Sardinia: Barbagia Travel Guide

Visit Sardinia's rough and wild mountain region

The Roman Cicero described the territory of Barbagia as a "land of barbarians" and the name stuck. The Romans never really gained a foothold in the territory, which contains Sardinia's highest mountains. If you can't beat 'em, call them "barbarians" and ignore them--taxing them if you can, of course.

This might be the best strategy for power-hungry tyrants, but the tourist seeking the rural life and its historical celebrations of nature's forces might find the mountain hikes, the ancient ruins, and the traditional arts and crafts compelling for a long visit. The region might be one of the least populated land masses in Europe, but it's a population that's had to do things by themselves. For those whose idea of "civilization" doesn't need to include tall gleaming buildings and industrial crap food, Barbagia might be the most fascinating historic territory in Italy, if not Europe.

Map of Barbagia within Sardinia

italy cities map

Nuoro, the Athens of Sardinia

With a population of 36,347 (2011), Nuoro it is the sixth-largest city in Sardinia and capital of the Province of Nuoro.

The city was home to artists like Salvatore and Sebastiano Satta, Francesco Ciusa and author Grazia Deledda. The Ortobene, the city's mountain, is the soul of the city, a national park to visit when you want to step away from city life.

Nuoro has two spectacular, not-to-miss museums, the House Museum of Grazia Deledda and the Sardinian Ethnographic Museum, expanded from the Nuoro Costume Museum.

Read more about the attractions of Nuoro: Nuoro Travel Guide.

Mamoiada: Mask City

Mamoiada lies 16.6 km to the south of Nuoro. It's notable for its traditional carnival costumes, including distinctive masks worn by the mamuthones and issohadores. Mamuthones wear grotesque wooden masks, painted black, and are dressed in sheepskins with a garden of copper bells on their backs. Issohadores, leading the Mamuthones, rope young women in festival crowds. An excellent article that seems to unravel the mysteries behind these shadowy masked creatures is Mamuthones and Issohadores.

This association to those shadowy creatures has led to studies of the use of masks in many societies, and you can learn about them at the mask museum, a collection of masks from around the world. Did you know that there seems to be an evolution between figures sticking out their tongues and the advent of ties for men? Check out that middle mask from the pictures below, all taken inside the mask museum.

Museo delle Maschere Mediterranee Piazza Europa 15 in Mamoiada.

A Time for Masks: The Mamoiada Mask Museum

sardinian mask
sardinian mask
sardinia mask

Gavoi: Reed Flutes, Skin Drums, Fine Potatoes

Don't miss Gavoi. I know you've never heard of it, but it has a very interesting music and poetry culture, a well curated museum of life in Barbagia called Casa Porcu Satta, and a fine cuisine which revolves around the special potatoes of Gavoi (shown below behind the Gavoi pasta display) and the vaunted pecorino (sheep) cheese of the area, Fiore Sardo.

Stay at our favorite little hideaway, Sa Posada, where we could sleep and then awaken to the most incredible homemade breakfast spread in the universe, with an enormous variety of food from the owner's farm. Out the back balcony we had a great view of another Gavoi attraction, Lake Gusana, a popular place for picnic lunch. We stayed at Sa Posada during Gavoi's weekend at Autunno in Barbagia in 2017.

gavoi pasta and potatoes
making pane carasau
gavoi drummer

The pictures above show the pasta styles of Gavoi along with the Gavoi potatoes, women making pane carasau, and a festival featuring the unique drum that brought fame to Gavoi, the "tumbarinu". They used to be made of dog or donkey skin, they tell me, but today's drums are usually made of lamb skin. Gavoi is also famous for reed flutes.

In late June the Festival letterario L'Isola delle Storie attracts writers, actors, musicians and journalists from all over the world to the stage in little Gavoi. Facebook page.

Orgosolo: A Village Awash in Political and Cultural Murals

sardinian shepherd muralSardinia's rugged interior has always been good for developing independent inhabitants who have their own ideas about how a country and household should be run. However primitively rendered that fellow in the upper right seems, you'll still manage to come across shepherds looking exactly like him in any out of the way "shepherd's bar" in the Barbagia region, even in these tourist-rich days that present a challenge to every culture trying to preserve the values of its past.

