If you happen to be on the island in July or August, don’t even think of visiting Cagliari unless the weather forecast promises a chilly spell (which is not very likely) or you’re a mad dog or likewise Englishman. Cagliari is situated on the south coast of Sardinia, humidity is extreme, in summer it’s higher than 90%, combined with a temperature of 35° C (95° F) or more the city is a destination to avoid.
Many tourists come already in April and May. Let’s assume you’re staying in Alghero in the north west, you’ve rented a car and started very early so that you can reach Cagliari still in the morning. I’d advise you to drive straight up to the old part of the city called Castello (Castle) from where you have a fine view of the gulf, the city and the harbour.
Looking at the favourable geographical position between the sea and a fertile plain and a mountain range not too far away (to which people could evacuate if attacked from the sea) it’s understandable that the site has been inhabited since pre-historic times. Under the name of Karalis it was one of a string of Phoenician trading colonies in Sardinia founded in the 7th century BC, it passed with the rest of the island first to the control of Carthage and then to Rome, the Vandals followed, the Byzantine empire and later a succession of Italian maritime republics which were all interested in the perfect strategic base for controlling the commercial routes between Italy and North Africa.
What is left from all the different reigns? An outstanding testimony of the Roman domination is the amphitheatre, unique in the world because it’s the only one carved into a block of rock, it’s still used for open-air operas and concerts – we’ll see it later when we get down from the hill.
First we should spend some time in Castello and visit the Archaeological Museum exhibiting findings of the Nuragic period that is typical for Sardinia. Around 1500 BC mysterious people arrived who built about 30 000 conical fortified structures called Nuraghi (Noo-ráa-ghee) on the island, 7000 of which have remained standing which can be seen all over the island. Some of them are really big, 10 or more metres high, from others only the fundament has remained. What their purpose was is still being discussed - strategic watch towers, shelters or religious sites? The museum exhibits over 400 Nuragic bronze statuettes, ceramics from Phoenician tombs, Punic jewellery, Greek and Roman sculpture. The displays are nice to look at, the descriptions are mainly in Italian, some explanations are also given in English.
A bit higher up is a small Art Museum exhibiting Spanish and Sardinian paintings from the Gothic and Renaissance period. Sadly, modern and contemporary art cannot be found on Sardinia, it’s the same as on Crete, the Greek mainland and Cyprus, Sicily and the south of mainland Italy: they had their cultural highpoints thousands of years ago, but haven’t kept pace, contemporary culture takes place elsewhere.
Not far from the museums is the Cathedral which after restoration has regained its former Medieval Pisan appearance, go in and have a look. It’s not ugly but not extremely beautiful, either, it’s not one of the churches you’ll remember for years.
I’d leave the car up in Castello and walk down into the city proper and take a taxi back up at the end of the sightseeing tour. It’s not that the traffic is very chaotic, it’s fast but there’s hardly any honking and pushing, traffic rules are obeyed but cars run on the right side [as they should , of course, the right side being the right side!:-)] and there are many one-way streets and I’m sure you don’t want to waste your valuable time driving up and down the streets trying to get near the sights you’re interested in, also, parking space is rare.
Walking down the hill you’ll encounter narrow, picturesque streets with clothes lines spanning from side to side hosting many workshops on the ground floor. Although this is a poor area, the streets are clean as are all the streets in the city – if only there weren’t graffiti on nearly all buildings! You can see that most of the old city walls are still intact, as are the two 13th century white lime-stone towers, St.Pancras and the Elephant tower. Walk over to the Umberto I Terrace, also called La Bastione, from where you can look back at the Castello and take in the whole sight of the city proper, the harbour and the modern centre. There are some benches if you need a rest, also a nice coffee bar.
If you get the impression that the site is beautiful but that modern Cagliari is not a particular pretty city, you’re spot on. During WW2 Cagliari was heavily bombed by the Allies in February 1943, after the Italian truce with the Allies in September 1043 the German Army took control of the city and the island but soon retreated and then the American Army took control, a submarine base and some airports in the vicinity from which airplanes could fly to Sicily, mainland Italy or North Africa made it strategically important. It still is, there are many NATO bases all over the island.
If you turn left at the foot of La Bastione, you can reach Via Garibaldi which is full of shops with international fashion things, it’s where the young ones go shopping, the other street with many shops is Via Dante a bit further away (but also reachable on foot).
The best department store is Rinascente (an Italian chain) in Via Roma. It’s the street opposite the passenger harbour, if you’re lucky you can sit in a coffee bar under the arcades and look at the big ships going to Naples, Palermo or Tunis, unfortunately there is a lot of traffic in Via Roma disturbing the contemplation. After the war Cagliari grew rapidly, it has now about 300 000 inhabitants including the suburbs, this hasn’t led to a collection of architectural gems – but with this problem Cagliari is not alone.
A pleasure for the eye is the white marble city hall at the western end of Via Roma erected at the end of the 19th century combining influences of art Nouveau with the traditional Sardinian taste for flower decorations. Nice to look at is also the row of palm trees and the enormous Indian rubber trees whose trunks are so thick that only several people can reach round them, their roots lift up the pavement.
We’ve seen quite a lot now and should think about getting some grub. Many restaurants offer dishes based on the wide variety of fish and sea food available. If you find them on the menu you should order Culurgiones, small pockets of dough (like ravioli) filled with either cottage cheese and spinach or mashed potatoes and garlic served with tomato sauce, a typical Sardinian dish.
Now let’s fetch the car and leave the city proper to digest somewhere peaceful, we’ll go to the suburb Poetto which has a four-mile stretch of sandy beach with some small coffee bars nearby. Driving east in the direction of Quartu Sant’Elena you’ll have the beach to your right and large flat basins to your left, remains from former salt works [salt is still made in Sardinia, there is no tax on it]. You can see flamingos stalking through the basins poking their beaks into the mud for shells, worms, mussels.
If you can arrange a visit to Cagliari before or after 1st May you can include the St. Efisio festivity taking place on that day, it was introduced to thank the saint for the ending of the Bubonic plague 350 years ago. Groups from all over the island dressed in typical Sardinian costumes (they’re wonderful to look at) take part in the procession, I haven’t been to this festivity but I know a smaller one taking place in summer in the inland town of Nuoro, judging from that one the Cagliari procession must really be wonderful. (Sorry, can’t recommend a hotel as I don’t sleep out when there)
If you’re interested in archaeology you can add a visit to Nora, 40 km to the west of Cagliari, a small site on the coast, an open air museum so-to-speak, the visitors walk around through the ruins of a place where all the peoples that roamed the Mediterranean Sea settled for a while, most remains are from the Roman period, the village Pula nearby has a small museum with things found on the site, the entrance fee is included in the ticket price for Nora. More flamingos on your right side when leaving Cagliari!
Then you can go back to Alghero or wherever you’re staying and show off in front of your mates with all the things you’ve done in Cagliari!