By ANNE SPISELMAN
Photos by Fred Swanson
Much of Saturday, May 20, was spent driving—or so it seemed.
We left Cagliari fairly early in order to get all the way north to Sassari before noon as requested by Silvia, our hostess at Airbnb Accueillant Maison de Vacances, which turned out to be in a semi-rural area about half an hour outside of town. The attached cottage with a lovely garden had been the home of her grandmother, as far as we could make out from Silvia and her mother, neither of whom spoke much English. They did, however, have a British boarder in an apartment upstairs from ours, and they corralled him to help share a piece of crucial information: Some sort of work was being done on the area’s infrastructure, so there would be no water until early evening.
Luckily, we were planning to head out almost immediately, so after sitting and chatting with them outside for a while—and learning that Silvia and her friends were planning, like us, to go to the Cavalcata Sarda festival in Sassari the next day—we went inside to unpack. The apartment was crammed full of stuff that looked like it had belonged to a grandma, especially the bedroom, which was plastered with religious art and artifacts ranging from pictures of Mary and Jesus staring down from the wall to a statue of a saint holding a bambino in a corner of the dresser. The living room/dining room was full of furniture, including a couch, several chairs, a large china cabinet, a big table, and an extra bed.
After relaxing a bit, we retraced our route almost halfway south to Cagliari, then went west on winding roads about 30 kilometers to the tiny village of Santa Lussurgiu. Our destination was Distillerie Lussurgesi, where I had an appointment to interview owner Carlo Pische. He produces mirto, the tangy, bittersweet liqueur made from myrtle berries that’s basically the national beverage. It is typically drunk chilled as a “digesitvo” after a meal, and I was writng about it for another publication.
I don’t speak Italian, and Carlo speaks relatively little English, but by a happy coincidence, his U.S. importer, Fabio Pibiri, who lives in Chicago most of the year, was in Sardinia at the same time and arranged to meet us at the distillery to translate for me. Now 60, Carlo switched from being an auto mechanic to making spirits in 2003, and the building that used to be his garage now houses his mostly hand-operated equipment, infusion tanks, bottling and packaging materials, samples for his laboratory, and other accoutrements of his artisanal business.
Fabio’s wife and two children came with him, so following the interview and distillery tour, we piled into our car for a drive around Santa Lussurgiu with its frighteningly narrow streets. We also spent some time at a knife-making shop while waiting for the restaurant Carlo suggested, Sas Benas, to open at 8 p.m. The rustically handsome two-story spot with big paintings on exposed-brick walls and white tablecloths on widely spaced tables was on my not-so-short list, so I was excited.
The menu offered only three choices: antipasti and first course, antipasti and second course, or all three courses for 25-35 euros including water and wine. Everything was served family style, and soon appetizers crowded our table: beef carpaccio in olive oil, marinated pork blanketed by shredded iceberg lettuce, stuffed zucchini, chopped beef in red wine on toasted bread, puff pastry filled with lardo, cheese crostini, and more. The primi and secondi were simple by comparision: a choice of two pastas, one of which was cheese ravioli in a light tomato sauce with chopped fresh tomato, and a choice of a platter of grilled pork and beef slices or just beef. Dessert was seatas, here a very big cheese-stuffed pastry shaped a little like the sun, lightly fried, and drizzled with honey.
The only hard part was driving back to our Airbnb after such an enormous meal. We didn’t arrive until well after midnight.
The late night squelched our plan to get into Sassari early the next morning for the Cavalcata Sarda, mainly to find a good spot along the parade route. I’d planned the whole trip partly around this festival, one of the most important on the island, so I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss anything.
Begun in 1899 to honor a visit by King Umberto I and Queen Margherita, the Cavalcata is on the second-to-last Sunday in May and brings together roughly 3,000 people in traditional costumes from all over the island, not to mention a slew of horsemen and horsewomen. Besides the hours-long parade, there are demonstrations and tastings of traditional breads, a show of horsmanship (at the hippodrome, which we didn’t find), and performances by folk singing and dancing troupes. In addition, the town feels like one huge market fair with stalls selling foodstuffs, clothing, jewelry, and crafts set up along many streets.
