Where Fools Fear to Tread — A Snapshot of Cagliari

Via Roma
Una and Sophie walking along Via Roma

As part of the Boaty Weekender cruise, I got to spend eight hours in CagliariSardinia. From the get-go, my partner, Una, had expressed her wish to spend her day at Poetto, Cagliari’s main beach. To be honest, I thought that eight hours at the beach sounded a bit dull — especially having come all the way to Sardinia from Southern California — a place with a similar climate and loads of beaches.

Cagliari (Sardinian: Casteddu) is the island’s capital and most-populous city — one of just two with a population of more than 100,000. It was, from 1324-1848, the capital of the Kingdom of SardiniaIt is also the seat of the University of Cagliari, founded in 1607.

Given the cruise’s endless supply of booze and my own struggles with self-control (not just of booze but pizza, pasta, potato chips, and potatoes in general), my biggest fear beforehand was that we’d dock in Sardinia and I’d be hungover and sequestered in the bathroom of my darkened cabin for the duration of our stay. In the end, I was able to enjoy a bit of Cagliari… but I did spend most of my day at the beach.


A BIT ABOUT SARDINIA AND CAGLIARI

Sardinia (Sardinian: Sardìgna, Sassarese: Sardhigna, Gallurese: Saldigna, Algherese: Sardenya, and Tabarchino: Sardegna) is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean after Sicily. At 24,100 square kilometers, it’s about two-thirds the size of Taiwan or just about the same size as Vermont. As of 2017, it was home to a human population of 1,651,793.

Cagliari from the boat
Cagliari, as seen from the sea

Sardinia is located to the immediate south of the island of Corsica — the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean. The two islands are separated by a distance of only about twelve kilometers. The next closest landmasses to Sardinia are the Balearic Islands to the west, the Italian Peninsula to the east, and Tunisia to the south. All are separated from Sardinia by roughly 200 kilometers of sea.

Sardinia is divided into four administrative provinces. The primary native language is Sardinian. Minority languages spoken in Sardinia include  Sassarese (a Tuscan dialect), Gallurese (a Corsican dialect), Algherese (a Catalan dialect), and Tabarchino (a Ligurian dialect). Of course, Sardinia is nominally part of Italy and thus Italian is also understood. I memorized a handful of Sardinia expressions but devoted most of my language-learning focus, before the trip, to learning Catalan (because I spent several days in Barcelona) and less to standard Italian. I firmly believe that if you don’t try at all to learn any of the native language of a place you’re visiting, you’re just a terrible person.


HISTORY OF SARDINIA

Sardinia is an ancient island and has been populated at various times with waves of immigrants. The first people to settle in Sardinia began arriving from Continental Europe in the Late Stone Age/Upper Paleolithic era. Evidence of their presence was discovered in the form of skeletal remains in Corbeddu Cave, a cavern located in Oliena. Later settlers arrived in the island via Corsica. The Cardial culture arose following the arrival of settlers from the Italian Peninsula. Cultures that subsequently arose include the Ozieri (probably of Agean origin), the Arzachena of Gallura, the Beaker culture, and the Bronze Age Bonnanaro.

Around 1500 BCE, villages began rising in Sardinia around round tower-fortresses known as nuraghes. There are still the ruins of some 7,000 nuraghes found in Sardinia. Other ruins of the so-called Nuragic civilization include wells, monumental tombs, and religious sites. Located as it is along several trade routes, ancient Sardinians were able to amass considerable wealth and expressed a high degree of cultural sophistication. The ancient Sardinians who lived around these nuraghes are believed by some scholars to have been the Sherden, a tribe of the Sea Peoples — the infamous seafaring confederation which repeatedly attacked ancient Egpyt and Levantine peoples during the Late Bronze Age Collapse (1200–900 BCE).

