Saints Cosimo & Damiano, Sardinia and its lost spirit

 As summer nears the end, people all over Sardinia seem to cling onto the last heat with all their energies. In Saint Cosimo's pint-sized sanctuary the evening is already cold(ish) and gives the impression autumn has come.

Close to Mamoiada, in Nuoro's province, around Saints Cosimo & Damiano church lies a tiny village where people start celebrating the two Christian figures in July till the 27th of September, last day of the festival.

The sanctuary lies at around 700 mt of altitude, what makes it the greatest hit during the summer, when temperatures in Sardinian plains can easily reach 40-45°.

As soon as I arrived, I was welcomed by a mandatory glass of wine and unmissable homemade cakes, mandatory too. At lunchtime I was already full, and almost drunk.

Sardinian clichés were all over the place: spitroasting piglets, wine and cakes everywhere, parish acting as the host, music, dances, people out of their front doors chatting and playing on the street, and the ever-present nougat-seller.

The ancestral village-like atmosphere that is getting lost a bit everywhere (Sardinia included) is found now only in these festivals usually carried out under the pretext of religious celebrations but showing the need to connect and socialise like in the past.

I missed that, I hardly remembered it actually, but it's always good to revise such lost routines.

Suggestive beauty and tireless bargains in Turkey's capital of culture

“See Naples and die,” the phrase widely attributed to German poet Goethe, can be reinterpreted and perfectly applied to Istanbul’s magnificence. Next year’s designated European capital of culture has largely earned its fame among the other European cities thanks to its lively society and some of the most sophisticated collaborations of different styles, traditions and civilizations.

Sultanahmet central district is dominated by the city’s most acclaimed wonders staring at each other: deconsacrated Ayasofya and awe-inspiring Blue Mosque. Ayasofya is one of the world’s most stunning architectural masterpieces: centuries of artistic schools overlap, solemnly offering their contribution to the world of arts with the finest mosaics, including the famous Christ flanked by John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. Built in 532BC, the cathedral remained the most important church within the christian world until Constantinople fell under Turks’ rule in 1453 and Sultan Mehmet decided to turn it into a mosque.

Sultanahamet Camii, local name of the Blue Mosque, stands aware of its timeless majesty in front of Ayasofya giving the whole scenery the mysterious atmosphere of Scheherazade’s tales in the Arabian Nights. One of Istanbul’s most popular landmarks, the Blue Mosque owes its name to the cobalt tiles decorating the prayer room, and is packed with tourists winter and summer alike, being exclusive muslim prerogative only during the prayer time.

The suggestive beauty of softly-lit Sultanahmet by night is beyond imagination. Every attraction I visited made me gradually aware of how hard would have been to tear myself away from that half-European half-Asian jewel.

The Sultan used to make his way to the Blue Mosque from his residence, nearby Topkapı Sarayı, immense cluster of buildings that dominate wide evergreen gardens with breathtaking views. The palace contains the imperial treasures that offer a comprehensive glimpse of the luxury kings lived in, despite the general poverty of the rest of the population, as it usually happens when it comes to royal residences: emerald-studded golden cradles, precious silk clothes, relics of the Prophet Muhammad.

The city is studded with small, lesser-known mosques, each of them an example of Arabian design. Five times a day, from every mosque the muezzin raise their voice to call the faithful to pray, filling the city with a captivating, ancestral lament and an exotic atmosphere.

No tour of the city can be considered complete without cruising along the Bosphorus, stretch of water between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea that works as a natural barrier between the Asian and the European Continent. Fascinated by the idea of finding myself between two worlds, I booked my cruise with Italian-Spanish-English-speaking guide Alparslan. Leaving from Eminönü bay, we headed for the other side of the coast, managing to shipwreck on our way back, to make sure to add the thrilling (and funny) ingredient to the already exciting trip.

Although most people barely speak a bit of English, bazaars’ shopkeepers will welcome you in every language, and at my usual question: “Where did you learn Italian so well?” the answer was unavoidably: “Here at the bazaar!” If you are not a master of bargaining, be aware that at the end of your visit at the Grand Bazaar you will have bought something you don’t need at a way higher price than its real value.

My short stay was undoubtedly made more pleasant by the friendliness of Turkish people, that made even the most nerve-racking bargain a hilarious chat, ranging from flattering adulations to unpredictable proposals.

Smoking like a Turk

Whatever your destination is, when you travel you need to experience the place, not just visit it. After a couple of days in Istanbul I realised the best way to experience the beautiful city was to smoke a nargileh, water-cooled tobacco pipes, best if done with locals.

The city centre is studded with clubs providing nargileh smokes at reasonable prices. Well, considering they are almost exclusively hit by tourists, the usual 10 Liras charged for smoking a big one is a reasonable price. If you are as lucky as my friends and I were, you'll even catch the perfect place, where not only you will have the opportunity for a good smoke, but also the friendly, practical assistence of the club's owner.