We got there around 10 a.m., then spent a long time trying to find a parking space. Once we did, we just followed the crowds past the pretty public gardens to the barricades on the parade route. But people already were three deep, making it hard to see, so eventually we headed toward San Giuseppe Church where the parade started and were able to position ourselves at the corner where two threads converged. One was of the groups on horseback, the other of costumed adults and children from various towns, as well as masked performers dressed, among other things, as shepherds and sheep representing ancient stories (though we’re not sure what they were).
When we got tired of watching the parade, we strolled over to the Piazza Castello to check out the bread demos. Seatas was being made at one stall, panini at another. Elaborately shaped breads were on display everywhere. Free samples were in short supply, but we bought a tasty sausage panino with chimichurri on a semolina baguette.
Wandering around elsewhere, we found a whole street with stalls of torrone- and candy-makers, and several of them were offering samples. At Torrone di Tonara, we tried not only the delicious nougat but also almond cookies I could have kept eating all afternoon.
Next stop was St. Nicholas Cathedral, but it hadn’t reopened after lunch yet, so we just admired the Baroque 18th-century facade with its bas reliefs, statues, friezes, and busts. The interior, we learned when we returned later, is late 15th-century Catalan Gothic and plainer, though there are a few nice frescoes. It was built over an earlier Romanesque church, but little remains of that except for the bell tower.
Leaving the cathedral the first time, we happened upon the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Sassari (Piazza S. Caterina 4), which amazingly was open during lunch. The gallery occupies three floors of the old Canopoleno Jesuit College built in the 17th century. More than 400 works of art, most of them paintings, seemed to be arranged thematically—religious subjects, history, portraits, landscapes, etc.-and then chronologically within each subject, from the Middle Ages to the 21st century. Sardinian artists were well-represented, especially in the modern sections. We spent about an hour exploring, then found a wine bar for a drink and a few little sandwiches the waitress cut up as happy hour snacks.
Following the second visit to the cathedral to see the inside, we went to the Piazza d’Italia for the Sardinian folk song and dance festival, which actually had started earlier than the time listed in the Cavalcata brochure. More than three dozen groups were on the bill, and we stayed for about ten of them. They performed on a raised stage, but as the square filled with people, it became harder to see. Many of the dances were similar in movement style: minimalist yet intricate. Of the choral groups, those that were all women were a fascinating counterpoint to the men’s choirs we’d heard in Olbia (see Part 1).
We saved the last day in Sardinia for nearby Alghero, the medium-size town on the Mediterranean Sea founded by the Doria family of Genoa in the early 12th century, then conquered a couple of centuries later by the Crown of Aragon. Catalan still is one of the official languages, and the Catalan-Aragonese Gothic style heavily influenced the architecture, including the churches and the ramparts with bastions and towers built around much of the Old Town as a defense against the Turks.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria looked plain from the outside but was beautiful inside, and the effect was enhanced by soft organ music and the paucity of other visitors. Started in 1570 and opened in 1593 but not finished until 1730, it somehow felt very early Spanish with its thick columns and late Renaissance flourishes.
We didn’t get to St. Francis or the other important churches, but we did find a brochure about them at the Tourist Office. Our main reason for seeking it out, however, was to ask if there was a wheelchair-accessible way up onto the ramparts. There was, and once there, we walked the length and enjoyed the views while checking out the cannons, archeological library, and more than half-a-dozen restaurants.
We settled on Macchiavello (Bastioni Marco Polo 57) for a lunch that began with a composed salad of ray (as in stingray) “in the Spanish style” with purple onion strips, halved cherry tomatoes, and arugula in a light olive oil dressing. It surpassed the fregola with mussels in a bland, oily tomato sauce. The fish of the day was meaty but slightly dry scorpion fish fillets with fennel, black olives, and tomato, but it was no match for the tender roasted squid with a simple green salad. Good semolina bread and Sardinian flatbread, a glass of Vermentino, and water rounded out the meal.
Since the museums were closed on Monday, we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around looking at the architecture and soaking up the ambiance. The last stop was Gelateria Artigianale Tropical #2 (Via Simon 10), where I savored my last very dark chocolate and hazelnut gelati and was almost able to compliment the owner in Italian.
The next morning brought the long drive back to the Olbia airport and the flight of about the same length to Berlin, where we had to overnight before flying to Chicago. The highlight of the very short stay in the city was the perfect German spring meal at Schnitzelei: impeccably cooked spargel (fat white asparagus) with a side of crisp wienerschnitzel, boiled potatoes, and frothy hollandaise. The free sample of the pub’s beer made the evening even more festive.