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The Je Ne Sais Quoi Feel of Cagliari, Sardinia

My writing includes my personal travel experiences, destination, history, and cultural information.

Sardinia, Italy

Sardinia, Italy

An Island Oasis in Mediterranean Sea

Cagliari is the capital of Sardinia, an island located off the west coast of mainland Italy. The city is considered the cultural capital of Sardinia, and the island is noted for its art nouveau architecture. With a long and diverse history, it's become a popular destination on cruises and land-based travel itineraries.

Cagliari Past and Present

Cagliari is not just another Italian city waiting to be explored by its visitors. There is something different about it. In fact, it really doesn't feel like part of Italy. Apparently, I'm not the only one that has come away with that impression. In 1920, English writer D.H. Lawrence described Cagliari as “…strange and rather wonderful, not a bit like Italy,” that "it seems like Spain or Malta" and "yet withal rather jewel-like: like a sudden rose-cut amber jewel naked at the depth of the vast indenture." What a description!

Brief History of this Island Paradise

Evidence uncovered below the modern city proves that Cagliari was settled about 5000 years ago. This would have been during the Neolithic period. As with many seaside cities of the Mediterranean, Cagliari has seen its fair share of invasions.

The city has always been an important port city, which has greatly impacted its history. Today it is one of the largest ports in the Mediterranean. Surrounded by two marshes with mountains nearby, the area has depended on its topography as somewhat of a natural defense system.

With certainty, we know that since the 8th century, Cagliari has been embattled by the Romans, the Punics, the Arabs, the Pisans, and the Aragonese.

The Role the Citys Name Plays in History

Cagliari comes from the Punic word 'Karel' or 'Karalis', which translates to "rocky place." The Sardinian name 'Casteddu' means "castle", referring to the fortified hill of Castel di Castro. This is the location of the walled medieval city which closed its doors every night. I'm always intrigued by the origins of city names. It seems that the ancient cities are always named for their geographic features or their ability to protect themselves.

Modern History

By the end of the 19th century, Cagliari was experiencing rapid growth.

However, during the Second World War, the area came under bombing. 80% of the buildings were damaged. Many of the locals fled to the countryside for safety and for a brief period of time, after the Italian Armistice, the Germans took control of the area. Shortly thereafter, the American Army took control, using the existing airports. The use of the airports fortified their position when flying into North Africa, Italy, and Sicily.

Cagliari Today

Tourism and support industries are the bread and butter sources of revenue today. However, the city is diverse in many other economic areas. Banking, the port, multinational manufacturers, and oil are also important sources of revenue and local jobs.

Things to Do and See While in Cagliari

The historic center of Cagliari is made up of 4 quarters: Castello, Stampace, Villanova, and Marina. They each have elements worth exploring and are reflective of the history and culture of Cagliari.

  • Castello is the most popular area with tourists. Many of the city's attractions are in this district. Castello is a citadel sitting hilltop, where you will see domes, palaces, and towers. During medieval times, this is the area that the aristocracy occupied. Torre di San Pancrazio and Torre dell’Elefante are also located in this district. Both are watchtowers built sometime in the 14th century. Additional sites are the Cathedral, the Archeology Museum, and Palazzo Viceregio. Santa Croce church is also located in the district and was formally known as the Jewish Ghetto of Cagliari until 1492. It is a catholic church built on top of a Jewish Synagogue.
  • Stampace was the working class district in Medieval times. It is also the home of the Santa Restituta crypt and of Sant'Efisio church.
  • Villanova is an up-and-coming trendy area of modern Cagliari. Shops, boutiques, and cafes are located in this district. It is best known for its use of color, which is a traditional decorating style in Sardinia.
  • Marina is somewhat explained by its name. It is the port district known for its younger crowds and vibrant nightlife.
The streets of Villanova

The streets of Villanova

Archaeological Sites and Museums

  • The Roman Amphitheater was built in the 2nd century AD. It is estimated to hold 10,000 people and is carved entirely out of rock.
  • Villa di Tigellio was built in the 1st century BC. It is the former home of Tigellio Ermogene, the renowned poet and musician.
  • Museo Archeologico Nazionale is located in Costello. Mont’e Prama Giants, stone statues dating back to the 8th and 9th centuries, are housed here. Also, you find a huge collection of bronze figurines, referred to as bronzetti.
  • Pinacoteca Nazionale is right next door to the Archaeological Museum. The pieces in this art museum date back to the 15th and 17th centuries. The art is attributed to Catalan, Sardinian, and Genoese artists.
The Roman amphitheatre is carved from stone and seats 10,000 people.

