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Sardinians love their traditions. No matter where you are and what time of year, there is bound to be a colorful celebration just down the road, and even if you don't know how to ask directions, you'll find it by following the rich aroma of roast suckling pig and listening for the echo of the Sardinian bagpipe. Walk into the midst of the exquisitely-garbed crowd and you'll soon receive a warm welcome, along with a plate of unpronounceable delicacies. But watch out: the island's hot, dry climate produces some of Italy's headiest wines! Here are a few of the 2000 local folk festivals.
One of the most widely celebrated Sardinian holidays is St. Anthony's Day, on January 16 and 17. Ancient tradition has it that the saint, like Prometheus, stole into hell and brought back fire, so naturally the festivities revolve around a bonfire. Each town places different herbs and fruits atop the blaze, creating a unique aroma. Women emerge from their homes bearing sweets and dark fruity loaves of pane nigheddu, while men pass around bottles of wine and aquavit. Perhaps the most spectacular celebration is in Mamoiada, where 12 frightening masks called mamuthones represent the months of the year.
This is Carnival month, and you'll find exquisite masks, heavily embroidered costumes, loud music, frenetic dancing and way too much food in towns and cities from one end of the island to the other. The most characteristic Sardinian carnival is held in the towns around Oristano (Paulilatino, Samugheo, Abbasanta, Sedilo, San Vero Milis and especially Santu Lussurgiu). Here the protagonist is the horse, and all the reckless things a human being can do while riding it. Everything culminates on the last Tuesday of Carnival, during the breakneck Palio-like race that rips through the very streets of town (with stops along the way for pick-me-ups of wine and aquavit, offered by local residents).
As in the rest of Italy, the Monday after Easter is more important than our Good Friday. The people of Castelsardo celebrate with a procession that begins at dawn. All day long the men parade through town, their faces hidden beneath white monks' hoods, while choirs sing chants as ancient as Christianity itself. At sunset the darkening sky is suddenly brightened by hundreds of torches held aloft by the local women, and then everyone retires to enjoy a meal whose menu has been unchanged for centuries.
On Easter morning, be at the church of San Francesco in Oliena to watch two very distinct processions, one carrying a statue of Christ and the other carrying the Virgin Mary (left). The two long lines of solemn costumed men thread their way through town on separate routes, while residents line the streets to cheer or hang out of windows to shoot blanks high into the air. Afterwards, everyone wolfs down plenty of sevàdas, washed down with the local wine, il Nepente.
In Cagliari, the first of May is dedicated to St. Efis. In 1652 Sardinia was afflicted by a plague. Half the population of Cagliari died and everywhere there was death and desperation. Then the people turned to Efisio di Elia, a martyred saint who had been beheaded in the year 303. Efisio was the commanding officer of a garrison of the Roman Emperor Diocletian's army and was in Sardinia to suppress the Christian communities on the island. But after he had a vision similar to the one Paul had on the way to Damascus, he changed from persecutor into the most ardent follower of Christ. When he was asked to deny the Christian Faith he refused and was sentenced to death. He was imprisoned in Cagliari (where today there is a church dedicated to him) and was then moved secretly to the coast of Cagliari in order to prevent the people from protesting against his sentence. Efisio was beheaded by a Roman soldier on the beach of Nora. In honor of their saint, the people of Cagliari proudly proclaim that this is the biggest and most colorful religious procession in the world. Any traveler wanting to witness a "real" festival that is deeply felt by locals should consider going to Sardinia for this event. It is the only religious procession that lasts for four days: 5000 people take part in the procession, led by 30 wooden wheeled, ox-drawn tracca, beautifully decorated with produce from the land, utensils and typical Sardinian foods. A cadre of horsemen, the most spectacular part of the festival, follow in their traditional costumes.
midday on May 1, the Saint leaves his church in a 17th-century gold plated coach drawn by a pair of huge oxen.
He is escorted by two mace-bearers in formal dress and by two lines of brothers and sisters in penitential
dress. The music of the launeddas, traditional Sardinian pipes, precedes the statue of
the saint as it passes among the crowd, who are overcome with emotion and throng to touch the coach in this
centuries old ceremony. The saint then ventures out to visit all the local villages for three days. On the
4th of May the saint begins its return journey to Cagliari. Late in the evening, the statue is accompanied
by thousands of worshippers carrying torches and crowding into the little temple of Stampace in order to be
near "their" Saint again. Not surprisingly, the boisterous parade ends with a gigantic banquet,
where a highlight is Cagliari's renowned seafood.
Carloforte, located on tiny San Pietro island, was originally settled by North Africans who came by way of Liguria, with the result that its foods, customs, costumes, even its dialect are unique. So is its local festival, dedicated to St. Peter: in the morning the local men, a majority of whom are fishermen, sail out to sea and perform la mattanza, a macabre "tuna round-up" practiced by many Sicilians. Afterwards, the streets and squares of town come alive with music and dancing late into the night, and appetites are satisfied by more tuna specialties than you ever imagined could exist.
How many places are left in the world where men risk their lives each year to commemorate Emperor Constantine's victory over Maxentius in 312 AD? Sedilo is one of them. Here, for three days straight, the famed local horsemen participate in a wild race around the Sanctuary of "Santu Antine." There is no prize for the winner, only the satisfaction of being best at something most sedilesi dream of from the time they are old enough to dream. At sundown everyone gathers to taste the tender roasts that have been rotating all day on hundreds of spits.
If you're in Sassari in August, you may be awakened from your afternoon nap by tambourines and piccolos, heralding the procession with which, for four centuries, the sassaresi have thanked the Madonna for saving them from a deadly plague. At the head of the parade are nine 30-foot candelabra, bedecked with flowers, ribbons, banners and bows, all of which are pulled off at sunset in front of the S. Maria di Betlem church. The food of the day is snails, mountains of them served to one and all at Porta S. Antonio. By the way, in Sassari the most prized snails, the big ones, are smothered in ashes and slow-roasted in their shells.
Cabras is the most exciting town in Sardinia on the first Sunday of September, when local youths run the "Race of the Saracens," an ageold re-enactment. Seems that centuries ago a few heroes managed to save a venerated statue of Christ from defilement by invading North Africans. Today, you'll see 800 men wearing short white tunics run barefoot for 6 miles, ending up on a carpet of flowers strewn by their adoring fans before the paleo-Christian church of San Salvatore.
Deep in the mysterious heart of the island, the town of Aritzo is surrounded by lush chestnut groves. According to local legend, these generous forests were created in an instant by Saint Efisio, who then charged the locals with educating the rest of us about their wonderful fruits. During the last week in October, the whole town bakes and roasts them into every possible form and offers them to anyone who comes to their celebration.
November 1 is the day of the Dead, and in Nuoro many families still prepare a feast with places set at the table for their dearly departed. The custom is to cook far more than the family can eat, then to share the meal with less fortunate neighbors. And everyone takes time out to participate in the holy procession to the Madonna delle Grazie sanctuary, where choirs from surrounding villages sing hymns and local politicians offer candlesticks to the bishop.
Santa Lucia is a beloved local saint, and her festival is celebrated in many towns. The town of Nurachi Tempio invites everyone to share in their feast.
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