My Sardinian Adventure—Part 2

Tharros ruins – Fred Swanson


When I planned the trip to Sardinia, I thought two weeks would be enough time. By the fourth day, I knew I was wrong.

The first areas to get short shrift were the east coast of the island south of the Costa Smeralda (visited in Part 1) and the inland town of Nuoro, a cultural center that was the birthplace of writers like Sebastiano Satta and Grazia Deledda, in 1926 the first Italian woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Sometimes called the “Sardinian Athens,” Nuoro is also pretty much right on the SS 131, the main road between Olbia and our next destination, Oristano.

We arrived in Nuoro at about 11:15 a.m. on May 13 with just a few hours to spend there. After driving around for a while trying to get oriented, we decided to park and walk instead. A Saturday morning flea market was in progress along Corso Garibaldi, the main commercial street, and besides checking out the bric-a-brac, we stopped in at Caffè Tettamanzi (No. 71), the town’s oldest cafe. It dates back to 1875 and is ornately decorated with cherub frescoes, gilding, polished woodwork, and marble tables. We didn’t stop for coffee, beer, sandwiches or snacks, but it’s a good place for people-watching indoors or out.

Interior of the Tettamanzi Caffe in Nuoro – Fred Swanson

Our goal was to find the MAN Museo d’Arte (27 via Sebastiano Satta), which I had read was the only serious contemporary art gallery on the island. The narrow building has temporary exhibits on three floors, and on our visit, two of them were devoted to a show of photographs by Berenice Abbott, while a third had video works, and a ground-floor room featured a gold-foil installation about immigration. The current main show, through Oct. 1, is “Love and Revolution: Artist Couples in the Russian Avant-Garde.” As it turned out, the museum’s permanent collection was actually at the

Francesco Ciusa Museum near the cathedral, but by the time we found it, it had closed for lunch. As far as I could tell, it showcased works by the eponymous Nuoro native (1883-1949), said to be the father of modern Sardinian sculpture. The MAN also has a collection of hundreds of paintings by Sardinian artists working from the late 19th through the mid-20th century, but I don’t know where – or if – they’re on exhibit.

Most of the art works in the Cattedrale di Santa Maria della Neve  (St. Mary of the Snow), across from the Ciusa, also date to the 19th and 20th centuries. The imposing twin-towered building, designed by a friar-architect named Antonio Cano, is more or less neoclassical in style and was started in 1836 but not dedicated until 1873. Cano’s accidental death in 1840 apparently slowed construction.

Interior of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria della Neve in Nuoro – Fred Swanson

Having toured the cathedral, we decided to make a little detour to Orgoloso before continuing to Oristano. The town is famous for having hundreds of murals, many of them political in nature. But the detour wasn’t so little, and after winding and twisting through 17 kilometers of mountain roads, we found ourselves in a hillside place where stopping to take photos was almost impossible, and anyway, the light wasn’t right. On the other hand, the murals – which ranged from tranquil scenes of daily life to angry outcries against injustice – were well worth seeing, even if we did have to retrace the tortuous route to get back to the SS 131.

Our next destination was the Tiria Guest House, an Airbnb in a rural area outside of Oristano. Naturally, we got lost, but our hosts, Tiziana and Stefano, came out and found us. The basement apartment ($50 per night) was very spacious but not quite as nicely furnished as the one in San Panteleo. However, Stefano gave us a pizza recommendation in Oristano, which was even better than expected.

We went to Cocco e Dessi (31 via Tirso) without reservations, a bad idea even though we arrived much earlier than the normal dinnertime of about 8 p.m. We were met with a lot of attitude and waited a long time until they found a table for us—in the virtually empty back dining room. There are also a number of smaller rooms, and up front, a sleek wine bar. The ambiance was very fancy for a pizza place, with beige cloths on big tables, cloth napkins, and handsome dinnerware.

Cocco e Dessi garden room in Oristano – Fred Swanson

The menu offers more than 40 kinds of pizza, as well as antipasti, primi, secondi, and more. We ordered the house’s namesake pie, the most expensive at 15 euros and about 14 inches in diameter. The crust, blistered on the edges and soft near the center, was generously topped with shell-on shrimp, mussels (also in the shell), thinly sliced octopus, salmon, and bottarga with mozzarella in a light tomato sauce. (Who says Italians don’t have cheese with seafood?) It was one of the best pizzas I’ve had. The extensive wine list includes half bottles of most selections, and our half bottle of cannonau (a Sardininan red grape varietal), while slightly rough, went well with the pizza and only cost 8 euros. The sour note was how long it took to get the check, even after the waiter admitted he had forgotten it.

Sunday morning we drove an hour up the west coast – more windy roads – to Bosa, a medieval town on the Temo, Sardinia’s only navigable river, or so I’ve read. On one side are the narrow buildings that used to be tanneries; on the other, the main part of the town, with rainbow-colored houses going up, up, up to the Castello built by the founding Malaspina family around 1112.

