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Canned Sardinia

Sardinia, Italia

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?

Sardinia: San PietroThe 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.

Sardinia: Beakon and the SeaThis 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 time machine.

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 of centuries.

Sardinia: Cagliari CathedralWhile 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.

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