On the island of Sardinia, 120-miles west of the mainland of Italy, lies its capital city, Cagliari – an Italian municipality. It is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea after Sicily. Although Cagliari has one of the largest ports in the Mediterranean, there is no industry – making it a ‘green city,’ with sprawling, un-fouled beaches, botanical gardens, sixty wildlife preserves and three national parks.
Cagliari has faced occupation throughout the centuries due to the island’s strategic geography in the Mediterranean. Sardinia and Cagliari came under Roman rule in 238 BC when the Romans defeated the Carthaginians. During the French Revolution, France tried to conquer the city but was defeated by the Sardinians. After a brief period of autonomous rule, the Allies then heavily bombed the city after the German army took control of it. Once the Germans retreated, the American army then took control of Cagliari and used it as an airbase for the remainder of the war.
Our tour began at the National Archaeological Museum, which houses ancient Sardinian artifacts, including: Phoenician tombs, Punic jewelry and Roman statues. It also has one of the most important collections in the world of Steles (a stone or wooden slab, erected as a monument for funerary purposes).
We continued our walking tour through Castello, an old medieval town that lies atop a hill with a magnificent view of the Gulf of Cagliari. The Pisans founded Castello in the 13th century and fortified it with walls and towers built with the local white limestone. As a result, the great author D. H. Lawrence, in his memoir of his voyage to Sardinia, “Sea and Sardinia,” (undertaken in January 1921) describes the effect of the warm Mediterranean sun-light on the white limestone city and compared Cagliari to a “white Jerusalem.”
We also visited the Cathedral of Santa Maria, a neo-gothic church built in the 13th century that holds the seat for the Archbishop of Cagliari. Inside, there is an extraordinary Moroccan-style crypt dug under the altar known as ‘Sanctuary of the Martyrs.’ The crypt is home to 179 niches containing relics of the martyrs of Cagliari.
The tour was capped off with my favorite part of the day – a drive through Molentargius Natural Park. The locals call the inhabitants of the park, the “red people,” referring to the magnificent looking pink flamingo population. The flamingos are bright red or pink due to the crustaceans they eat, which are particularly rich in purple pigments. The flamingos are prehistoric looking, with their spindly legs and long necks leading to miniscule heads, which they dunk under the water for long periods of time, fishing. I wondered how these delicate and peculiar birds survived predators during the prehistoric age. I found out, fortunately for the flamingo population, that they prefer to live in places no other living creature can stand – salty, mosquito-infested lagoons, ponds and wetlands. The guide told us that as many as 40,000 of these birds are tightly packed into the marshes of Cagliari. We watched hundreds of them move in a coordinated walk, as if they were performing a magical and haunting mass courtship ritual. They also made me laugh, as they sometimes looked like a Disney marching band, strutting across the mud flat – suddenly switching direction without warning, and then marching off in a different direction.
“Sardinia… lovely space –nothing finished, nothing final. It is like liberty itself … ”
D.H. Lawrence. Sea and Sardinia. 1921.
All photographs except #3, 7 & 9 taken by Ryan Oksenberg