Today’s route is easy, light ups and downs along the old road that runs parallel to the 131 DCN. The only problem is the heat. We are in the notoriously hottest area of Sardinia, and traveling across it in August was one of my travel fears.
But I arrive cool in Ottana. This is a village that I have always and only ‘crossed’ every time I went to Gavoi, the birthplace of my grandmother and father. I am happy to finally be able to deepen my knowledge of it.
I meet Gian Paolo, former mayor, who organized my welcome and the day’s activities. After leaving everything at the Il Platano hotel, just at the exit in the direction of Gavoi, Gian Paolo and I head to the main entrance of the town to admire a large sculpture in the roundabout, the work of Tonino Loi from Belvì, which represents the two typical masks of the local carnival: the ‘boe’ and the ‘merdule’.
Continuing along the main street we arrive at the clearing where the beautiful church of San Nicola is located, finished in 1160, all in dark red and black trachyte. Gian Paolo points out to me various details of the facade and the two sides, profoundly different from each other as regards the openings and decorations. Around it was the cemetery and recently, in the back of the church, some burials of old bishops have been found.
Inside the church there is a famous painting depicting Mariano IV d’Arborea, the work of an unknown artist of the Tuscan school. Gian Paolo tells me that not too many years ago, a lightning struck the altar, rending it. From the rubble a lead pipe emerged, with a parchment with the date of inauguration of the church and a document entirely written in Sardinian, dated 1474, which attested to the first council of Sardinian bishops.
From here, we move a little to get to the square in front of the church of Sant’Antonio, where there are three sculptures by Gian Paolo himself, representing the two masks, plus a third, less known, the ‘Filonzana’, the only female figure in the carnival.
The Caratzas craft mask shop overlooks the square, where, on the outside, Franco Maritato is working on the final details of a mask, while a young apprentice of his is roughing out the wood that already shows the shapes of a mask. Inside I can admire a series of historical masks, some ancient and very rough in their manufacture, evidence of when perhaps the means and time were lacking to produce quality artistic objects.
We move towards the new church of Santa Margherita, interesting for the fact that it was built next to the ruins of an old church, parallel to it and which partly follows its shape. Behind here are the remains of Roman baths, right next to 131 DCN. Probably the thermal waters of Bultei and Benetutti were channeled up to here.
To conclude the morning we move to the historic center, to the beautiful Casa Barca, an old manor house renovated by the Municipality, where today there is the MAT Museum (Museum of Arts and Traditions). Here, Elisa of the Sa Ilonzana cooperative shows me the masks of the local carnival, in a beautiful exhibition of local artists including Gian Paolo himself, his father Gonario Marras, Franco from the shop I visited before, and Mario Cossu whom I met on my day in Sarule.
Upstairs there is a beautiful exhibition of photographs by the Danish anthropologist Andreas Bentzon who filmed some scenes from the Ottanese carnival in 1958. Bentzon returned to Sardinia in 1962 and recorded some girls’ songs, contained in the CD of the book that Elisa gives me as a gift. Among other things, Bentzon collected a series of masks, today one of the most important collections, which is located in the National Museum in Copenhagen. I conclude the visit with the vision of a beautiful documentary by Fiorenzo Serra which fixes the carnival of 1957 with beautiful images.
After a good lunch at Gian Paolo’s house, Simone, ‘mesu voghe’ of the tenores Santa Maria de Otzana, joins us and we drive to Mont’Urrò, a park just outside the town. We cross olive trees and almond groves. I glimpse some feldspar quarries, and finally we arrive at the park entrance. From here, we go up on foot under a torrid heat towards the modern church of San Pietro and then higher up to a panoramic point. As usual, I mentally and visually review the territories already cycled across, the Marghine and the Goceano just beaten, the mountains of Nuorese traveled at the beginning of the trip. In front of us is Monte Nieddu, the last outpost of the Giudicato of Arborea. From here on the Barbagia begins. On the way back to the village, they show me a rocky ridge full of domus de janas, Sas Concas.
In the afternoon I rest and work in the hotel, not being tempted by its swimming pool, and I manage to go and photograph the church of San Nicola at sunset, with the facade that takes on different colors from those of the morning. Here, Gian Paolo joins me again, and together we go to the amphitheater from where the night cycling organised by the Sa Ilonzana Association is about to start. Little by little, cyclists of all ages gather, very small children, even with bicycles with side wheels, kids, adults. The Mayor also arrives and starts the ride ahead of the group in his car. We take a wide tour of the village, there is a good atmosphere of celebration and fun. We stop halfway, the mayor distributes drinks, water, Coca Cola. Then we start again, now in the dark, and we return to the amphitheater.
Here, at the end of the evening, Gian Paolo interviews me, on his bicycle, and I play the ukulele, always astride the bike, while everyone is eating pizza and drinking. Applause. Finally, the documentary film “The Color of Fatigue” is shown on the history of the Giro d’Italia which has turned one century old. For the first time I am interested in the Giro d’Italia, but I am especially captured by the works of the futurist artists who represented it in the early decades of the twentieth century!
Sa Voghe de su Voe (The Ox’s voice)
SARDINIAN SHORT STORIES
An Ottana emigrant to Rome thus answered the question of why he never returned to Ottana in the summer: “Better dead in Rome than alive in Ottana in the summer!”
Seriously, Ottana is one of those “controversial” places, such as Portovesme, Sarroch, Porto Torres, due to the presence of the industrial pole, now closed, whose famous two tall chimneys are visible from all over the surrounding area. Coming down from Gavoi, there is an angle where the two chimneys are right on the sides of the church of San Nicola, like two demonic horns, visual blasphemy, memory of worker souls sold to the god/demon-industry.
However, Gian Paolo spoke little to me about the industry and its problems, and I understand that here they are now projected towards a different future, which looks to culture, to the research and study of their history and identity, to the transmission of all this to the new generations. Carnival and masks are a strong tradition but not only.
I am intrigued when Gian Paolo tells me about a copper plate used over the centuries to collect offerings in church and contain the nails for S’Iscravamentu, the deposition of Christ from the cross: “s’afuente”. The thing that intrigues me about this metal dish is that today it is played with a large iron key, and used to accompany dances at carnival. S’afuente still hides mysteries. In fact, on its surface there are Cyrillic characters that have never been deciphered and are still being studied by experts.
But the biggest surprise of the day is when Gian Paolo hands me a mask, beautiful, of solid and shiny wood, telling me: “Some time ago I made this mask with a long beard, I didn’t know exactly why with a beard, but now I know … take it, it’s a gift for you ”.