Around the 9th century BCE, the Phoenicians began regularly visiting Sardinia on their way to and from the Atlantic coasts of Africa and Europe. According to 4th century Latin poet, Claudian, Caralis (modern Cagliari) was founded by people from Tyre in modern-day Lebanon around the same time as Carthage, in the 9th or 8th century BCE. In the 6th century BCE, the Carthaginians under Malco attempted to conquer Sardinia and were routed. In 510 BCE, however, parts of Sardinia came under Carthaginian rule. After the First Punic War (264–241 BCE), the Romans annexed Corsica and Sardinia. The Romans established the colonies of Turris Lybissonis (Porto Torres) and Feronia (Posada), among others. Roman rule, which lasted for 694 years, never penetrated the interior highlands, which the Romans referred to as Barbaria.

The Germanic Vandals conquered Sardinia in 456. Their rule lasted until 534 when  Byzantine Empire troops led by Cyril conquered the island. Aside from an Ostrogoth invasion in 551, most of Sardinia remained firmly under Byzantine control for the next three centuries. An exception, however, was the region of Barbagia, which remained pagan, non-Latin speaking, and at one point was its own kingdom.

After the fall of Carthage to the Arabs in 697, some of the Byzantine administration settled in Caralis but soon after, Sardinia faced a series Moor and Berber raids. Following the Muslim conquest of Sicily (827-902), communication between Sardinia and the Byzantine Empire all but ended and by 952, Byzantine authorities no longer regarded Sardinia as a province of the empire. However, Sardinia was ruled during this period by a local noble family, the Lacon-Gunale, who continued to identify themselves as vassals of the Byzantines.

In the 11th century CE, Sardinia was organized into four independent states, known as judicates. Each judicate was allied with a different European power which brought them into conflicts over territory and resources. In 1297, Pope Boniface VIII declared the establishment of the Kingdom of Sardinia and Corsica. In 1324, the Aragonese Crown Prince Alfonso led a Catalan army to conquer several territories and cities in both islands. From 1353-1409, Arboreans ruled all of Sardinia except for Aragonese-occupied Cagliari and Alghero. In 1409, Martin I of Sicily defeated the Sardinians at the Battle of Sanluri. The Kingdom of Sardinia remained under control of the Aragonese until 1708, when it was passed to the Austrians.

In 1718, Sardinia was given to the House of Savoy. On 28 April 1794, an uprising in Cagliari led to the death of two Savoyard officials. Today the event is commemorated as “sa die de sa Sardigna.” After the Napoleonic Wars, the Savoy royal family nevertheless took refuge in Cagliari. In 1820, the Savoyards imposed the “Enclosures Act,” which dealt a blow to traditional Sardinian values of collectivism by shifting power away from shepherds and into the hands of landholders.

In 1861, Sardinia became part of the Kingdom of Italy. Sardinian writer Grazia Deledda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926. During the Fascist period, several communities were founded, including agrarian Mussolinia (now known as Arborea), and Carbonia, a coal-mining town. Sardinia, and especially Cagliari, were heavily bombed by the Allies during World War II. Italy became a republic in 1946. Sardinian nationalism increased in the 1970s and a sometimes violent separatist campaign was waged from then until the 1990s. Today separatist violence seems to have quieted down (it peaked with 224 bombings in 1987/’88) but a spirit of Sardinian distinctness and independence remains.


MUSIC OF SARDINIA

I had never listened to Sardinian music prior to preparing for my visit. Perhaps the most iconic indigenous instrument is the triple-pipe known as the launeddas. I generally like polyphonic vocal music so it wasn’t a surprise that I gravitated toward Sardinia’s cantu a tenore and cantu a cuncordu. Also popular are guitar songs known as cantu a chiterra, exemplified by performers like Maria Carta and Elena Ledda. Jazz is popular too and locally represented by Antonello Salis, Marcello Melis, and Paolo Fresu.


