Mention Sardinia and most people think of the glitz of the Costa Smeralda and dodgy dealings in Berlusconi’s villas, but there’s plenty more. The second-largest island in the Mediterranean, Sardinia remains unique and enigmatic with its stretches of rugged coastline and white-sand beaches, dramatic granite cliffs, and mountainous inland tracts. Glamorous resorts lie within a short distance of quiet, medieval villages, and ruined castles and ancient churches testify to an eventful history.
But although conquerors from all directions—Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Catalans, Pisans, Piemontese—have left their traces, no single outside culture has had a dominant impact. Pockets of foreign influence persist along the coasts (for example, the walled Catalan city of Alghero), but inland, a proud Sardinian culture and language flourish.
Known in Sardinia as Casteddu, or Cagliari to us the island’s capital has steep streets and impressive Italianate architecture, from modern to medieval. This city of nearly 160,000 people is characterized by a busy commercial center and waterfront with broad avenues and arched arcades, as well as by the typically narrow streets of the old hilltop citadel (called, simply, Castello).
The oldest part of Cagliari is known as the Castello. It clings to the slopes of a hill that rises steeply from the harbour and has been fought over by the Pisans, Genoese, and Spanish, and raided by pirates from North Africa. Cagliari’s people and traditions show this varied heritage, and the influences of different periods are reflected in its architecture as well. Facing the harbour, the Town Hall blends Spanish Gothic with Italian Art Nouveau.
Elsewhere in the city, you’ll recognize Neoclassical arcades and bastions, medieval towers, Roman and medieval stonework, and Baroque churches. Sardinia has its own language, which many people still speak at home and among friends, but everyone speaks Italian and many also speak English.
The Museo Archeologico makes a good starting point to a visit. The imposing Bastion of Saint Remy and Mercato di San Benedetto, one of the best fish markets in Italy, are both musts.
It also has its own cuisine, so be sure to try some of the local dishes you’ll find highlighted on menus. All this makes Cagliari and the south coast’s attractions even more fun for tourists to explore. A local dish is Fregula (also fregola) which is a type of pasta. It is similar to North African Berkoukes and Israeli couscous. Fregula comes in varying sizes, but typically consists of semolina dough that has been rolled into balls 2–3 mm in diameter and toasted in an oven. A typical preparation of fregula is to simmer it in a tomato-based sauce with clams. This food is typical of the south western part of Sardinia, and was imported by Ligurian immigrants coming from the Genoese colony of Tabarka in Tunisia.
It’s a perfect spot to get your bearings by picking out landmarks – the harbour, the Marina quarter below, the leafy Villanova neighbourhood to the left, and the hilltop Basilica di Nostra Signora di Bonaria.
A gate in the old Torre dell’Aquila above Bastione San Remy leads into the narrow main street of the old town, Il Castello, a warren of arched passageways, steep lanes, and flights of steps.
Straight ahead in the terraced Piazza del Palazzo is the cathedral of Santa Maria, built by the Pisans in 1312. On the higher terrace are the Palazzo Arcivescovile (archbishop’s palace) and the long façade of the Palazzo Reggio, where the Savoy royal family lived after Napoleon captured Turin.