularly like about being 95. Yes, he said. It made him angry that the town wouldn’t renew his driver’s license anymore. “When I turned 92, they said, no more driving. I don’t like it, but that’s life.”
And then he got up and walked into town to meet his buds and sit on a bench, ogling the young women.
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.
Not that this is Venice or anything. There are no tourist buses coming here, no Orgosolo Grand Resort hotels. As Paola and I walked from one end of town to the other, in about half an hour, we may have seen half a dozen other tourists at most. In fact, it was so slow in town that the guy running a little souvenir shop actually ran after us to give us a postcard of a mural commemorating 9/11. For free.
Most of the murals depict some sort of political message. For instance, one shows what looks like a soldier from WWII and the comicbook bubble next to his head says, “Another war? No, gracie.” Others are poetic, quoting Pablo Neruda, or philosophical—like my favorite, a painting of an old Barbagia shepherd, holding a cane, beneath the words “Happy are the people who don’t need heroes.”
I don’t know who those people are, but I like the thought.
It’s a shame Sergio Leone didn’t shoot “Per Un Pugno di Dollari” (or “A Fistful of Dollars” as it was titled in the States) in Orgosolo, Sardenia instead of Almeria, Spain. Clint Eastwood’s sullen character, The Man With No Name, would have fit right in with the rugged locals of Orgosolo, men known for their secretive ways and a fondness for revenge. In fact, just a few years before Leone shot what some consider to be the first commercially successful Spaghetti Western (for all of $200,000), Vittorio De Seta, shot “Bandits of Orgosolo” in the untamed region of Barbagia, an area long known for its lawlessness.
The film, shot in sort of a documentary style in 1961, used non-professional actors from Orgosolo to portray the hard-knock life of the poor farmers and shepherds who, like the warring cowboys in “Fistful of Dollars, make a meager living through banditry. Back in the 60s, you ventured into Orgosolo at your own risk. As Pasquale Cugia wrote of the area, “The people of Orgosolo, bold and proud, eager for adventure, have warlike ardor in their blood and the restlessness of the nomad races.”
Sort of reminds me of what The Man With No Name has to say when he first wanders into the little hellhole in “Fistful of Dollars” and says the only one making any money in town is the undertaker. Did you know that they originally offered the Clint Eastwood part to James Coburn, who turned it down, and then to Charles Bronson, who thought the plot was ridiculous, and finally to Richard Harrison? And it was Harrison who suggested to Sergio Leone that he get Eastwood for the part.
Anyway, we hung out in Orgosolo yesterday, chatting it up with these old guys sitting on a stone wall who looked sort of like a bunch of aging Tony Sopranos. I asked one of them if it was true that the shepherds here used to kidnap people and take them to their hideouts up in the rugged mountains of the Supramonte. The guy just shrugged, like How should he know? Then another old guy started whistling. Maybe I was just being paranoid but it sounded a lot like the theme from the last of the Dollars Trilogy, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” From somewhere down the mostly deserted street, I thought I heard the sound of a cracking whip. A few minutes later, a sullen youth passed by yanking a stubborn donkey with a rope. When the donkey stopped walking, the youth yanked the rope as hard as he could. Once he yanked and the donkey yanked back and the youth stumbled to the ground in front of us. I almost laughed. But then I thought about the scene in “Fistful of Dollars” when Eastwood’s character says, “I don’t think it’s nice, you laughin’. You see, my mule don’t like people laughing. He gets the crazy idea you’re laughin’ at him.”
And then he shoots everyone. Which seems like a pretty ridiculous scene. Until you’ve spent an afternoon in Orgosolo.
The first thing you notice when you walk into the dining room of Su Gologone are all the baby pigs, sawed in half and skewered on metal rods leaning against a hundred-year-old fireplace. The second thing you notice are the waitresses, said to be the most beautiful in Sardinia if not Italy. So, do you come for Pasqua Palimodde’s excellent cooking or the beauty of her staff? I figured I’d enjoy both.
This somewhat isolated country inn is situated close under the rim of the Supramonte massif and has long been a draw for European gourmands and romantics (the inn has a big honeymoon clientele). If you’re a guest, the thing to do is get up early and go for a hike in the hills where, if you’re lucky, you might spot wild boar, moufflon (wild sheep), and peregrine falcons.
But I wasn’t staying here so I skipped the hike and went straight to the kitchen where Signora Palimodde was overseeing the preparation of one of the simplest but most delicious dishes on the island, pane frattau. This is peasant food at its finest, the type of dish that a shepherd might have because there wasn’t anything else to eat in the house.
The most time-consuming part of the dish is making the carasau bread, which is baked in very thin, round layers. It’s not hard to make; it’s just unleavened bread. But if you make it the way Signora Palimodde makes it, it takes awhile because first you bake the bread in a wood stove, then you cut it in half and bake it a second time. That’s how it gets very flat and very crispy. Of course, in Sardinia you can find carasau in every village so you just go out and buy it. What you do is take one of the bread rounds and briefly soak it in stock, just to soften it up, then you spread a very simple tomato sauce—not a ragu—on top, dust it with some fresh pecorino sardo, and top the whole thing with a poached egg.
Sounds almost boring, doesn’t it? Watching Signora Palimodde put the dish together for me, I thought, what’s the big deal? In fact, I figured I’d just take a little bite or two just to be nice about it and then move on to the porceddu, which I could smell roasting in the dining room. But I’ll tell you what—that pane frattau was as good as anything I’d tasted on the island. I moped up every last bit of sweet tomato sauce and runny egg yolk and would have been happy to have another. But I needed to save room for the suckling pig.