The province of Nuoro covers most of the center of Sardinia and spreads across to the east where it has a large coastline. The provinces of Sassari and Olbia-Tempio lie to the north, Oristano to the west and Cagliari and Ogliastra to the south. Nuoro has some of the most beautiful, natural and wild landscape to be found anywhere in the world. It is also one of the least populated areas in Europe and is famous for its large numbers of inhabitants over the age of 100. In Sardinia, men live longer than any place on Earth and there are 22 centenarians for every 10,000 people. In the United States, the number is about four in 10,000. In addition, within the interior of the province, the chances of living to be 100 are twice that of Italy as a whole.
The earliest traces of human settlement in the Nuoro area, called the Nuorese, are the Domus de janas, which are rock-cut tombs dating to the third millennium BC. Additionally, fragments of ceramics from the Ozieri culture have also been discovered and date to around 3500 BC.
The Nuragic civilization developed in Sardinia from about 1500 BC. Five centuries later, the Phoenicians began settling along the shores of Sardinia, with several villages becoming important markets, trading with the Nuragic Sardinians inland. In 509 BC, the Carthaginians joined the Phoenicians in an attempt to conquer the island, but the interior of the island still remained dominated by the Nuragi. Following the defeat of the Carthaginians in the first Punic War in 238 BC, the whole of Sardinia became a province of Rome. The Roman domination lasted for almost 700 years and Sardinia developed into a major source of grain and salt for the Empire. It also exported wines, olives and was the home to several mining operations. The mountainous interior was called Barbaria, the land of barbarians, by Cicero and the name has stuck. Previously, the Romans had called the people latrones mastrucati, which means thieves with a rough garment in wool. Roman domination in this part of Sardinia was nominal at best.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Sardinia was held first by the Vandals and then by the Byzantines. As the Byzantine control waned, the island became self-ruling. A small village known as Nugor first appeared on medieval maps in the mid-12th century. After the annexation to the Kingdom of Sardinia, the town became the administrative center of the area, obtaining the title of city in 1836.
Most visitors to the area flock to the eastern coast and the resorts along the Gulf of Orosei, primarily at Cala Luna and Cala Fuili, where the beautiful blue waters of the Mediterranean lap at the shores. Peaceful and tranquil, it is a restful spot for a vacation, but the landscape changes very quickly once you leave the coast behind. The interior of the province is notable for the Gennargentu mountain range, where its tallest peak, Punta La Mormora, tops out at just over 6,000 feet high. The rest of the internal landscape is hilly, filled with forests of oak and cork wood.
The province also contains countless caves. One of the largest and most famous is the Grotta di Ispinigoli which houses the tallest stalactite-stalagmite cavern in Europe, at 125 feet. It also has a 200-foot deep hole known as Abisso delle Vergine (Abyss of the Virgins) which leads to a 7.5 mile stretch of caves connecting Ispinigoli to another grotto called San Giovanni Su Anzu.
The town and provincial capital of Nuoro has a lovely old town with many beautiful and historic buildings. It has become the symbol of Sardinian culture and is the birthplace of some of the most important writers of the island. The most influential of all was, Grazia Deledda, who won a Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1894, she wrote of Nuoro, “It’s the heart of Sardinia, it is the same Sardinia with all its manifestations.” For art and history lovers there are excellent museums and galleries such as the Museo dell’Arte di Nuoro. The Duomo was built in the mid-19th century and is known for its paintings by local artists, but the spiritual center resides in the much older Church of San Simplicio, a Romanesque design built between the 11th and 12th centuries. Finally, the National Archaeological Museum features numerous exhibits related to the history of the province from the Neolithic through Medieval periods.
To the west, in the town of Ottana, Chiesa di San Nicola, dedicated to St. Nicholas of Myra, was consecrated in 1160. The church is located on a hill with a commanding view of the town and is reached by ascending a series of stairs which are bound to keep the parishioners is shape. The interior houses a 16th century wooden crucifix and a 14th century polyptych known as Ottana Altarpiece.
In Barbagia, in the southern portion of the province, is the town of Fonni, where a Baroque masterpiece, the beautiful Basilica of Madonna dei Martiri was constructed. Located at the highest point in the town, the imposing 17th century basilica is one of the area’s most important Baroque churches. Surrounded by cumbessias (pilgrims’ huts), it is famous for a revered image of the Madonna that is said to be made from the crushed bones of martyrs.
Many celebrations and folkloristic ceremonies take place within the province. Two of the most popular are the fireworks celebration in honor of Saint Anthony the Great (Sant’Antonio Abate) every January 16th and 17th and the Carnival of Mamoiada, characterized by mamuthones, figures of mysterious origins who parade through the village streets dressed in leather, wearing tragic wooden masks and heavy bell clusters covering their shoulders. The town of Mamoiada also contains the Museum of Mediterranean Masks which has excellent examples of the mamuthone and issohadore masks, as well as the costumes worn during ceremonies in the Barbagia.
Archaeological finds abound in this area. One of the features of Nuoro is the great number of monoliths called perdas fittas. In Laconi, the museum is devoted to this Bronze Age statuary. The unique collection houses 40 monoliths. These standing stones had religious meaning and were often set in rows in and around the area of Laconi, perhaps denoting a burial ground. The largest and best preserved Nuraghe village in Sardinia is found in the town Serra Orrios. Among the other significant archeological areas are the Tomb of the Giants of S’Ena e Thomes in Dorgali; the Sacred Well of Su Tempiesu in Orune and the archaeological site of Noddule.
To the west of Nuoro is the territory of the Baronie, characterized by fertile plains and gently-rolling hills. The main town is Orosei and one of its most surprising features is that it is home to the Museum Giovanni Guiso, which houses the largest collection of European puppet theaters in the world. The museum is located within a historic 17th century palazzo and has unusual hours, but it is well worth a visit.
Make Sardinia a part of your next itinerary to Italy. This island is where history abounds and nature’s beauty makes the journey all the more rewarding.