Roman Thermal Baths in Fordongianus, Sardinia. Photos by Angela Corrias.
By Angela Corrias
Italy is famously heaven for historians and a precious time capsule for the world of arts, but Sardinia is particularly cherished by archaeologists.
It is, in fact, the region of the Belpaese [‘beautiful country’] with the best-preserved and rarest prehistoric sites to explore.
The island is dotted with nuraghi, typical stone-made towers used as habitations, fortresses or even tombs, present in the whole territory as loose buildings or as part of complexes today deemed to be the island’s first examples of rudimentary communities.
With the benefit of a mild winter climate and hot summer temperatures, the island is the perfect travel destination that boasts a fascinating collaboration of prehistoric traditions and remnants from the countless foreign civilizations that followed one another, transforming the region into an ensemble of different mores, colors, dialects, and architectural attractions.
Sardinia is crossed from Cagliari (the regional capital) to Nuoro (one of the main cities) by the highway 131, and in its very heart, just after the detour to Nuoro, is Fordongianus, laid out on the wide plain of the Campidano Oristanese, where prehistoric remains blend harmoniously with the vestiges left by the Roman presence.
Today the village is a tangle of narrow streets and alleys, surrounded by the countryside and other apparently identical built-up areas.
The ancient necropolis nearby is Domigheddas and the prehistoric tombs commonly called “fairies’ houses” (Domus de Janas, in Sardo, the region’s native language) of Gularis Santu Giuanni testify the human presence since the Neolithic Age, giving archaeologists the possibility to place the first traces between 4000 and 3300 BC.
An unexpected aperitivo
With all this in mind, I entered my friend Pietro’s dark cave and suddenly had the impression I was motioning through a couple of millennia of civilizations. I was promptly welcomed by a fresh aperitivo and loud cheers, as usual in his ever-packed cantina.
Pietro first stared at me in disbelief, but then somehow understood my scepticism: “I know I might seem privileged, but here in Fordongianus most houses have such treasures,” he smirked.
When I stumbled onto an oddly old-fashioned piece of Roman wall, I couldn’t refrain from muttering, “Italians, we are so proud of our history that we just can’t get over it.”
“Don’t forget that the Roman settlement underneath our village has never been destroyed!” Surrounded by his private gem left by the Roman Empire and by sculptures depicting ancient rituals he carved out himself, Pietro devotedly looks after his home-made wine, oil, honey, saffron and curative herbs.
On the central wooden table were placed bottles of red and white wine, plump green olives and typical cakes made for the occasion by the mayor’s wife: deep-fried light pastries stuffed with dry blood, Sardinia’s regional pride. I had no choice but to take the plunge.
Cheered up by this unexpected nibbling, I undertook my cultural journey through the remains of countless battles that saw indigenous peoples fighting against the Phoenicians, then the Phoenicians against the Romans and the Romans constantly facing natives’ attempts to claim their territory.
The village’s strategic location made it the hub of regional commerce and a pivotal target for the armies that were to invade the island for its vital position between Europe and Africa as well as its rich natural resources.
The territory surrounding the village managed to retain much of its ancestral charm thanks to the harsh landscapes of Mount Grighini, where banks of ignimbrite and basaltic plateaus host a number of nuraghi, among which dominates Casteddu ‘Ecciu, built in prehistoric times but modified and employed as a fort during subsequent dominations. Historians are still deciding if it’s best to consider it a Phoenician, Roman or Byzantine benchmark.
Roman Thermal Baths
Fordongianus’ appeal is simple and has always been the same throughout the centuries: from its first inhabitants to the Roman patricians, to the Aragonese conquerors, all occupants have been attracted by the curative properties of its sulphurous waters of 54°C (129°F).Almost unknown to the rest of the world, Fordongianus’ claim to fame is its thermal baths, built on the left bank of the River Tirso, an adored destination for in-the-know Italians.
No other place in Sardinia owes its past to a river as much as this characteristic hamlet: the Tirso laps against the village’s edges making it appear almost like a tiny island.
In this precious spot of the Mediterranean area, modernity and tradition sit side-by-side and visitors are dazzled by the suggestive marriage of state-of-the-art architecture and historic sites.
The thermal baths are also the reason behind Fordongianus’ first name, Aquae Ypsitanae, aptly changed to Forum Traiani in the first century AD, when Roman Emperor Marco Ulpio Traiano raised the village’s juridical status to Forum (center of commerce) because of its economic and military importance.
The natives, sheltered in Barbagia’s mountains after the Phoenician invasion, endeavored for centuries to claim their independence back, and Forum Traiani became an always more precious strategic point for the Romans to be used to contain such attempts.