SARDINIAN LITERATURE

I like to read before visiting a place. Cagliari has often been written about by non-Sardinians like Roman poet Claudian, 16th century poet Roderigo Hunno Baeza, 17th century writer Juan Francisco Carmona. The first novel set in Cagliari was Jacinto Arnal De Bolea‘s El forastero, published in 1636. I decided to read D.H. Lawrence‘s Sardinia Map.jpgtravel memoir, Sea and Sardinia, published in 1921. It was my first time reading Lawrence, and I was struck by what constant complainer he was. Depending on one’s disposition, he must’ve been either an insufferable or hilarious traveling companion, filling many a page with complaints about the dryness of goat meat and his annoyance with the haughty and impudent expressions of the island’s peasants. The map, however, is excellent.

I hope to read some native Sardinian literature someday too. The first known Sardinian writer was the excellently named Bishop Lucifer of Cagliari, who lived and wrote in the 4th century CE. Modern Cagliari writers include Flavio SorigaGiorgio ToddeGiulio Angioni, Giuseppe Dessì, and Sergio Atzeni. Cagliari is also home to the State Archive and numerous libraries, including the old University Library, the Provincial Library, the Regional Library, and the Mediateca of the Mediterranean.


CUISINE OF SARDINIA

I was very much looking forward to experiencing Sardinian cuisine and so did a bit of research beforehand. The basic elements include meat (which I don’t eat), dairy products, grains, and vegetables. I’m learning to embrace herbs more in the past few years and those commonly included in Sardinian cuisine include mint and myrtle.

Bread is a staple of Sardinia. It is generally on the dry side and often served with tomatoes, basil, garlic, oregano, and cheese. One of the best-known breads is pane carasau.

I generally avoid cheese but I routinely fall off that wagon. Traditional cheeses include casizolu, pecorino romanopecorino sardopecorino romano, ricotta, and the infamous casu marzu, which is softened by live maggots. The maggots are eaten as they eat the cheese and so it’s not vegetarian. It’s also not something I find at all tempting to eat.

Popular wines include CannonauMalvasiaVernaccia, and Vermentino. Popular liquors include AbbardenteFilu Ferru, and Mirto. Beer, however, is the most popular alcoholic beverage and Sardinians drink twice as much, per capita, as the average Italian. The most popular brand is Birra Ichnusa, brewed in Cagliari.

I had none of it though because, by the time I had the urge to get a bite or drink, every café seemed to be closed for “pennichella” — (southern) Italian for “siesta.”


MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES OF SARDINIA

I’ve written and spoken often about the fact that I usually avoid visiting museums when on vacation — despite the fact that they’re among the things most commonly recommended to me by friends. It is not because I don’t like museums — quite the contrary — I like them too much and I hate rushing through them as if on a cultural scavenger hunt. I could easily spend two days in a moderately sized museum and I only had a few hours.

However, in case I return in the future for a few weeks — or for the use of the reader — there are several museums and galleries in Cagliari, including the Museo archeologico nazionale di CagliariMuseo civico d’arte siamese Stefano CarduMuseo delle cere anatomiche Clemente Susini, Pinacoteca nazionaleGalleria comunale d’arteCollezione sarda Luigi PiloniExMàMEMCastello di San MicheleIl GhettoMuseo di BonariaMuseo del DuomoMuseo del tesoro di Sant’Eulalia, and Orto botanico di Cagliari.


PARKS OF SARDINIA

Sardinia is also known for its parks. Some of the more notable being Monte Urpinu Park, Terramaini Park, Monte Claro Provincial Park, Ex-vetreria Pirri Park, and Public Gardens. Locate outside but near Cagliari is Molentargius – Saline Regional Park.


FILM OF SARDINIA

Naturally, with only eight hours in Cagliari, I wasn’t about to eat up any time sitting in a cinema — even though I craved a bit of rest. There are currently four cinemas in Cagliari: Cinema Odissea, Cinema UCI Cagliari, Cineteatro Nanni Loy, and Greenwich d’essai. All but Cinema UCI Cagliari are small art houses which show interesting films.