The Roman amphitheatre is carved from stone and seats 10,000 people.

The Stunning Churches of Cagliari

  • The Cathedral is in Piazza Palazzo. Built in the Baroque style during the 13th century, it holds the crypts of the Savoy royal family. There is also a tower that is accessible and the panoramic views are glorious!
  • Basilica di Bonaria and Cemetary is known for having the wooden statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. The importance of this statue is the legend behind it. This legend states that Mary saved a Spanish ship from sinking by speaking to the crew. She is reputed to have said "Posa, Posa" in a message directing the captain and crew to steer the ship to Positano. Last used in 1968, there is a historical cemetery right below the church.
  • Other Notable Churches include San Saturnino Basilica, San Michele church, and Sant’Efisio church.
Basilica di Bonaria

Basilica di Bonaria

Eat, Drink and Be Merry!

Eating is one of the favorite pastimes in Cagliari. The food is, without a doubt, amazing! The Marina and Villanova districts are known for their culinary splendor.

Typical foods in the area include:

  • Su Porcheddu, roast suckling pig.
  • Culurgiones, a ravioli type pasta filled with potato, pecorino cheese, animal fats, garlic, olive oil, and mint leaves.
  • Zuppa Gallurese is similar to lasagne layered with sheep broth and meat between stale, flatbread.
  • Spezzatino di Vitello con Piselli, a veal stew with peas.
  • Pane Carasau is a wafer-thin bread typically served as an antipasto.
  • Pecorino Sardo cheese is made from sheep’s milk. It's usually made from raw or thermized milk and is known for being extra-hard. Many times, this is used in a grilled cheese sandwich or grated and over pasta.
  • Seadas is a sweet, lightly fried ravioli served as a dessert with honey and sugar on top.
Seadas with Honey and Sugar

Seadas with Honey and Sugar

Drink Limoncello and Mirto. I've recently written an article about Limoncello and how to make your own.

There are two types of Mirto. Mirto rosso is made from the berries of the Myrtle plant, and mirto blanco is made from the leaves. Mirto is typically served after the meal as a digestive and is always very cold, similar to limoncello.

And be Merry! What's not to be merry about when you are in Cagliari? It's a beautiful Mediterranean island. Being steeped in history, it offers stunning views of our glorious world! Always know that you are blessed to have the opportunity to visit!

My Impressions

D.H. Lawrence was right. There is something quite different about Cagliari. Although it is an Italian island, it doesn't have the same feel as other parts of Italy. Many of the customs, food, and drink are reminiscent of and have roots in Italy. But there is an undefinable difference. It's 116 miles from mainland Italy, and perhaps that distance has a bit to do with the feel of Cagliari?

I had a great time in Cagliari. On my last visit, since I had been there years ago, I mainly stuck to the Villanova and Marina districts of the historic city center. I was visiting by cruise ship during the beginning stages of COVID restrictions loosening. This kept my recent visit a bit short. We did some shopping, had fabulous lunch and drinks, and returned to the ship.

It had been seven years since my last visit and I was happy to see that Cagliari hadn't changed much. The city had retained its je ne sais quoi feeling! The only real noticeable changes were in the Villanova district with few improvements like new shops and cafes.

One of the things I love about Sardinia, specifically Cagliari, is the colors. The happiness and brightness of them incorporate into the ambience of the city! Please share your travel experiences to Cagliari or your desire to visit. Kindly leave comments in the section provided in this article.

Until next friends, remember "To Travel is to Live!"

© 2022 Dee Nicolou Serkin