Pretty as a picture
Idyllic mountain villages. There is almost an overload of them on the island of Sardinia. Just like cork trees, but that’s a different story. Because of all its colourful murals, the village Orgosolo redefines picturesque. It might very well be one of the coolest, best-kept secrets of the island. The village itself is, however, not the only secret the surrounding mountains try to hide.
Strings of little flags in many colours are dancing in the wind as if the Mediterranean blue sky needs a picture frame. The sun gives them a cheerful reflection on the bright stucco walls. Singing starlings provide sunny background music as I find myself getting lost in the small alleys of Orgosolo. Once in a while, the sound of the birds makes room for rickety, honking Fiat Panda’s racing through the streets. Orgosolo is, nowadays, a peaceful village in the east of the island. Nowadays, because the calm coloured walls, hide a turbulent history. My toes are almost peeking through my sandals as I walk down the steep alleys. With my entire body, I lean back to keep in balance. The soles of my shoes find just enough grip on the little pieces of asphalt that have come loose, just enough so that I don’t tumble down the street.
This friendly village used to be the home base for the Sardinian crime circuit; abductions and murders were part of the daily routine. With the peaceful yellow church down the road as the epicentre of all the crimes. But before I take a look there, I make my way down to Corso Repubblica, the main street full of murals. Orgosolo is known for its protest painting; the politically charged wall paintings colour the centre of the town. With more than a hundred different pieces, every nook, cranny, alley or corner in this dwelling has its own work of art. Corso Repubblica carries the most.
Abductions and murders were part of the daily routine
Navigation appears to be irrelevant. For a moment, I stop to look around me. With my right hand above my eyebrows, I shield my eyes against the sun while I try to find out where I am going. Three elderly men sit at a shaded bench underneath a tree. Smoking and laughing they are part of the Sardinian scenery. Their unrushed calmness suggests that they are sitting on this same bench every day of the year. Chilling out in the streets with a drink and a cigarette, a tradition I mainly know from teenagers, too young for the bars. But in the Italian mountain villages primarily groups of the old people sit around and relax. One of the three grey men waves at me in order to connect. Another one promptly uses his cane to point at a street, an even steeper alley. The locals seem to know where I am heading. “Grazie,” I wave back while I prepare to find grip on the grinding asphalt again. “Prego,” the three of them mumble in sync.
Corso Repubblica is screaming in silence: blood red protests, dancing fat ladies, a former president throwing away money and the collapse of the World Trade Centre, all frozen in the paint. The murals get a lot of attention; islanders, Italians from the mainland and foreign tourists. However, go around the corner into one of the narrow alleys, and it feels like you are wandering around in a private exhibition not yet discovered. The notion that art mirrors society is correct in this free open-air museum.
It feels like you are wandering around in a private exhibition not yet discovered
In the seventies, the houses of Orgosolo were first used as a canvas. Since that time the painting keeps expanding. On April 25th, the Italians celebrate their independence from the Nazi’s and Fascists. In honour of this annual event, local students and teachers decided in 1969 to make the first paintings. Together with World War Two veterans, they designed paper posters about the war, freedom and the democracy. The paper artworks hung in the school to teach students about history but you could also find them in the streets. Soon people came to realise that paper was not a very lasting material. A drop of rain, a little breeze and the paintings got demolished. The idea was born to use the paint directly on the walls so that the lessons would stay visible. And so the village of Orgosolo itself became the painting canvas.
The use of many different styles, on-point realism to abstract cubism, make for swinging chaos, chaos in the best meaning of the word. The coordination of the paintings, however, was strictly managed by one man: Professor Francesco Del Casino. Del Casino is the retired art teacher of the local high school. Together with his student, he painted most of the murals. Many of the first artworks focus on local politics. Soon the form of expression was discovered by artists from the mainland and abroad. That is why the walls also do justice to the Vietnam war, capitalism, and the world food problem nowadays.
Together with his student, he painted most of the murals
A hollow, cheerful sound wakes me out of the artistic daydream-world where I have been wandering around, woozy from the sun, for the last few hours. Church bells. Because of the echo from the narrow streets, the sound seems to come from everywhere around me. I walk up to one of the fences at the side of Corso Repubblica to overlook the area. Orgosolo is surrounded by soft green hills filled with cork trees and wine yards. Behind the hills, you can see the bigger, more robust mountains reaching up to the sky as if they try their very best to hide the artistic treasure called Orgosolo. Down in the village, there is a golden yellow church. Loudly the church bells announce the church service, a sound that lures all the islanders down the steep streets.
Walking around, I no longer notice just the paintings. Alongside bumped doors and riddled traffic signs, I make my way down to the church. Bullet holes. Before Orgosolo was known for its murals, it was notorious for its crime rates. In the 1950’s alone, there have been thirteen reported murders in a village of just a couple thousands of people. Orgosolo was the motherboard of the Sardinian banditry. Old stories tell that the town was founded by shepherds who were hiding in the mountains. Hiding because they were too poor to have their own cattle, so they stole animals from wealthy farmers. These Robin Hood-like crimes soon evolved into hostages and murders. Buildings always have been a good medium for expression in Orgosolo: the list of the people that were going to be killed used to be pinned on the doors of the small golden church.
Alongside bumped doors and riddled traffic signs, I make my way down to the church
As for today, there is nothing left of this dark history. Orgosolo feels safe as can be. Only at the church you can still see the old patches of paint as a reminder to the poor times. A chubby lady whose high, pulled up skirt draws a sharp waistline humbly greets the nuns. Her grey hair is tied neatly into a low bun resting on her neck, perfectly aligned with the subtle pearls pierced into her ears. As the church bells continue to sound more and more well-dressed, islanders surround the doors.
Ristrorante Supramonte, an open-air restaurant with a handmade stone barbeque, is just a seven-minute drive away from Orgosolo. A nice mini-tour as the SP48 takes you right through the hills. The spectacular mountain views and the small wine yards that grow as green waves over the land cause a distraction. I almost miss the sign at the side of the road that leads me to the restaurant. I am sitting at one of Supramonte’s big wooden tables. It is a hot day, but because of the height, it feels cool up here. Down from the valley, the sound of cowbells rises as the wind carries the smell of smoked wood and pork. It is time for dinner. Every table has its own terracotta pitcher of red wine. After the plate of chorizo and ricotta cheese, the porceddu is served: juicy suckling pig from the grill, a typical Sardinian meal. According to the chef, who brings the meat directly from the fire to your table, it is best to eat with your hands.
After dinner, I decide to go for another stroll through the narrow streets of Orgosolo. A little walk to help digest the traditional Sardinian speciality. My heels press in the back of my sandals. I am getting lost in the steep alleys again. With every step I take, I try to find more strength by pushing my arms on my knees. A rickety Fiat Panda honks at me to make me step aside. Of course. “Grazie!” the driver yells out of the window. “Prego!” I cheerfully reply while the colourful little flags are still dancing in the Mediterranean sky above my head.
I flew to Sardinia with Corendon Airlines. The Pedraladda Hotel was the perfect home base for many adventures and tours. The Hotel, with a broad view of the ocean, is located in the picturesque town of Castelsardo. Around this settlement, there are many beautiful hotspots and great routes that start from here to see the rest of the island.