There are several films set in and shot, at least in part, in Sardinia, including Faddija – La legge della vendetta (dir. Roberto Bianchi Montero, 1949), L’edera (dir. Augusto Genina, 1950), Vendetta… sarda (dir. Mario Mattoli, 1951), Proibito (dir. Mel Ferrer, 1954), Banditi a Orgosolo (dir. Vittorio de Setta, 1960), Una questione d’onore (dir. Luigi Zampa, 1965), Barbagia (dir. Carlo Lizzani, 1969), and Beretta’s Island (dir. Michael Preece, 1993).

The only film I was able to find that was shot in part in Sardinia was the James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me (dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1977). By my reckoning and the reckoning of many others, it is the best of the Roger Moore Bond films — although not merely because it’s largely filmed in Costa Smeralda.

Monica Vitti Michelangelo Antonioni
Monica Vitti and Michelangelo Antonioni

Costa Smeralda is located in Sardinia’s north. Closer to Corsica than to Cagliari. Nearby is another northern town famed for its beauty and cinematic significance — Costa Paradiso. It is there that architect Dante Bini designed two of his “Binishells” — Piccolo Cupola and Grande Cupola. The latter was the love nest of Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti — one of my all-time favorite filmmakers and one of my all-time favorite actresses. The two lovers lived there after they’d collaborated on L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse, and Deserto Rosso. However, their relationship soon ended and the property then passed through a succession of owners, falling into disrepair along the way. It has long been abandoned and is located on private property. Nevertheless, I looked into how long it would take to get there from Cagliari. Three hours by car, it seems, and so impossible on this trip. Until next time, then.


Church
Chiesa di S. Eulalia, completed in 1370.

So as I said, we ended up spending most of our day at the beach. After we disembarked from the Norwegian Pearl, we took a shuttle across the vast, unshaded expanse of asphalt surrounding the port to a small roundabout on Calata Azuni. We walked around the Marina district for a bit. We started out toward Bastione Saint Remy which stands atop the Castello district and affords a panoramic view but only made it as far as Chiesa di S. Eulalia — a small 14th century church set back a mere three blocks from busy Via Roma.

It was hot. I was jetlagged and exhausted from staying up late. The night before (technically early morning) I had stayed up partying late with some of the musicians on the cruise and had proclaimed that I was having so much fun that even if I wasn’t able to explore every block of Cagliari I wouldn’t count it as a total loss. As we slowly ascended the hilly city, I honestly felt like I might faint and so Una, Sophie, and I walked back to the roundabout where we boarded a shuttle bound for another roundabout at the junction of Via Lungo Saline and Viale del Poetto.

The five-kilometer trip took about 20 minutes to undertake. We rented a spot near the water and I felt completely restored once I was in the water — even if it was a bit warm for my liking. With my energy returned, I swam around a bit, heading into deeper (and slightly cooler) water where small boats were anchored and windsurfers sailed. My eyes kept moving toward Sedd’e su Diaulu, a promontory which separates Poetto from another beach. Its name, which translates to “the Devil’s Saddle,” stems from a legend in which Lucifer (the Lightbringer — not the Sardinian Bishop) lost his saddle in a tussle with the archangel Michael as they fought over the beautiful beach. And it was beautiful. Brown-skinned, corkscrew-haired children horsed around as their parents mostly ignored them from under umbrellas.

When we waited for the shuttle to pick us up again, I got into a conversation with a British couple. They asked about Southern California and I told them that the water is always bracingly cold but that many of the areas around the beach are characterized by low, sun-baked, scrub-covered mountains.

The husband asked, “so it looks a bit like this, then?”

“Yeah,” I replied, feeling only a little guilty for not having done more during my brief stay.


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.
Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from Saatchi Art and 1650 Gallery. Other merchandise is available on Tee Public.
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