If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the island of Sardinia, a region of southern Italy. Depending on your interests, this beautiful area can be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. Some parts of Sardinia remain undiscovered by tourists, while other sites are favorites of Italian and international jet setters and are priced accordingly. This article presents southern Sardinia. Companion articles present northern Sardinia and central Sardinia.
We’ll start our tour of southern Sardinia at its capital and largest city, Cagliari on the Golfo di Cagliari (Cagliari Gulf). Then we head southwest along the coast to Pula and nearby Nora and then continue on or close to the coast, first southwest and then northwest to Sant’Antioco and neighboring Calasetta. We next visit the island city of San Pietro. Finally we return to mainland Sardinia and then proceed north to finish our tour at Costa Verde.
Cagliari has a population of about one hundred sixty thousand or more than twice that when you count the suburbs. It has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The city fought alongside the Savoyards against the French Revolution. When it became clear that they would not be rewarded for their loyalty, all Cagliari rose up against the Savoyards and expelled them and their Piedmont allies. Every year on the last weekend of April Cagliari celebrates this insurgency in the Die de sa Sardigna (Sardinian Day). Their independence was short-lived.
The old city is called Castello (the Castle). It lies on a hilltop and offers an excellent view of the Gulf of Cagliari which is also known as Angels Gulf. The major part of the old white limestone city walls remain intact. Look for two Thirteenth Century white limestone towers, the Torre di San Pancrazio (St. Pancras Tower) and the Torre dell’Elefante (Elephant Tower). D.H. Lawrence, who wrote Sea and Sardinia, as well as Lady Chatterly’s Lover compared Cagliari to a “white Jerusalem”.
The remains of the ancient city include the Second Century Anfiteatro Romano (Roman Amphitheatre), parts of which are fairly well preserved, an aqueduct, ancient cisterns, and the ruins of a small temple. Summers you can attend open-air concerts and operas and concerts in the amphitheatre. The Museo Archeologico (Archeological Museum) located in a Fourteenth Century castle contains many artifacts coming from unique Sardinian stone structures called Nuraghe which are discussed in the companion article I Love Touring Italy – Central Sardinia.
The Duomo, Cattedrale di Santa Maria, (St. Mary’s Cathedral) was built in the Seventeenth Century but underwent major renovations in the 1930s. Other churches worth seeing include the Fifth Century Basilica di San Saturnino (St. Saturnino Bascilica), the Seventeenth Century Church of St. Lucifer, and the Fourteenth Century Sanctuary of Our Lady of Bonaria.
Many old Cagliari neighborhoods retain their charm. Some 1930s buildings were built in Art Deco style, while others such as the Palazzo di Giustizia (Justice Court) conform to a Fascist Neoclassist style. Cagliari also claims one of the longest beaches in Italy, the Poetto beach an amazing 8 miles (13 kilometers), once famous for its white fine-grained sand and one of the largest fish markets in all Italy, the Mercato di San Benedetto (St. Benedetto Market).
Pula whose population numbers some seven thousand is known for its lovely beaches, bays, and coves. Admire the flocks of flamingos in the marshes. Just outside of Pula lies the site of Nora, founded by Phoenicians and perhaps the oldest city in all Sardinia. The excavations, while not yet completed, have uncovered a wealth of ruins from the days of Carthage and Rome.
From the first to the fourth of May Nora and Cagliari host what is perhaps the greatest and most colorful religious procession in the world, the Festa di Sant’Efisio, honoring a martyr beheaded by a Roman soldier in 303 in Nora. In 1652 a plague was rampant in Sardinia and half of Cagliari lay dead. According to popular belief this saint’s intervention stopped the plague. In gratitude every year thousands of traditionally costumed marchers transport his statue from a church in old Cagliari to one in Nora and back. The end of the festivities is marked by a torchlight parade.
Sant’Antioco is an island off the coast of Sardinia. While quite small, it is the seventh largest island in the Mediterranean. The island itself was settled way back in the Fifth Millenium B.C. and the city of the same name, population twelve thousand, was settled in the Eighth Century B.C. The Roman causeway is still standing but you’ll probably get to the mainland and back by a modern version.
Make sure to see the Zona Archeologica (Archeological Zone) with its view of mainland Sardinia and an archeological museum. There’s even a necropolis dating back to the days of Carthage. Then stop by the little town of Calasetta, population under three thousand, first settled by Ligurians in 1770. I’m told the residents have kept their dialect that is as incomprehensible to Sardinians as it is to you or me, unless you’re from Genoa or its surroundings. Don’t worry about the language; enjoy the beaches and the port.
San Pietro was supposed to be settled by those Ligurians who ended up in Calasetta. Before long they were enslaved. Upon their liberation many went to Calasetta but some others returned to San Pietro’s town of Carloforte, population about eight thousand, once a center for tuna fishing and now a tourist resort.
Costa Verde is a great combination of wilderness and resort life. You can only get there by a lousy road. Take people’s advice and avoid driving during the heat of the day. But once you are there, Costa Verde is really unforgettable. Sand dunes, wild landscapes, and great beaches abound.
What about food? In spite of its magnificent coastline, native Sardinians don’t seem to go very much for fish and seafood. However, if you are on or near the coast you can get fish and seafood. Look for burrida, a Sardinian fish soup that is sometimes based on shark. The sea also provides swordfish, tuna, sardines, cuttlefish, clams, and mussels. An expensive specialty is mosciame di tonno, salted, air-dried tuna. A more familiar and often expensive specialty is lobster, some of the best in Italy.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Impanadas (Baked Stuffed Pastry). Then try Lepudrida (Soupy Legumes and Meat with Ham). For dessert indulge yourself with Pabassinas (Pastry topped with Raisin and Walnut Paste). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We’ll conclude with a short examination of Sardinian wine. Sardinia ranks eighth among the 20 Italian regions in acreage devoted to wine grapes and twelfth in total annual wine production. About 57% of its wine production is red or rose (only a little is rose) leaving 43% for white wine. DOC is short for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. The letter G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is absolutely no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. The region produces 19 DOC wines and one DOCG wine, Vermentino di Gallura. About 15% of Sardinian wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation.
Carignano del Sulcis DOC is produced in Sardinia’s southwestern tip from the red Carignano grape (the French call it Carignan) with a maximum of 15% of other local red grapes. The ros?ine is dry and still or fizzy. The red wine may be dry or sweet. Monica di Cagliari DOC is one of a series of similarly named wines featuring a grape such as Monica, Nuragus, etc. Monica di Cagliari is vinified in a large area of southern Sardinia starting from the local red Monica grape in a variety of styles both dry and sweet.