Off the southwestern coast of Sardinia sits a tiny island called Isola di San Pietro. It has only one inhabited area – a fishing village called Carloforte. Its residents, the carlofortesi, live an uncomplicated existence fishing and minding their own business.
It’s a warm summer day in June, and we hop on a ferry from Sant’Antioco to spend a day in Carloforte, or U Pàize (“the town”) in local dialect. The first residents who colonized the island were fishermen from Liguria, and so the Carlofortesi speak an old Ligurian dialect called Tabarchino, instead of Sardinian. Despite being only 7km from Sardinia, the Carlofortesi don’t consider themselves Sardinian.
Not only by listening to the language, but by walking through the town, you’ll notice Ligurian influences everywhere. There are beautiful pastel-colored buildings, charming narrow staircases, and floor mosaics with symmetrical stone patterns. Family-run shops and trattorias are abundant throughout the town. Their specialty? The Mediterranean blue fin tuna.
Unbeknownst to us, we had just missed the town’s biggest and most sacred event of the year. At the end of May, Carloforte is home to the Girotonno, a centuries old festival, which culminates in the killing of thousands of blue fin tuna. An intricate trap known as a tonnara, is used to catch the tuna, which swim through 4 km of a series of underwater nets, until they reach the final area: “la camera della morte.” The death chamber. Sound scary? The system of nets follows the path of their natural migration, so they inevitably swim to their deaths. The killing ritual, known as the mattanza, ends with the fisherman impaling the tuna and hanging them on hooks to bleed out.
Due to its bloody nature, Carloforte has the last remaining tonnara in all of the Mediterranean.
Is it considered an archaic and cruel way of catching tuna? Yes, it is. Do traditions rule here? Absolutely. The locals pride themselves on their traditions and their tuna, which are somewhat considered the foundation and salvation of their economy.
The level of cordiality in Carloforte is high compared to large Italian cities. I’ve come to value this quality a lot when I travel, after having grown up in a big city, and in a country where boisterousness and bluntness are valued over being quiet and reserved. Being respectful comes a long way here.
In the early afternoon, we enter a local gift shop, where the owner, a woman in her early 60s, watches us cautiously. The space is decorated with handcrafted fish, lighthouses and sea creatures. Various objects and artwork cover the walls and hang from the ceiling, giving the impression of entering a room of hidden treasures.
At the register, we praise the beauty of her collections and she finally seems willing to speak to us. “I designed many of the pieces in here, and the rest is done by local artists,” she explains in her red coral blouse. “The other day”, she says, “a man with his wife and young child came into the store. He had one of those huge cameras, and without even acknowledging me, came in and started photographing the store. He photographed everything, without even asking permission! I just stood back and watched him.”
She continues, “I noticed his wife admiring some jewelry in the window so I started showing her some pieces. Her son started playing on one of the art pieces, swinging around, and they didn’t tell him to stop. The husband continued to take pictures, and after awhile I’d had enough! I told him that I’d been patient enough and that he should leave. He then yelled at me, trying to put me in my place by saying he had a right to take pictures. Then, he commanded his wife to put down the jewelry and told her she wasn’t buying anything here! His wife was mortified.”
“It’s not that we don’t want tourists, it’s that we don’t want a certain type of tourist,” she says.
“We don’t like people treating us like simpletons because we live on a small island and they come from the big city with their fancy cocktails.”
Traditions are your identity in a place like this. They run through your veins as thick as blood, and when someone disrespects them, they disrespect who you are.
It isn’t so much the difference of opinion that they take personally, rather it’s the superiority complex, the belittling from the “modern” world that they don’t tolerate. And why should they?
At sunset, we have a candlelit dinner at a trattoria with outdoor tables set along a picturesque narrow alley.
Our waiter explains with pride and expertise the seemingly endless ways that they prepare tuna. Tuna tartar, tuna fillets, boiled tuna with onions, and pan-seared tuna are just a few of the of the mouth-watering options. It’s unbelievable.
I’ve never heard of so many ways to utilize this simple food that I’m used to eating from a can.
The dishes they serve us are wonderfully delicate and delicious. Particularly the tuna belly fillet, which is soft and buttery and melts in our mouths. Our waiter talks to us about this summer’s girotonno, the quality of their tuna, and how the tradition of the tonnara, as long as they can help it, is here to stay.
It must be tough to constantly defend your culture and make your voice heard in a world that’s always telling you to change. I remember the indignant shop owner from this morning. After describing the tourist’s behavior she had said, “I couldn’t believe the way he spoke to his wife! If he had spoken to a woman from Carloforte like that, he would’ve left the store without a penis!”
I guess you can say, they’re not afraid to get bloody to protect what they believe in. So to speak. We all want to be treated with dignity. Fundamentally, they aren’t so different than the rest of us.
Sociology of Carloforte:
Main photo: Youssef Amaaou
All others were taken by me.