dark past and colorful present

Orgosolo - one of the murals

The town in the heart of the mountains is no less impressive than Sardinia’s fancy coastal resorts. Even though the reason for it is quite different...

While in Sardinia, it is worth it to even briefly leave behind its numerous charming villages tempting with crystal clear water and almost paradisiacal beaches. Because nothing better reflects the old character of the island than a visit in the mountain region of Barbagia and inconspicuous Orgosolo.

The name “Barbagia” instantly evokes an association with barbarians. And it is by all means accurate, as this is exactly how this mountain region of Sardinia was "honored" by Emperor Cicero himself who could not get over the fact that Rome was never able to tame the impetuous nature of the indigenous Sardinians. In fact, little has changed in this respect to this day – the natives of Sardinia are still reluctant to abide by the decisions of the central government and at every step emphasize their individuality: by cultivating a variety of habits, attention to language or display of the characteristic flag of the island (red cross on a white background with black images of Moors in the corners).

The otherwise picturesque Barbagia is mostly comprised of mountains, forests, gorges and caves. Even now accessing it is not quite that simple: the drivers must demonstrate considerable skill and reflexes to overcome subsequent serpentines, and the passengers – resistance to motion sickness, which makes itself felt at countless uphills, downhills and curves. This is why today the region is increasingly chosen as a holiday destinations by those tourists who desire a slow-paced getaway and want to calm down for a few days slightly away from civilization. But in the twentieth century these inaccessible areas were used in a much less glorious way – as a great hideout for all sorts of criminals collectively described by one much telling term: bandits (banditti).

It all started as early as the late nineteenth century with a conflict between the two local gangs, whose representatives settled scores with the efficiency and zeal worthy of the most prominent criminal groups of today. It was a matter of honor to carry out an adequate – meaning as brutal as possible – retaliation for any harm done to a kin, and thus Orgosolo very quickly came to be known as the "City of criminals," or even the "Village of the murderers." The sad norm was a few homicides per year, but – as it turned out – it was only the prelude to what was to happen after the Second World War. Suffice it to say that the annual murder rate regularly exceeded 30, which for such a small community was a truly shocking statistic.

The b
loody events were finally addressed by the local authorities, accompanied by a change in attitude of the local population itself, which no longer treated the criminals on the run as local heroes (as those who took from the rich and gave to the poor, they were repeatedly likened even to the legendary Robin Hood himself). It is worth noting that the specificity of life in these areas in the mid-twentieth century was perfectly portrayed by two movies which can easily be found online. One of them is "A Day in Barbagia" (Un giorno in Barbagia) from 1958 and depicts the typical life in Sardinia with many rural traditions. Much more commotion was caused three years later by "Bandits of Orgosolo”. Its director, Vittorio De Seta, decided to select the cast from among the town’s residents and local shepherds, so that today the production is recognized as one of the most interesting examples of Italian neo-realism.

When the authorities finally succeeded in reducing the crime rate, another plague emerged – kidnapping for ransom. Targeted first were mostly Sardinian businessmen, soon followed by rich tourists. Finally in the 70s, rather than with criminal stories Orgosolo began to be more frequently associated with its outstanding murals. Interestingly, the direct cause for their emergence was the economic crisis that hit Italy (and even more severely – Sardinia) in the late 60's. The precarious economic situation led subsequent social groups to demonstrate in different ways their concerns about the future. It was on the wave of such general anxiety that the representatives of the anarchist group Dionisio from Milan covered a wall in Orgosolo with a map of Italy featuring a big question mark in place of Sardinia – as a commentary on the vague policy of the Italian government towards the island, to which after World War I David Herbert Lawrence referred in his book "Sea and Sardinia" as “lost between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere”.

Soon after, a local art teacher – a man named Francesco del Casino – prepared a series of posters on social issues and put them up on the streets of Orgosolo. And in 1975, when the population was already much more approving of the murals, he teamed up with his students to transfer the drawings from posters onto the walls. Every year the amount of the colorful work gradually increased – authored both by individuals and groups. Not long afterwards the murals appeared even on the two large-sized rocks at the entrance to the town. On the one hand, they were a kind of preview of what awaited the guests upon taking a walk around downtown. On the other – a kind of homage to Mexican precursors of this style (it is assumed that the murals first emerged in the 20s of the 20th century, when David Alfaro Siqueiros used wall paintings to transmit messages about a revolution in this country). One of the boulders features an Aztec totem, and the other – a greedy landowner biting the soil.