Orgosolo's mural tradition started around the late 1960's or early 1970's when student protest was beginning to question decades of social oppression and injustice. Then, as Italy's "Economic Miracle" was unfolding in the '80s, the painting turned to scenes of everyday Sardinian village life, a life that was vanishing with the changes brought about by political reform and the new economy. The evolution of the murals was repeating the rhythm of nature--destruction of the past and rebuilding anew--but with an eye toward the old values and traditions.

Today, the traditions of this little town have made the walls of its little houses a canvas for a wide variety of international artists. Whether you think this is a good thing or not, well, you'll just have to visit, won't you?

The murals below show two older styles and a newer rendition on a restored building. From "Happy are the people who don't have need for heroes" to a work depicting the labors of the rural population today.

orgosolo mural
orgosolo mural
orgosolo mural

Fonni: Wildlife Unleashed

Fonni is a town of about 5000 people the nature reserve of Gennargentu, a green area of Sardinia where you might see the typical animals of the Barbagia, the mufflon sheep, the fox and the boar. If you're lucky you might even eye animals that have become nearly extinct, like the Sardinian deer and the griffon vulture.

At 1000 meters above sea level, Fonni is Sardinia's highest inhabited area. It turns into a ski resort in winter.

In an ancient manor house in the historic center of the village you'll find the Museum of Pastoral Culture. Like Orgosolo, Fonni is also a mural town.

The Palio di Fonni on the first Sunday of August is an equestrian exhibition which demonstrates acrobatic skills taking place on horseback, in which riders from all over Italy participate.

Oliena: Silk embroidery, Wood Carving, and Cannonau Wine

Oliena was likely founded in Roman times. It's an orange flag village, meaning it is a high quality destination for tourism and hospitality.

The craftspeople from Oliena work local wood into carved chests for the Pane Carasau bread, a flat bread that is split and re-cooked to become a long lasting bread that could be kept in a shepherd's saddle bags for the long transhumance. They also fashion embroidered silk scarfs and filigree jewels, slow crafts indeed.

Cannonau wine is widely produced in Sardinia, but in Oliena magic happens and the local version, called Nepente is considered one of the best of the Island.

A great time to visit Oliena is during Autumn in Barbagia, when all of the town's products and workshops are on display.

An interesting trip from Oliena is to the remote Nuragic village of Tiscoli.

Tiscali is a magical place. Built inside of Monte Corrasi, in a huge cave, the prehistoric walled huts are clustered near the spalling limestone walls. The village was inhabited until very late, leading some to speculate that its inhabitants were hiding from the Romans. One of the nuragic huts, seen in the picture below, has a door lintel that's completely fossilized.


It's best to take a tour to Tiscali. Tiscali is near the towns of Oliena and Dorgali, but access to it is nearly impossible without a four wheel drive vehicle, stiff hiking boots, and a knowledge of where you're going. Besides, even with a guide it takes six hours of walking and driving to make the round trip. But it's not as difficult as it sounds when you're with a guide. The cooperative Ghivine is caretaker for Tiscali and offers tours.

Your best bet to see Tiscali and stay in the countryside may be to splurge a bit and stay at our favorite Sardinia hotel, Su Gologone--a fabulous resort that's quite reasonably priced and has one of the best traditional Sardinian restaurants around--and book a tour from there. Su Gologone, often listed as Su Cologone in web pages, also hosts some of the local folklore dancing and singing groups, and you can join in their practices if you're lucky enough to be staying on the right evenings. Eating in the open dining room is a special experience; Su Gologone lies at the foot of the Supramonte mountains, near the spring of Gologone.

Bitti: Land of the Tenores

40 km north of Nuoro lies the village of Bitti. It is the nexus for the unique, polyphonic folk singing of the tenores. If you head over to the Farming and Pastoral Museum you'll find the interesting Multimedia Museum of Tenore Singing.

Here you will find the best preserved legacy of this ancestral singing technique, the most authentic relics of the archaic roots of Sardinian culture that were passed down from father to son over centuries of improvised poetry, relics that echo lives spent in fields, herding sheep and working wood. The cultural importance of this type of singing was internationally recognized when the tradition was included on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. -- Bitti, Sardinia

Below you can play a short sample of the music of Tenores I recorded in Sedilo Sardinia many years ago.

