Overwintering in Cagliari

The town

Cagliari is the largest town and 'capital' on the island of Sardinia. Its 250,000 population represents one third of the population of the island. It has been an important trading centre and strategic town since ancient times: there are Phoenician and Roman remains, and significant traces of the Nuragic population before that. The Carthaginians used it as a base for their ships in the Punic wars, before it finally became the administrative centre for the Roman province of Sardinia. After fighting off the barbarians, Cagliari became the capital of one of the Giudicati before coming under Pisan domination. Then came the Spanish, who built the network of towers around the coast, and remained until the British came into the picture and conquered the city in 1718. Various attempts were made by the French, which ended with the unification of Italy later in the 19th century. Cagliari suffered serious damage as a result of bombing during the second world war.

As a result of the long and varied history there is much to see in and around the town. The old walled town is built up on the hill, and has a maze of narrow streets with tall buildings. In amongst these you find ancient watch towers, the cathedral, and many churches. To the north west of these is the Roman Amphitheatre, still in use during the summer with the old tiered seating augmented by scaffolding and plastic chairs. Below this, there are botanical gardens established in the 19th century. Around this nucleus has grown up the modern town, with an amazing selection of clothes, shoe and arty farty shops, as well as those more useful to sailors. Towards the port, the Via Roma runs along the shore line with an attractive facade of buildings with a collonade running along the front to provide shelter from the sun. Perhaps because of the hilly terrain, the town has grown haphazardly, and navigation is tricky on foot but even worse in a car. Nearer the marina, the view is dominated by the Basilica di Nostra Signora di Bonaria. In this area there are also some sites of archaelogical interest, and the cemetry. Running north from here is the Via Dante, which runs from the Piazza Republica and on to Piazza Giovanni. Here and to the west, where the market is situated, is the main shopping area.

Via RomaA street in the old city
The Marina del Sole is in the distance The beach and marina at Poetto

From the marina del Sole, the park at Monte Urpino is easily walkable, if uphill. The Viale Europa runs up the hill through the park, and from the top you can look west across the city, or north and east across the salt lagoons with their flamingoes towards the beautiful beach of Spiaggia di Quartu that runs north from the marina at Poetto under the Monte S. Elia. Poetto is a forty minute walk from the marina, or a cycle or bus ride away, and is well worth a visit.

There are eateries nearly everywhere. Uphill from the Via Roma there are plenty of restaurants and trattorias to choose from. Closer to the marina, there are two boats providing restaurant services, and a trattoria alongside the swimming pool opposite Bonaria marina. Behind the marina, along Viale Armando, there are others. Next to the chandleries on Viale Christoforo Colombo there is the 'Tre Arce' - a pizza establishment primarily but offering magnificent steaks. One block in, behind this, are more. A particular favourite of ours, however, with traditional Italian fare at very reasonable prices is Basilio at the top of Via Satta, between vias Dante and Sonino.

A couple of features of Italian life take some getting used to. Driving is probably skilful, but taken at a furious pace regardless of any limits that might apply. Double parking, or simply squeezing in between two cars at right angles is commonplace. There are pedestrian crossings, not particularly well marked, and crossing on these is certainly safer, but once launched, keep your nerve and keep going: they will judge your speed and swerve to avoid you rather than stop if they can! We got used to cycling, and took pleasure in jumping lights and going the wrong way down one way streets, Italian style. Another disappointing feature is the apparent disregard of the environment. Litter is discarded everywhere and blows about the place. There are few litter bins provided. Drug related crime is reduced by free issue syringes and methadone: but watch your feet in Parks and similar places, as the syringes and phials are discarded after use.

Useful resources


We enjoyed the festivals in the weeks leading up to Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday).

The first of these was in Cagliari itself, with processions of people dressed up in all kinds of wild gear, clowns, etc.

We travelled by train to Oristano the following Sunday, where they hold the Sartiglia festival. This takes place over several days, but Sunday is the most popular. There are two competitions involving horsemanship, for which the streets of the town are covered in about 10 cms. of sand, and stands erected for spectators on the sides of the narrow roads. The first involves the lancing of a small 'star' hanging from a galloping horse. All the riders, and many of the participants in the festival, wear masks and both competitions were punctuated by trumpet calls. We were unable to see much at all, as the crowds were so dense that we could not get a reasonable view: another time it might be worth the 70 for a seat. The second competition involved groups of 3 horses, and is preceded by a parade of all the participating horses (about 200 this year), bands, as well as people dressed up in local costume, with a lady representing the Spanish princess. The riders attempt to outdo their fellow contestants by acts of daredevil horsemanship: standing on their heads, etc. at full gallop. In the surrounding streets were many stalls selling food, wine, beer, arts and crafts, etc. with the occasional 'act', our favourite being some fellows in 'drag' doing dance routines and planting red-lipped kisses on anyone they could get hold of.