The exact number of murals in Orgosolo today is hard to estimate. According to some sources there are at least 150, while others mention even up to 300. Another thing is that there is no official catalog of works, and some of them are eventually replaced with different ones. This is both due to weather factors, as well as at the request of artists themselves who at some point decide to paint over their less popular or successful images (or simply allow others to do so). This does not change the fact that even a layman in the field of visual arts will be impressed by the wealth of techniques and styles that can be seen on the walls of Orgosolo. There are both examples of work referring to the fin de siecle and the so-called naive art. A more trained eye will detect inspirations drawn from Cubism (especially the works of Pablo Picasso), impressionism, naturalism or trompe l'oeil (illusionist painting). Furthermore, the walls in one of the squares have been dedicated to surrealist Joan Miro, while in other places it is possible to find references to the pseudo-Columbian art of Diego Rivera (husband of the famous Frida Kahlo), considered one of the precursors of the Muralism movement.

As impressive is the diversity of the themes represented in the works. But it could not be any different, since basically everyone willing can leave in Orgosolo an original trace of themselves. The town’s authorities have long ago realized that tourism – in addition to growing wine and grazing sheep – is a very important source of income for the local budget. They in fact downright encourage artistic performance, the only requirement being to obtain the consent of the owner of the selected wall. If, however, one were to compile a ranking of the most popular themes, they would surely include a widely understood concept of protest. Against the absurdity of wars, distortions of colonialism, social injustice in the world, greed of politicians and intolerance – the list could go on and on. Among the most recognizable works it is certainly worthwhile to mention i.a. the likeness of Charlie Chaplin standing at attention in full battle gear with the caption "Another war? No thanks". As well as the incredibly evocative paintings commemorating the victims of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

A visit to Orgosolo and the surrounding area also allows contact with a completely different kind of culture and art, presenting a unique opportunity to listen to live canto a tenore, i.e. pastoral songs, which are included on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. What's more, visitors can take a close look at (or participate in) a traditional dance of Sardinia – ballu tundu. The area is also worth a visit for purely culinary reasons. The agritourism farms around Orgosolo serve real Sardinian food: lamb with potatoes, pecorino sheep's cheese, roasted pork (known as Porceddu) or Carasau bread. The local hosts have also a lot to offer in terms of drinks – from the exquisite red Cannonau wine, through a type of local moonshine, to the crystal clear Abba, which in Sardinian means “water”.

Although it is hard to believe considering the town’s turbulent past, Orgosolo also features interesting sites and events of a religious nature – if only due to being the birthplace of the blessed martyr Antonia Mesina whose relics are kept in the local church of the Holy Redeemer. And every year, in her honor, on May 17 the town hosts a church holiday and festival, during which the tables bend under the weight of delicacies prepared according to old recipes. Even more festivity surrounds the Ascension of the Virgin Mary (Festa dell'Assunta). It is celebrated even for up to ten days with theatrical performances, concerts, various competitions and recitations of Sardinian poems. A grand celebration also takes place on August 15, when the town organizes a horse parade and a show of riding skills.

Transport to Orgosolo

Among the three international airports in Sardinia, Orgosolo is definitely best accessed from the airport in Cagliari, which is located in the south in the island's capital. The airport operates both charter flights and scheduled flights – including those provided by low-cost carriers. Further travel from Cagliari is possible either by rental car or public transport, which however has a very limited timetable. Upon choosing the second option, it is first necessary to reach Nuoro (bus ride takes about 2.5 hours) and then hop on another bus – to Orgosolo itself (30-40 minutes). Anyone planning a more intensive tour of the island without a rental car should consider buying the tourist bus ticket, which entitles its holder to travel all throughout Sardinia (it is valid in the so-called high season, i.e from 1 June to 30 September, and available at the following prices: 7 days – EUR 45, 14 days  – EUR 70, 21 days – EUR 100, and 28 days – EUR  130).    



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