Wild and wonderful, let Sardinia cast its spell on you. Take time to explore Cagliari and the south of this enchanting isle
WORDS JAN FUSCOE
Sardinia’s capital, Cagliari, is pretty, lively and historically rich. Full of elegant biscuit-coloured buildings, it’s also blessed with a cluster of interesting museums, cool bars and restaurants, and quirky shops. There’s much to do in one rewarding day. To get a history fix, head for the island’s splendid National Archaeological Museum. Among the highlights is Sardinia’s ‘Stone Army’, comprising giant sculptures that appear to be boxers, archers and swordsmen wearing battle dress. Predating China’s Terracotta Army by over 500 years, it’s some of the oldest statuary in the Mediterranean. While in the area, head over to Cagliari’s beautifully preserved Roman amphitheatre. Partially carved into a rockface, it dates back to 2AD; today, crowds watch concerts and performances here rather than gladiatorial battles and executions. The city’s central districts are easy to explore on foot. In the hip Castello district, don’t miss Cagliari Cathedral, with its wonderful mix of architectural influences inside and out, the remains of Cagliari’s castle and the impressive Palazzo Arcivescovile and the Palazzo Regio. Explore the narrow streets and take a gelato break in the charming Piazza Carlo Alberto.
In the historic Old Town, get a sense of Cagliari by venturing up the iconic Bastione San Remy, a mighty 19th-century edifice with a viewing platform overlooking the city. Then stroll to the nearby Torre dell’Elefante, the medieval tower built by the Pisans as part of the fortifications to protect the city from the Aragonese attack. A marble elephant, the symbol of Pisa’s maritime power, can be seen on the façade. After your wanderings, treat yourself to refreshments on the terrace of Caffè Libarium Nostrum. Set on the city ramparts, it’s the ideal spot to drink in views of the city and the sea beyond. Sardinians love a festival and Cagliari boasts one of the best. If possible, time your visit to coincide with the week of Festa di Sant’Efisio (the city’s patron saint) in May. The whole of Cagliari, along with visitors from all over Sardinia, converges on the streets to admire hundreds of different traditional costumes from around the island. With much music, singing and dancing, it’s as if the whole city is one big, joyous party.
BEACHES AND BEYOND
A stone’s throw from Calgliari, you’ll find one of the island’s coolest beaches – Poetto, which takes its name from the Aragonese ‘Poet’s Tower’, perched on a cliff close by. Overlooking the Gulf of the Angels, it has 8km of pristine white sand fringing beautiful clear seas. As a haven for locals all year round, there’s a relaxed vibe with space for everyone, from secluded corners to more lively sections with trendy bars and a host of kiosks serving a variety of food and drink. If you’re feeling adventurous, and they’re in season, try the sea urchins, freshly caught by locals. Scoop out the ricci with a piece of bread or a spoon, and enjoy with a glass of crisp, white vermentino (a Sardinian speciality). From the beach, it’s a short walk to the Molentargius nature reserve where, each year, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, including pink flamingos, come to nest in the salty marshes. If you can tear yourself away from the wildlife, there’s also an ancient salt mine dating back to Roman times. To appreciate the island’s ancient history in situ, head for Nora, where the Carthaginians built a city around 800BC – thought to be the first on the island. The area had previously been inhabited by indigenous Sardinians whose intriguing stone edifices, known as nuraghe, can still be found all over the island.
The site at Nora is now an open-air museum and it’s possible to visit and admire the public baths, mosaics and even a theatre, where occasionally outdoor concerts are held. For a walk on the wilder side of Sardinia, head inland. The island’s interior is untamed, mountainous and rugged. Close to Cagliari, the forests and mountains of the Sette Fratelli nature reserve are a triumph of conservation in a land where many indigenous species were hunted almost to extinction. In this verdant oasis, herds of Sardinian deer, wild boar and curly-horned mouflon roam free; eagles, peregrine falcons and Sardinian goshawks soar above the peaks; indigenous trees and plants such as myrtle, junipers, alder and holm oaks flourish. The interior is also deeply traditional. Shepherds and farming families work land that has been handed down through generations and artisan traditions are cherished. In the community of Maracalagonis, you’ll see many of these skills first hand. The area is renowned for its basket weaving, intricate Sardinian brocade costumes, and homemade almond pastries and sweets. These tasty dolci make perfect gifts to take home – or to savour once back on ship.
ISLAND HOPPING SMALL GROUP
Join an exclusive small group to explore St Elia Cape on a glamorous boat trip. Marvel at the turquoise waters of Calamosca, an ancient lighthouse and unique rock formations, plus enjoy tasty snacks and stops at prime swimming spots.
Seek out the romance of a ruined Carthaginian city as you stroll around Nora. Excavated at the beginning of the century, this rich archaeological site boasts columns, temples, mosaics and amphitheatres surrounded by the dazzling blue sea.
See a more traditional side of this sunshine island when you head inland. Take in vistas of the Sette Fratelli mountains from Monte Urpinu, then visit the village of Maracalagonis to see artisan and folkloric traditions first hand. Enjoy wine, local produce and folk dancing, too.