Too often, people that come to Sardinia stay in beach resorts, or towns by the sea. They try some pizza and pasta, and learn a few words in Italian, then head back home at the end of the holiday.
To see the real side of Sardinia though, you’ve got to stray away from the coast.
Following on from last week’s guide to Carloforte, this week I’m taking you to Barbagia.
Barbagia – The Heart of Sardinia
Now, if you’ve been following my previous posts, you’ll find that unlike Alghero, Oristano, and Carloforte, Barbagia is not actually a town or a city. It’s not even a modern recognised ‘political’ region.
Barbagia is actually the historical mountainous region at the centre of Sardinia. The biggest town in this historical area is Nuoro – or Nùgoro, if you want to show off using their local dialect of Sardinian.
Barbagia is the true heart of Sardinia. It’s a place steeped in history and traditions, some dating back thousands of years. It’s full of mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and unique towns and villages – each with their own quirks and individual traditions.
The language spoken here – the Logudorese dialect of Sardinian – in some ways, is said to predate Latin.
My wife and I have been to Barbagia a few times, and we really can’t get enough of it. It’s one of the least populated areas of Europe, and perfect if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Sardinia’s main tourist areas around the coast.
So, what does the word Barbagia mean?
Barbagia actually derives from the Latin word Barbaria, or ‘Land of the Barbarians’.
The name originally came from the famous Roman statesman, lawyer, and philosopher, Cicero who originally described the region as a land of barbarians, and well, the name kind of stuck.
A Brief History Lesson
At its height, the Roman Empire ruled most of the known world, but the Romans were never fully able to conquer Barbagia. For years the region played host to a game of ‘tug of war’ between the remaining native peoples of the original Sardinian ‘Nuragic’ civilisation, and the mighty Roman Empire.
Warrior-like shepherds and farmers, using the mountainous terrain to their advantage, managed to keep Rome from making a permanent presence in the central region of Sardinia.
Hundreds of years after the fall of Rome, the Byzantine Empire decided that instead of attempting to conquer Barbagia, they would resort to building fortresses to protect their coastal territories from the Sardinian ‘barbarians’.
Ruins of these Byzantine fortresses can still be seen in the towns of Austis, Samugheo, Nuragus and Armungia – all bordering Barbagia.
Today, the region is mainly an agricultural area, famous for its wine, sheep’s cheese, and locally cured meats including pork and wild boar. The local economy revolves around agriculture, but it’s also supported by art and tourism.
If you speak to some people in Cagliari, Sardinia’s biggest city, they might lead you to believe that the Barbagian people are a little ‘rough around the edges’ – but in my experience, they’re some of the nicest and most genuine people you’ll find anywhere on the island of Sardinia.
How do you get to Barbargia?
You won’t find any buses with ‘Barbagia’ as the destination – this is because the historical region actually falls inside the modern Province of Nuoro.
Getting to the biggest town in the province, Nuoro, is pretty straightforward as it can be reached by public or private bus from Cagliari, Oristano and Sassari – but for the best experience of the region, I really do recommend that you rent a car.
If you plan to visit any of the towns or villages around, it’s pretty difficult if you don’t have your own transport.
Barbagia – where have I been?
Nuoro is the biggest town in the region – home to approximately 35,000 people.
It’s full of culture and history, and there’s plenty to see by way of museums. It was the birthplace of the famous Sardinian author Grazia Deledda –the first Italian woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Museums include; the Museum of Costumes, the Grazia Deledda Museum, the Man Museum of Art, the National Archaelogical Museum of Nuoro, and the Ciusa Museum.
The town is nestled between steep hills, and the views of the surrounding countryside from the nearby Monte Ortobene are spectacular. This is where you’ll find Nuoro’s own Statua del Redentore or ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue.
Nuoro is also a great place to try traditional Sardinian food, of course accompanied with locally made Cannonau wine – be careful though, the wine is strong…
Also, if you’re offered a drink by a local, it’s considered very rude to refuse!