The center of Fordongianus looks as it probably looked when it was the Roman settlement mentioned by geographer Claudio Tolomeo in 200 AD, but the baths at the northernmost edge are the most precious legacy of the ancient Forum Traiani.
Both under the Phoenicians and the Romans, the area where thermal waters spring didn’t only serve for curative purposes but was also the meeting point for worship rituals, as shown by the several prayers carved in stones in honour of the Nymphs, Greek water divinities protecting Aquae Ypsitanae, and of Aesculapius, Greek god of the medicine.
In the Roman culture, baths were considered essential for the life of the entire community and were usually placed in the busiest and most accessible districts of the town. They consisted of many areas, each one for a different moment of the bath, and were all linked in order to form a fixed route.
The baths were connected through archways with gardens where guests indulged in sports and other hobbies just outside the complex, in the wide areas known as hospitium, macellum and tabernae.
Romans used to spend a big part of the day swanning around, and looking after themselves was the patricians’ favorite leisure activity.
The main area of the ancient thermal complex was the Natatio, a big pool dominated by barrel vaults, into which merged the waters coming from the smaller pools.
Townspeople could enjoy a range of different therapies and temperatures by choosing between cold and hot baths, to be taken respectively in the frigidarium and in the calidarium.
In Fordongianus the baths still play a major role: the ancient ones are the main touristic attraction and the adjacent state-of-the-art establishment is a busy spa center that provides treatments and restorative therapies all year long.
A Zeppola at Casa Aragonese
Leaving the baths and heading south towards the heart of the village, I wound up in the main square where the townspeople had gathered to perform local dances at the rhythm of folkloristic music.
The piazza is dominated by the elegant Casa Aragonese, a well-preserved example of aristocratic residence built in the late 1500 when the island was under Spanish rule.
The house, now a museum, was constructed with red trachyte, a volcanic stone present in Fordongianus’ surroundings, and doors and windows are decorated with late-gothic architectural elements, influence of the Aragonese legacy.
“Would you like a zeppola?” asked the museum curator, holding an enticing tray full of long and twisted pastries typical of carnival times, served warm or cold and with a generous sprinkling of sugar.
Sardinians are renowned for their inner ability to make their guests feel at home, and the more we go deep into the proudly untouched territories of Barbagia, the more this habit becomes natural: during important feast-days it’s not unusual for locals to open their houses to foreigners for the night.
Martyrdom and Death to Celebrate
The main festival in Fordongianus is celebrated around the pint-sized church of San Lussorio. The sanctuary was constructed around 1100 on top of a soft-rolled hill one kilometer away from the village, on the remains of a previous worship area of Byzantine origins.
A hot academic debate has been going on for a while around the character of San Lussorio because the Passio (Passion), historical evidence of his tragic destiny, states that the Roman magistrate who sentenced him to death for refusing to reconvert to the pagan cult, ordered that he be executed him in a remote place, Forum Traiani, to prevent other followers of Christianity from worshipping him as a martyr. Today here townspeople remember San Lussorio’s martyrdom under Emperor Diocleziano who ruled between 284 and 305 AD and carried out the most violent and infamous persecutions against Christians.
Mario Zedda, a historian from Fordongianus, is not quite keen on this explanation that belittles his town’s momentous contribution to Christian history: “Why would they travel 130 kilometers from Cagliari to here,” he told me with a hint of local pride, “when they could have executed him in one of the many hidden spots Cagliari’s province itself is rich of?”
Zedda adopts with no hesitation the most recent interpretation of San Lussorio’s death: the sentence was pronounced at the Roman court set up in Cagliari, but he was tortured to death in Forum Traiani where he was born and where the crime (of refusing to adhere to the imperial cult) was committed.
Every 22nd of August the martyrdom of San Lussorio is celebrated with equestrian competitions and local music and dances, and the richer the annual harvest, the more joyful the feast will be.
Fordongianus is one of the many hidden gems that bear evidence of Sardinia’s stormy past, and while strolling around its natural and artistic amenities I could easily picture charming ladies sporting untarnished white togas and ambling to their precious baths, to enjoy life and update on the latest gossip of their community.
Find More Information
Fordongianus’ touristic aid is Cooperativa Forum Traiani, based at the Casa Aragonese, where a group of nine young people manage the tours at the Roman baths, at San Lussorio’s sanctuary and at the museum Casa Aragonese itself. For more information on prices, timetables, local festivals and accommodation visit the website (only in Italian).
Angela Corrias is a UK-based Italian journalist. She specializes in travel writing with the aim to combine her passion for traveling with socially aware writing. She regularly updates her travel blog Chasing the Unexpected.