The largest Sardinian town is the island’s historic centre, having been ruled by everyone from the Phoenicians and Carthaginians to the Byzantines, Romans and Pisans over the years. It’s now a semi-autonomous part of Italy, but you’re no more likely to catch a Sardinian describing themselves as a Italian than you would a Sicilian. The city has a lived-in and somewhat rundown feel, but that’s all part of its charm. You get the feeling the tourists are never going to go wild for Cagliari but, with the attractions of the Sardinian coastline bringing more of them through the capital’s airport than ever before, it’s likely some of them will stop off to savour the town’s medieval charms.
Getting your bearings
Seated at the back of the wide Golfo di Cagliari and spread out over seven limestone hills, Cagliari is still a relatively small town (population 175,000), easy to traverse on foot, although it’s also worth hopping on a bus out of town and checking out the coast and beaches if you have time. The main shopping strip, set slightly back from the waterfront, is Via Roma. Behind the Via Roma lies the maze of streets which make the Marina and are home to many of the city’s better hotels, restaurants and cafés. Keep heading up the hill and you’ll hit the walled, medieval Castello area.
Scoffing and quaffing
They are Italians after all, so it’s little surprise that the Cagliaritani love their food and drink. Local favourites include all forms of cured pig meat (the prosciutto is divine) and sausages and pecorino goats’ cheeses are ever-present (Sardinia produces about 80% of Italy’s pecorino), as are pastas such as fregula and culurgoines (a ravioli-like concoction filled with potato and mint). The real southern Sardinian delicacy, however, is bottarga di muggine – dried, pressed grey mullet roe. It is commonly grated over your pasta instead of parmesan cheese, but we were served this dense, sticky-textured morsel in oil-soaked lumps. For those who’ll try anything once. The local reds (cannonaus are the most prevalent) and aptly named firewater (filu e feru) should ensure that it’s all a little hazy the next morning.
The main attraction in Cagliari, this walled medieval town is said to boast many a Pisan architectural gem. And, while the Allies bombed the hell out of the capital in World War II, much of the Castello was unscathed. The guidebooks all suggest that the most picturesque way up into this part of town is to climb the steps of the Bastione San Remy, but this once-grand entrance to the town is sadly now blocked off and plastered with graffiti. Even though you have to go the back way, you can still appreciate the celebrated views over town from the top of the Bastione. The Pisan towers (particularly the Torre dell’Elephante, which takes its name from the small elephant sculpture at its base) and the confused architectural stylings of the Cattedral di Santa Maria are the main drawcards in the Castello, but it’s the great cafés-with-a-view, ideal for a sunset drink, which will keep you there.
While this 10km stretch of sand is completely deserted in the cooler seasons, Poetto beach is the place for the Cagliaritani to see and be seen in summer. Think Miami-style art deco buildings, bars and restaurants which spill out onto the sand, and lots of local beautiful people. It’s also worth heading over the road to one of the big lagoons for a bit of flamingo-spotting – thousands of the breeding pink birds call the brackish lakes home for much of the year.
Bonus points for: Brilliant food and a lack of tourists
Loses marks for: Letting cars and graffiti take over the Castello
Additional information supplied by Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com). The first edition of Lonely Planet Sardinia is out now.
– EMILY COLSTON