It’s easy to get confused. There are three major islands in the
Mediterranean Sea between the Italian and Spanish mainlands. The most easily
identifiable is Sicily, which sits at the toe of Italy’s boot, as if it is
about to be kicked. A little higher up are Sardinia and Corsica. One is French,
the other Italian. But which is which?
smaller and more northerly of the islands is Corsica. Famous as the birthplace
of Napoleon Bonaparte, it is a province of France. Sardinia – the one we’re
interested in – is the larger, southern island.
Popular as a vacation destination with Italians for years, it is
only really in the past decade or so that travelers from all over the world
have begun to take interest in this fascinating island. It is now a popular
cruise destination, and any tour of the western Mediterranean is likely
to include a stop in the island’s capital, Cagliari.
The first thing you should get out of your head as your ship
drifts towards the quayside in Cagliari is any notion that Sardinia, being part
of Italy, is Italian. It isn’t – it is strongly, defiantly Sardinian, a culture
in and of itself. Possibly the only reason the Italian government has avoided
secessionist problems such as Spain has experienced with the Basques is by
making Sardinia an autonomous province. Although nominally part of Italy, this
place runs itself.
distinctiveness makes itself felt in the Sardinian language. You’re actually
less likely to hear it spoken in Cagliari, where Italian is growing in
dominance, especially amongst the young. But go far beyond the capital’s
boundaries and it is more or less all you will hear. Although superficially
similar to Italian, it is, in fact, much more closely related to Latin – the
ancestor language of French, Italian, Spanish and several other modern European
tongues. For many years historians thought that it retained its similarities to
Latin because of Sardinia’s relative isolation – now, though, they’re beginning
to realize that Sardinian is not descended from Latin, but vice versa. The
local, living language in these parts is thousands of years old. So in at least
one sense when you step off your ship at Cagliari you are entering a kind of
One of the first things you should do – if you’re feeling fit –
is climb to the top of the hill which lies at the heart of Castello, the oldest
district of the city. From here you can enjoy fantastic views of the Gulf of
Cagliari, and possibly even of your own ship far below. Take time, too, to
explore the ancient fortifications of the town. The walls of Castello were
built by the people of the city state of Pisa during their occupation of the
island in the middle ages. The most spectacular features of these walls are St.
Pancras Tower and Elephant Tower. In common with much of the rest of the
fortifications, these towers are made of local white limestone – in bright
sunshine they can be quite dazzling, despite their age and the accumulated dirt
you’re up there you should also visit Cagliari’s cathedral, a medieval
construction that was heavily reconstructed in the middle of the twentieth
century to restore it to its original state after some heavy baroque remodeling
a few hundred years before. Also close by, amid the winding and scenic lanes of
this part of town, is the Sardinian Archaeological Museum, which contains
exhibits documenting the very long history and prehistory of the island. It
contains displays of materials reaching back to Phoenician times and beyond.
Additionally, if you have an interest in the past, you might like to visit the
city’s Roman amphitheatre. Unique among constructions of its type, Cagliari’s
own version of the Colosseum was not built as such, but hewn out of solid rock.
It is still used for musical performance, and, if you’re lucky, one might be on
while you’re in town – so you can sit where the Romans sat for their
entertainment, even though gladiatorial combat and chariot racing is unlikely
to be on the program during your visit!
If your cruise itinerary allows you time to eat in Cagliari you
should definitely take the opportunity to do so. There are plenty of
restaurants in town, but if you’re after an authentic taste of old Sardinia –
albeit possibly with untranslated menus and non-English speaking waiting staff
– you would so worse that to visit one of the establishments in the Castello
area. Local specialties, as you might imagine, are heavily oriented around
seafood. If you enjoy calamari, shellfish or fresh sardines, you will love
eating out in this town.
If time permits, do try to explore a little of the Sardinian
hinterland beyond Cagliari. If, however, you have to embark after a only a few
hours on land, you can sail way knowing that you’ve visited one of the most
unique places in western Europe.