For Shrove Tuesday itself, we travelled with an environmental activist group, the Legambiente by bus to Tempio, in the north of the island, arriving at the hotel in time for lunch. Debbie from Chinook of Canada had met with and charmed a local Sardinian lady who was a member, with whom she held conversation sessions to improve their mutual grasp of Italian and English respectively. There we saw another festival, this time mainly based on floats with papier-mache figures lampooning political figures. Preceded by majorettes from the Czech republic, there was much throwing of confetti over the crowds, and drinking of wine from the onboard taps. The almost continuous drizzle rather spoilt proceedings, particularly the fireworks that accompanied the ceremonial trial and burning of King Gorgio at the end of the proceedings. We stayed overnight and explored the beautiful old town the next morning, before lunch followed by the journey back.

We joined the Legambiente once again in March for the Asparagus and wild Fennel festival in the small town of Boronedda. The town was relocated on the hill when a dam was constructed to secure water supplies, including reconstruction of the old church which had previously fallen into disrepair. This festival was more of a low key affair, much smaller in scale, and presumably simply an excuse to have a good time.

Finally, we were in Cagliari for the May 1st festival in honour of Saint Ephisio, who is the adopted saint of Cagliari. A Roman Centurion, he was sent by the Emperor to eradicate Christians when he underwent a conversion similar to that of St. Paul. From that point he worked to spread Christianity, which rather annoyed the emperor, who eventually had him killed on the beach at Nora. There is a small church there, and his likeness is kept in the crypt of a church in his name in Cagliari. On May 1st, there is a parade of dressed up carts pulled by bullocks, people dressed in traditional gear from all over Sardinia, horses, a contingent of guards, and finally pilgrims who accompany the carriage with St. Ephisio on its journey back to Nora over 3 days, returning again on Thursday 4th. We were in fact caught in a traffic jam as he processed back on a low loader escorted by police cars on the Thursday afternoon, which was rather a let down. There was a parade later in the evening, and all the horses were out. St Ephisio is credited with saving Cagliari from the plague, and for warding off the French, so he must be a good chap.

A trip to the mountains

As Sandy was visiting, we had hired a car for the week, and following the parade on May 1st, we resolved to put it to good use. Not far north of Cagliari, there are three villages known for their wall painting and art. We found San Sperante to be the most interesting of the three, Villamar having more and Serramanna was perhaps a little disappointing.

From Villamar, it was only a short distance further north on the same road to Barumini, where there is perhaps the most impressive and important of the Nuraghie. We luckily arrived just after lunch, and got in just in time before 3 coaches. We were pleasantly surprised when Franco introduced himself to a group of foreigners, including Americans, Germans and ourselves, apologising for his excellent English. The remains include an original central tower, that was once 3 stories high, surrounded by four interconnecting defensive towers at the cardinal points. This complex was surrounded in turn by a village of smaller dwellings. We were led up stairways, scrambled through an internal stairway, then down into the central area. From this, the guides managed to swap groups into and out of each of the defensive towers.

We spent the night at a small hotel in Isili, and the next morning set out on the road through the mountains to Arbatax on the east coast. The road follows the line of the 'Green Train' for much of the way, crossing and re-crossing its track. The train only operates during the season from mid June, but would be a 'must do' if we were here again at the right time. It was a long and tortuous drive, but well worthwhile. Given more time, it could be spread over several days, with excursions off to see various sites along the way. In one town, clinging to the hillside, there was only room between the terraces for one line of traffic, as well of course as the usual chaotic Italian parking. It was our luck to meet a petrol tanker coming the other way, but we dived in cross-wise to the only space available, and somehow he got by. We returned from Arbatax by the east coast route, which is in the process of being upgraded. Naturally we lost our way, due to the perverse signage on the roads everywhere, and landed up on the coast road east of Cagliari.

Flora and things..

A memorable feature of our trips around Sardinia has been the wonderful display of wild flowers, particularly in the spring. The roads and fields have been filled with magnificent displays in many colours. There have also been a few memorable instances where nature has been shown to be alive and kicking. The hoardes of mullet that sucked at our hulls were no doubt the prime attraction for the congregation of cormorants that descended upon the marina early every morning during January, diving for their prey, then splashing loudly as they attempted to take off. Dolphins have been seen in the marina, and the harbour nearby. In spring, in the morning and in the evenings, there are periodically flights of flamingoes, legs out behind and necks out in front, cackling like geese as they fly overhead on their way who-knows-where.

Many kindnesses

We have experienced so many instances of exceptional local hospitality and kindness here in Cagliari. John almost literally stumbled into Elisabetta Sensi, who tried to help find someone to fix the Eberspacher, and went out of her way to help us recover the toilet shipped from the USA from Milan customs. She also attempted to recover Bill (British Tiger)'s anchor stuck in Rome customs. When the toilet was then broken in the onward leg to Cagliari, she intervened to run us to the couriers in her lunch break. Elisabetta has offered to help others in a logistical jam! Dottore Aldo Caldori not only orchestrated John's check up when he was concerned about discomfort and pain (which proved to be indigestion), but also invited us to join him and his wife Roberta to dinner with friends a little while later. Our experiences of the festivals at Tempio and Boronedda would not have been possible without Luisella, Deborah's partner in their mutual language practice.