13 km outside of town you'll come across the ancient remains of su Romanzesu which "contains some one hundred huts, a variety of temples, a water well and mysterious labyrinth, all made of granite."

Orune: Mountainous beauty and Ancient Sites

Orune has about two thousand inhabitants. It's located at an altitude of nearly 800 meters, between the peaks of three mountains, and the views of granite peaks and steep valleys are stupendous.

It was as tempting a place to set up shop for the ancients as it is a short stay for tourists. Mountain springs provided sustenance for the population and fodder for religious worship.

According to Sardegna Turismo:

Vestiges from the past cover the Orune territory, which was already inhabited in the Neolithic era, as is demonstrated by the Dolmen of Istithi and the Menhirs of Sas Predas' Ittas. Evidence of the Bronze Age can be seen in about ten Nuraghi, in the village of Sant'Efis, where coins, tools and a precious processed glass goblet were found, and above all in Templar fonts and wells. Walking through the countryside, you will find the sacred well of Lorana, the temple font of Su Lidone and the splendid well-temple of Su Tempiesu, placed against a schist wall, where the spring water gushes. Built at the end of the Late Bronze age with perfectly processed trachyte and basalt ashlars, it was already frequented in the Iron Age: it is an architectural gem and one of a kind. At the entrance to the temple, there is a vestibule with jutting walls, counter-seats and spaces for offerings. At the back, a flight of four steps leads to the tholos (false cupola) room, with a paved floor, where water from a vein of spring water is collected. The roof is exceptional: it is a double sloping roof with double sculpted eaves, on top of which there is an acute-angled triangular tympanum. In flood periods, the water overflows and then flows through a channel in a second small font. In the little well, numerous bronze votive offerings were found: rings, bracelets, pendants and, above all, little statues portraying people making offers, warriors and characters 'in command'.

Sardinian guide Paula Loi recommends a visit to Su Tempiesu and warns us that you don't just happen upon the site on your morning stroll.

Su Tempiesu, in the mountain of Orune, is with no doubt the most intriguing sacred well of the island. Covered by a stone roof, this temple's architecture is quite unique. The well was a center of devotion of the Goddess mother, identified with the holy water of the spring on which the stone temple was built. It is a temple where the Nuragic people expressed their spirituality through the cult of water.

Not to Miss Archaeological Sites in Barbagia

Serra Orrios

The ruins of this prehistoric village, marked on the map to the east of Nuoro, gives you an idea of how life was lived between 1500 BC and 250 BC.

The site lies in the basalt plateau of Gollei near the mountain town of Dorgali. There are over 200 dwellings and two temples, along with walk-ways, public squares, and wells. Visit just before sunset to see the Village in the best light (and temperature!).

To visit Serra Orrios you'll need a car. Take route 129 from Nuoro towards Orosei. turning off onto the smaller road for Dorgali. Just before you get to Dorgali, signs to Serra Orrios will lead you when to turn left. It's a 600 yard walk to reach the Nuragic village. There is an entrance fee.

Giants Tomb: Tomba di Giganti Osono

Osono Tomba di Giganta is one of the best example of a "giant's tomb" in Sardinia. It was rediscovered in 1980 and restored in 1993. Human bones, pot sherds and bronze tools date its construction to the Middle Bronze Age around 1400 BC.

A giant's tomb is rather unique to Sardinia. There are over 300 of them discovered so far on the island. This is one of the largest and best-preserved you'll see. A drone's eye view from above gives you an idea of their structure, which looks like a bull head and horns, a common motif in Sardinian symbols. also looks like a uterus. Rebirth? Go see.

osone giants tomb.
Tomba di Giganti Osono
Fabrizio Muggianu [CC BY 2.5 (]

To arrive at the site:

To reach the site turn off the Dorgali to Tortoli S125 road and drive to Triei. Continue following the site signs and towards Bau Nuraxi and as you progress up the valley you will see a sign to the site on the left of the road. I parked here and walked the remaining 400 metres initially quite steeply downhill then turning right half way along the track to reach the site. The track is wide enough for a car but quite steep on the initial pitch. -- Osono Tomba di Giganti

But is that all there is in Barbagia?

There are, of course, other places you'll discover in Barbagia. Drive around, look for signs, take a beach day at the famous Cala Gonone, marked on the map, and enjoy Barbagia slowly.