Orgosolo is about 13km south of Nuoro and is quite small compared to the region’s capital. It’s a true Barbagian town, and despite the population being home to only about 4,000 people, it’s very well known all over Sardinia for two distinct reasons.
The 1961 film, Banditi a Orgosolo (Bandits of Orgosolo) focuses on the past way of life in central Sardinia, and on the phenomenon of violent banditry in the area.
Leaving this history behind it, Orgosolo has since become more famous for their hundreds of creative political murals that dot the walls and alleys all over the town.
Orgosolo is now an open-air art gallery and museum of sorts. The murals tell the story of traditions, culture, and deep dissent for the Italian state.
Not too far from the town, you can find the Gorroppu Canyon. With walls 450 metres high, it is one of deepest canyons in Europe.
Ollolai, about 40km south west of Nuoro, is even smaller than Orgosolo with only 1,200 inhabitants. In fact, to combat the dwindling population, the local mayor announced a plan in 2015 to sell houses in the village for €1.
Now, when we walked around the town centre we noticed that a lot of the properties for sale were in a bad way, so renovations are definitely needed – but I guess it’s not so bad for €1!
Ollolai is really small but it’s surrounded by beautiful countryside, and has an abundance of streams and fountains dotted throughout the town.
One interesting thing we learned while we visited is that it has a huge celebration every year, exclusively organised by the local teenagers who turn 18 during that year.
The festival, known as the feast of San Bartolomeo is today the most important event in Ollolai. It lasts three days, from August 23rd, with solemn mass and costume processions, and ends on the 26th with equestrian performances and live shows.
Maybe even more peculiar, Arnold Schwarzenegger is an honorary citizen of the town!
Here’s a link to the article – unfortunately only available in Italian.
Not too far from Olloali is Gavoi, a town of about 2,500 people.
The town is famous for its Fiore Sardo sheep’s cheese, and picturesque views of the nearby Lake Gusana.
We actually travelled here to see the World Press Photo Exhibition in 2019 – a travelling exhibition of press photography – and were blown away by the beauty of the town.
The area is surrounded by rivers and woodland and is full of wildlife. The town itself is also full of history, and is very photogenic. Almost all of the houses in Gavoi are built with striking grey granite stone, quarried from the surrounding area.
Mamoiada (pronounced Mam-oy-ada) is well known for its celebrations during Carnevale – the period before the beginning of Lent. Mamoiada, normally home to 2,500 people, swells to accommodate thousands more for its Carnival celebrations.
The town is famous for its traditional Sardinian costumes, including distinctive hand carved masks worn by the Mamuthones and Issohadores.
The origin of these ‘creatures’ and the costumes remain a hotly contested topic. No one can seem to agree how the tradition started. Some argue that the rite dates back to the Nuragic age, as a gesture of respect for animals, and for the people to protect themselves from the spirits of evil.
Although I have seen the Mamuthones during other Carnival processions in Sardinia, I haven’t yet had the pleasure of seeing them in Mamoiada!
One thing that I’ll always remember about Mamoiada though is the amazing traditional Sardinian food – fresh homemade pasta Malloreddus, Culurgiones, and Seadas.
Autunno in Barbagia – Autumn in Barbagia
During autumn, Barbagia really comes into its own.
Most towns in the region host a weekend long showcase of their individual traditions, history, art, and mostly importantly, their cuisine!
Every weekend for three months, different towns and villages take turns in showcasing the best they have to offer, and considering the rivalry between each nearby town, things tend to get very competitive.
Every year, different towns compete to have the biggest party, with the most people and the best decorations – this is a festival not to be missed!
Barbagia really is a huge area, so it’s hard to write about it in full – especially as I haven’t seen all of it yet! But I’m well aware that there is plenty yet to discover.
If you’ve been to Barbargia, tell me about your trip in the comments – I’m always looking for recommendations and new places to visit!
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