After an exhausting day spent in the huge Topkapi Palace in the morning and at the Spice Bazaar in the afternoon, we thought the best way to lower our adrenaline levels was to smoke one of those scented nargileh we had seen all over the city.

As unexperienced as we were, we got lucky enough to find a host who wasn't waiting anything but some company to puff away his huge nargileh with. He chose for us apple-flavoured tobacco, and I have to say, it was a pleasantly sound choice.

A strong Turkish tea, despite the late hour, sipped from their typical small glasses, perfectly matched the nargileh, and when the bloke challenged me at their domino-like national table game, I felt like I got the true feel of the European-Asian country. After the game (which I lost) I still had no idea what the rules were, and I don't know whether to blame the smoke or our host's explanation in Turkish mixed with some English.

The solemn preparation was already worth a mention: after carefully filling the bottom glass bottle with water and the top with tobacco, it was time to fire it up with small incandescent coal pieces. Colourful, detachable mouthpieces were ready: our smoking session was about to begin.

That odd club, completely open-air (I doubt there was an indoor space, as also cash-till and fridge were outside), consisted in three ensembles of table and sofas, and customers' groups followed one another, enjoying the simple service and the tranquil spot beside Topkapi Palace majesty.

When our apparently harmless smoke was at the end, we stood up from the comfortable sofas and, among laughters and growing tiredness, we walked towards our hotel, with all the dignity we managed to muster.

With typical Turkish serenity and a sense of inner peace, we reluctantly realised that the next day we were to fly back to London.

"S'Ardia" on foot, less dangerous more painful

My latest travel article for MatadorNights is about S'Ardia, a religious festival where the most important moment is a reckless horse race. In Sardinia dangerous horse races seem to have been always very trendy since in many villages they are the main attractions.

In Sedilo, where the real Ardia takes place, two weeks later horse-riders and common village-people engage in the same race with only an apparently little difference: the hostile path is faced on foot.

The "Ardia a piedi" (Ardia on foot) starts at 6am, and it couldn't be a minute later in Sardinian July, when burning temperatures start hitting at 6,30am. The scheme is exactly the same as when it's run with horses, just a bit slower, especially when uphill.

The day after the run, all townspeople exchange comments on their own Ardia and the competition becomes over who can boast more pain and wounds, caused by falls or the leaders' escorts who certainly don't spare baton blows to the bravest who try to overcome St. Constantine and his generals.  

I have run this race on foot a couple of times, and this gave me the opportunity to boast some injuries for having tried to arrive to the little sanctuary before the Saint and, mostly importantly, to hear my grandfather say: "Seeing all this youth running for St. Constantine just opens my heart."

Sardinia's delicacies

Sardinia is one of the most targeted touristic destinations among Italians and in-the-know Europeans, mainly Germans. Visitors come for the stunning sceneries, beautiful sea and mountain landscapes and historical sites to explore, but only expert travellers with a bit of research behind know that they will also find an unforgettable, delicious cuisine.

Mreca still closed

Having left my hometown eleven years ago, when I started the Uni in Rome, gives me the benefit of being welcomed by all delicatessen every time I come back on holiday. So I'm happy to find home-grown red, plump tomatoes to big, tender fish, home-made crispy bread, tasty meat of beef or pork bred in the wild. And if that's not enough, at the end of every meal typical sweets, cakes, pastries different for every season or festivity are a must.

Opening the mreca

Changing area means also changing food habit: in the district of Nuoro, for example, I find culurgiones or gattò (local adaptation from the French gateau); in Oristan
o (my area) I’ll find zippole or the ancient fish-based mreca. Everywhere indistinctly, you’ll find the typical regional porcheddu, spit-roasted piglet.

Sea bream with potatoes

Last Sunday was memorable food-wise: wholly fish-based meal beginning with starters of herrings, shrimps all’arrabbiata and home-grown green and black olives. Pasta with seafood followed and prepared for the main courses: a 3-kilo sea bream baked with potatoes and mreca of mullet.
All kinds of cheeses lead the treat towards the end, to “clean the mouth” as local people like to say after lunch, finding the best excuse to enrich the already succulent meal with tasty Sardinian saboridu or seasoned pecorino.

Chilli and normal saboridu

The home-made gattò from Mamoiada along with velveted Italian espresso indicate the end of the meal, friends and family can finally leave the table, still laughing out
loud, a bit dazed and only for the bravest, the ammazzacaffé: tasting of lemon, wild fennel or myrtle, rest assured it's available in every Sardinian home.

Homemade gattò from Mamoiada

Surrounded by wild landscapes, softly caressed by a warm breeze, eating earth products immediately taken from the source: it's a tough life.

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