The first full day I ever spent in Italy, I almost accidentally killed myself trying to see a nuraghe. This was back in the 1990s, just before budget airlines began linking the rather mysterious island of Sardinia to the rest of Europe. Bryn and I had arrived the previous day, after a sleepless night on a vast, juddering ferry from the south of France. Sardinia greeted us not with honeyed beaches but with the belching chimneys of an oil refinery in Porto Torres. Yet despite this unpromising arrival, within seconds of staggering off the ship I was struck by a deep, uncanny understanding. That I had stepped into a country with which I was about to begin a life-long love affair.
Little did I know as I stood on the dock in the very first flush of italophilia that this wonderful new country was about to tempt me deathwards. Nuraghi. Bryn and I had fetishized the word to near-religious proportions weeks before the holiday. “Listen to this!” I had squealed, looking up from a guidebook, two months before our trip. “There are thousands of prehistoric stone towers that only exist on Sardinia! No one knows who built them or what they were for!” We were hooked, instantly. We ogled photos of these nuraghi, which looked like giant bucket-sandcastles with their tops kicked off. We intoned their strange, dark name, dutifully learning that it was ‘nuraghe’ in the singular, ‘nuraghi’ in the plural, and liable to warp into wacky local variants such as ‘nuraxi’. The guidebook didn’t say how easy or difficult these nuraghi were to find, but we were determined to whoopingly behold at least one of them the minute we got to Sardinia.
Bryn and I weren’t the first travellers to be smitten by nuraghi (even if we were unusual in adoring them before we’d even beheld one). The now-forgotten travel writer Douglas Goldring earnestly penned in 1930, “For me Sardinia is the island of the nuraghi. They are its dominating feature, and it is they which lend the island its indescribable, awe-inspiring and disturbing magic.” Even the writer of our modern guidebook admitted that “For many people nuraghi remain the enduring vision of Sardinia.” Much of the nuraghi’s appeal surely comes down to how neatly they reflect Sardinia itself – strange, delightful and never quite fully understood. This culturally convoluted island, suffused with influences from all across the Mediterranean, has an identity as slippery as the fish named after it. D.H. Lawrence was onto something when he famously described Sardinia as “lost between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere.” A shy, reserved population speaking some pretty bizarre dialects make this an even more difficult land to penetrate. The enigmatic nuraghi sum the place up nicely.
There are around 8,000 nuraghi still standing on Sardinia today (the last of an original 30,000 or so), and only a very few of these have received a thorough going-over by archaeologists. The rest stand untouched where they’ve always stood, keeping their secrets and crumbling with infinite slowness back into the soil. They are mind-bogglingly old. Built anywhere between the 6th to the 19th centuries B.C., depending on which source you believe. (That’s 2,500 to 4,000 years old, to save you doing the maths.) Dry-stone-wall style, they stand by weight of stones alone. From a circular base, each nuraghe originally rose to a closed dome, but time has since collapsed the upper parts of most. So now the classic nuraghe is a single truncated cone, generally enjoying a panoramic setting in a sun-bleached field, or gnomically gazing out from a headland. But there are clusters too, several cones nestled together. What were they all for? Who built them? No one knows. They alone have come to define the people who made them, known only as ‘the nuraghic civilization.’ Some historians say that the nuraghi were the most sophisticated architecture in the world during the long period over which they were built. Nuraghi were certainly loved and revered by the nuraghic folk themselves, because precious tiny models of them appear at their religious sites. Nuraghi have evidently been inspiring affection right from the start.
But Bryn and I still needed to actually see one! We set out that first day in our hire-car, wielding a finely-detailed map of the area. We should have no trouble finding a nuraghe, as hundreds are marked across the folding paper landscape. I drive us inland into dry, bleached yellow hills. Newly-built roads empty of traffic spool enticingly onward, but we leave their smooth safety behind and head up ever-dustier tracks. These snaking trails deteriorate, until we are bouncing along raw, hostile surfaces that crumble to billowing dust beneath the wheels. We’re now so far off the beaten track we’re being beaten by it. The car protests with angry clunks and shrill squeals. There’s no room for reversing and we can’t go back. Then a terrifying noise as the undercarriage scrapes dramatically along a hard plateau set between two deep wheel-ruts. The impact nearly halts us completely. But who would rescue us, even find us, out here?
Meanwhile we still cannot find any darn nuraghi. The vegetation around us is so rampant we’re not sure we’d see a pile of stones even if we passed one. Eventually we abandon hope of finding our first target nuraghe, and set off for another. We have to give up on that one too, and set off for a third. Ninety minutes after leaving proper roads behind, we ditch the dust-encrusted car and set off on foot across unkempt fields. The map is a sweaty, tattered mess by now, but still we foolishly cling to its guidance. Coarse grasses rasp and snatch at our ankles. Sharp-edged stones painfully trip our sandals. We resolve not to think about snakes.
“The map says there’s got to be a nuraghe, a big one, right over there,” I whine, frustrated. And then suddenly the field ends abruptly on a weird cliff-edge, an almost sheer drop in the landscape. We gaze down in wonder. Not impossibly steep, we speculate. Might we get down it if we adopted a sitting position and crept down one leg-extension at a time? (The lust for nuraghi has clearly addled our wits.) For a few minutes we slowly but successfully descend the slope. And then the powdery yellow soil starts to crumble underneath us, exposing jagged slivers of rock. And I lose traction and begin to slide. Bryn tries to grab me but can’t reach. And my slide turns into a fall. I career squealing in a cloud of dust and angry pebbles, plummeting at speed down the crumbling cliffside, tiny knives of stone lacerating my back as I go. Down, down. And for a moment, just a moment, I think I might be falling to my death. But when the fall stops with a bang, on a hard little hillock, I’m not dead, just decorated in tiny cuts and bruises.
The next day, all trauma forgotten and spirits high, we set out in the car to the beach. As we swing round a bend in the road, there it is right in front of us. “Ohmygoditsanuraghe,” I say with unnatural calm and screech to a halt at the side of the road. And it’s an absolute beauty! Sides tall and straight against the vivid sky. Tidy ancient stones prettily splotched with orange and yellow lichens. We leap screaming from the car and run towards it. Deranged with delight, we whoop and dance around it. Bryn ducks inside the thing and I try to stop him, fearful it might collapse on him, forgetting it’s been safely standing for 3,000 years or more. 3,000 years! On this same spot! And has it ever in all that time, I wonder, been greeted with quite such hysterical joy?
Well then of course we saw nuraghi everywhere we went. We saw several more that day alone, and at least a dozen more before the end of the holiday. They appeared as a distant icon across a meadow or a friendly sentinel beside a beach or a secretive pile crouched in bushes. They were everywhere, benign and on our side. Sharing the joke, constant companions. A few years later we went back to Sardinia, to a different part of the island, and naturally came across another dozen. Then a decade later, I made a solo pilgrimage to Sardinia’s single biggest nuraghic site – Su Nuraxi, in the remote southwest corner of the island. Twelve magnificent fat nuraghi clustered together overlooking the remains of an ancient village. It was wonderful. But you know how it is. Nothing beats your first nuraghe. The long-ago sight of that first tower, the incredible sudden sight of it through the windscreen – ancient and solitary against the cobalt blue sky – that was the real magic. That was the nuraghe that enabled me to believe in all the others.
©Fleur Kinson 2012