Bosa buildings on one side of the Temo River that used to be tanneries. – Fred Swanson

Unlike in Castelsardo (see Part 1), we were able to locate a road up to the castle, but it only went part way. We would have been daunted by the 60-some steps remaining, but while Fred was climbing them to assess the possibility of me doing it, a very nice man came along, and with his help, we learned there was a back road—a very narrow one for employees—right up to the gate. The castle has been undergoing renovations since 2000 (explained in a little room), and while most of it remains ruins, highlights included a separate 14th-century chapel with frescoes uncovered during the restoration and the ramparts, which we strolled along for wonderful views of the river, the town, and the countryside.

Bosa Castello ruins – Fred Swanson

Back down in the town, we tarried in a peaceful little cemetery with big tombs, then tried to walk around the commercial area but found the cobblestone streets too difficult to navigate with a wheelchair. Next we checked out the marina, which has white sand beaches and a lot of new development. We wanted to dine on the famous spiny lobster at Sa Pischedda, but the restaurant was closed on Sunday.

We took local roads through tiny towns almost all the way back to Oristano, where we sought out the  late 19th-century statue of Eleonora d’Arborea on a little square in the center of the old town. Born in Catalonia in 1347, she was the daughter of Marianus IV, “giudice” (“judge,” though the word means “king” in the Sardinian language) of Arborea, one of the island’s four regions at the time. When her father died, and his heir, her brother, was murdered in a 1383 uprising, she became ruler as regent for her son (who also died) until her death in 1404 in Oristano, probably of the plague. During her reign, she kept the conquering Aragonese at bay, winning back land to make Arborea the largest independent area of Sardinia. She also formulated the Carta di Logu in 1395, and this code of law – which protected women’s property rights and made fines the main penalty for civil offenses – remained in force until the 19th century. The statue holds a copy in one hand. An ornithologist, Eleonora legislated protection for falcons, and one is named after her.

Statue of Eleonora d’Arborea in Oristano – Fred Swanson

A number of churches in Oristano have an Eleonora connection, but we only made it to the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, a Baroque fantasy with a soaring octagonal tower. Inside are monumental paintings, mosaics, and a starry-sky dome, among other treasures.

Interior dome of Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta in Oristano – Fred Swanson

The last stop of the day was the Archaeological Museum Antiquarium Arborense (1 Piazza Corrias), our favorite archaeological museum of the trip. An introductory video that spools out like a soap opera details the founding of the museum in 1938 with Efisio Pischedda’s collection of finds from Tharros and the Sinis Peninsula, some of which are on display on the second floor. The ground-floor exhibits trace the history of the area chronologically from neolithic times, and the picture gallery showcases 14th- and 15th-century masterpieces. Plastic models of Tharros and Oristano suggest what they were like in the 4th and 14th centuries respectively. The unique (in Sardinia, at least) feature, though, is a whole room of replicas of artifacts—and even has reliefs of the paintings—that people can touch and hold, a real boon for anyone who is blind or has limited vision.

Finds in the Oristano Archaeological Museum – Fred Swanson

The archaeological site at Tharros and museum in nearby Cabras were our Monday destinations. Inhabited successively by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans beginning in the 8th century B.C., and the capital of the medieval Giudicato of Arborea until 1070 when that was moved to Oristano, Tharros is a vast excavation site (used as a quarry for a time) beautifully set along the water on the peninsula, so you can really imagine what living there felt like to the ancients. Specific highlights are marked on the map handed out by the ticket office, but it was hard to follow. We mostly trudged up, down, and along gravel and basalt roads (sometimes filled in with wood planks) looking at the temple foundations, baths, and area for houses and artisan workshops.

Bosa Castello ruins – Fred Swanson

Many artifacts excavated at Tharros and a couple of other important sites nearby are housed at the Museo Civico Giovanni Marongiu in Cabras, a museum that opened in 1997 and is laid out chronologically in a way that was rather confusing visually, though the attention to showing the objects in situ (with photos) was impressive. Most famous are the “giants,” eerie stone sculptures from the necropolis at Mont’e Prama, which was discovered accidentally in 1974 by agricultural workers. Restoration of the statues has been ongoing, and plans are afoot to unite them all in an expanded Cabras museum.

One of the mysterious “Giants” from Mont’e Prama in the Cabras Museo Civico – Fred Swanson

In between visiting Tharros and Cabras, we had a lovely lunch on the patio at da Marina in San Giovanni, another recommendation from Stefano. The high point was the whole grilled orata (sea bream) on a bed of fennel fronds. Our daily gelato was from Vanillas in Cabras—good chocolate and pistachio—but Tiziana gave us an even better treat when we got back to the Tiria Guest House: just-picked strawberries from her father’s garden, a perfect finish to the day.

The whole grilled orata (sea bream) at da Marina restaurant – Fred Swanson