From the Bay of Angels to the Gulf of Angels
Despite its embracing of the modern world, Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, has maintained its riches, its close links with nature and the sea and an amazing culture created over centuries by the Carthaginians, Romans, Pisans, Spaniards etc. This strong identity seeps through the folk festivals and excellent food.
Situated in the south of Sardinia on the Gulf of Angels, Cagliari has everything you'd expect from a tourism destination: sunny beaches, lively everyday life, excellent food and a long - a very long - history. It all started 5000 years ago, as the restored Domus de Janas overlooking the city show. These are prehistoric burial caves cut into the living rock, a Sardinian speciality, just like the nuraghe, stone towers that mushroomed all over the island at the start of antiquity. As solid (to say the least) constructions, many of these have survived the centuries in a remarkable state of preservation. The best are the Barumini nuraghe less than an hour's drive from Cagliari and are the remains of a supposedly untakeable fortress and the village it protected. They are now World Heritage Sites.
The history of the town continues ... and bears the imprint of some of the Mediterranean's greatest civilisations because Cagliari has had many masters, starting with the Phoenicians. They were followed by the Carthaginians and then by their conquerors, the Romans. All left their mark on the city. The Phoenicians left the Nora Stone, one of the highlights of the National Archaeological Museum in Cagliari and the oldest written document in western history. The Carthaginians left over a thousand tombs at the Tuvixeddu Necropolis. And the Romans left us that antique must-have - an amphitheatre. Carved out of the rock itself, the steps and can seat over 10 000 spectators dying to see gladiator fights and Christian martyrs. The amphitheatre was restored after WWII and is still regularly used by the big crowds who now come to see far tamer shows: plays, operas and rock and jazz concerts.
The saint of saints
Not all Cagliari's monuments are ruins. Many are still standing just as they were built. The towers of San Pancrazio and of the Elephant and the ramparts that connect them still guard Castello, the old city built by the Pisans. In the centre of the mediaeval city shine the mosaics on the facade of the wonderful Cathedral of Saint Mary of Cagliari while its polychrome marbles light its nave. Local faith is even more evident just a few hundred metres away from the cathedral in the small church of Saint Ephysius. In 1656 the saint appeared to the people of Cagliari to free them from a terrible attack of the plague. In gratitude the city every year at the start of May holds its most beautiful festival in his honour, with one of the world's longest processions because the ox-drawn cart that carries the saint and the horses and riders that form his cortege travel over 80 kilometres in four days, a magnificent parade with some of Sardinia's most beautiful costumes.
There's another monument that must not be missed when visiting Cagliari - the food! Sardinian vegetables have an intense flavour we very rarely taste any more and form a perfect accompaniment to fish (roast eel, grilled sea bass or sea bream, lobster, dried or marinated tuna etc.) or a nice cut of meat (tender lamb, roast sucking pig on a spit, cutlet of bue rosso - the local beef, wild boar, partridge etc.). But leave space for the bread, which the locals call a gift from God. There are over 400 different types of bread. Among the best are sa pillonca - made with raisins and lard, su civraxiu - a crusty round bread with soft crumb, and of course carasau - the flatbread eaten by shepherds that Sardinians call 'music paper'. But no meal is complete without a plate of pasta. In this part of the Mediterranean people eat culurgiones, a type of ravioli filled with a mixture of potatoes, onions and mint, mallorredus - small gnocchi, and spaghetti with bottarga - the local fish roe (crushed, salted and dried mullet eggs) that is said to be the Sardinian caviar. Shake some pecorino¸the famous sheep-milk cheese, on your food and wash it down with the local wine.
Nature and the sea
One of the main reasons the food is so good and tasty must be that Sardinia is still unspoilt. Lake Molentargius has an untamed natural beauty and is home to almost two hundred bird species year-round, including pink flamingos, herons, cormorants and more. This is one of the most beautiful walks in the area. But there are others too. Whether on foot or mountain bike, there are lots of trails around Cagliari. An hour's walk on the most famous will take you to the Devil's Saddle, a rocky promontory that got its name from the legendary battle between Lucifer and the Archangel Michael and his army in the sky above Sardinia. During the battle Lucifer is said to have come off his horse and his saddle fell to earth. Since then it has dominated the port of Cagliari, the city's remaining salt marshes and its biggest beach, Poetto. This is not the most beautiful in this part of Sardinia but it is certainly the liveliest, with its deckchairs and straw huts and in the evening its open-air discos and pop-up concerts. And with all other beaches on the island it shares one undeniable quality: transparent, cool waters. The Big Blue is Sardinia at its most beautiful.
Must-visit places in Cagliari and its surroundings
Bastione di Saint Remy - a triumphal arch built 1899-1920 that connects the upper and lower parts of the city. A monumental staircase to the top gives onto an enormous panoramic terrace with views across all Cagliari.
Botanic garden - three hectares of gardens in the centre of the city with species from around the world.
Salt marshes - these face the sea between the city and Poetto beach. At sunset the little paths offer pretty views and sightings of pink flamingos, herons and owls.
National archaeological museum - you don't have to be an archaeology field to enjoy the magnificent bronze figures from the Nuragico age or the no less remarkable Carthaginian jewellery.
Su Giudeu - situated to the west of Cagliari after the Phoenician ruins of Nora lies one of the most beautiful beaches in the Mediterranean. White sand is lapped by turquoise waters and high dunes are covered with centuries' old juniper trees - paradise. 150 metres from the shore is the island that gave the beach its name. Don't forget your mask and snorkel,
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