Saturday, July 14, 2007

June 2007 - Cagliari, Sardinia - The Capital

Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, situated in an isolated position in the middle, northwest of Sicily, the largest island, west of mainland Italy, east of Spain's Balearic Islands, south of the island of Corsica, and north of Tunisia. Together with the islands of Sicily and Corsica, it forms the western boundary of the Tyrrhenian Sea (a subset of the Mediterranean) between it and mainland Italy. Though it's only slightly smaller than Sicily, geographically, and so still a very large island, Sardinia's population is one third the size. Like Sicily, it is a separate region of Italy, divided into four provinces, with its capital being Cagliari, situated deep in a protected harbor in the center of the southern coast of Sardinia.

We stayed in Cagliari for 2 nights at a bed and breakfast on Via Roma, the main thoroughfare in the Marina district, the newer area of town along the harbor. Here we are in the breakfast room, overlooking the marina and the Gulf of Cagliari. The city's sheltered position deep in the Gulf has made Cagliari an important harbor town for thousands of years. In fact, in the 8th - 6th Centuries BC, the Phoenicians chose the eastern shore as a stopever for trade ships en route between the middle east and what is today Spain. Karalis or the "rocky city", as the Phoenicians called it, soon became one of the leading centers of trade in the Mediterranean.
As the city is flanked by marshes and then mountains on either side and the Gulf to the south, Cagliari has only expanded northward. On our first day in the city, we set out to explore the city, walking along the seafront promenade on Via Roma (above), . . .

. . . through the newer part of town filled with clothing boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and relatively "modern" (that is, post-medieval) buildings, Casandra eyeing the shops she would drag me to after she visited some of the "important" sites with me, . . .

. . . and up to the oldest part of town, the Castello District, positioned on top of a hill, surrounded by ancient city walls, overlooking the harbor. Though the giant walls and towers are easy to spot from the new town, it took us a little while to figure out how to enter the Castello District. After climbing up some steps and winding around narrow streets, we came upon this huge tower and gate, the Torre dell'Elefante ("Elefant's Tower"), built in 1307.

Above Casandra you can see the original mechanism for opening the gate and an elefant statue after which the tower was named.

The Castello District, built by the Pisans and Aragonese in the middle ages, primarily consists of aristocratic mansions and Cagliari's cathedral, seen in the picture above, taken from Piazza Carlo Alberto in the center of the old town.

The Cathedral sits on Via Martini, the main street in town, at Piazza Palazzo, named after the Palazzo Arcivescovile ("Archbishop's Palace") that sits next to the Cathedral in the square. Here's a shot looking down that main street with the Cathedral and its bell tower on the left.
The Cathedral, dedicated to Santa Maria, was built by the Pisans in the 11th and 12th Centuries but has been rebuilt several times and gradually transformed over the centuries. Though it combines Pisan, Aragonese and Baroque features, its facade, with its blind collonades and colored-tile details, is the result of significant efforts in the 1930s to restore the original Romanesque style of the Pisan's. The Baroque interior in covered in multicolored marble and filled with fine sculptures. As we walked down the nave towards the high altar, we noticed there was an octogonal dome that must have been eclipsed outside by the tall facade.
The barrel-vaulted ceiling above the nave is decorated with colorful frescoes.
Though the interior is primarily Baroque in style, there remain several original medieval details, including the four lions guarding the entrance, two pulpits sculpted in 1162, and this marble basin for holy water, decorated with angels. The princes of the House of Savoy, which was responsible for unifying Italy in the late 19th Century, are buried in a crypt under the altar.

We continued walking through the old town and soon arrived at the northern gate and this imposing tower, Torre di San Pancrazio, which was built in 1305 by the same guy who built the one through which we entered the Castello District. It's a somewhat interesting tower because while the three sides that can be seen from the outside are covered with limestone, the inner side is open, revealing the stairs and wooden balconies of the interior.

The exited the Castello District through that gate and continued north to the Roman Amphitheater, the most significant evidence of the Roman conquest of Cagliari. This 2nd Century amphitheater was carved out of rock in the style of Greek theaters - semi-circular seating area facing the sea. Unlike most other Roman amphitheaters, this one was used for circus acts with wild beasts and recreations of famous naval battles (a canal system enabled the Romans to fill the arena with water - amazing what lengths to which they'd go to entertain themselves!).
After learning that we could not visit one of the many subterranean chambers near the amphitheater, which was actually cut out of the rock by the Phoenicians 1000 years before the Romans arrived, we headed back to the Castello District. Once back inside the gates, we walked along this narrow, characteristic street called Via La Marmora, known for its many craft workshops and antique shops, now closed for lunch.

So, with nothing but restaurants open (and rather hungry), we stopped at an authentic Sardinian place, called Mambo Tango (the name of Che Guevara's boat). The owner, a passionate little man with a shiny bald head and thick white mustache, seated us by the window and asked if we'd like a traditional sardinian lunch. We agreed and he enthusiasticaly marched into the kitchen, returning minutes later with an extravagant array of cured meats and aged cheeses. After bringing us two more eye-popping, jaw dropping courses, he sat down with us and we chatted for a while. He was very engaging . . . and charming . . . and seemed to direct most of his conversation (all in Italian, of course) towards Casandra.

But that's ok, because he kept pouring us shots of Mirto, a traditional Sardinian liquor that is drank after meals. With old Cuban music playing the background, and Cuban and Palestinian flags hanging the walls (he's clearly a softy for the underdog), we discussed everything from plight of Cuba and Italian politics to the official language of Sardinia - La Lingua Sarda (it's not a dialect, it's a written language with routes in Italian, Portuguese and Catalan).

A couple of hours later, in the late afternoon, we said our goodbyes (he was rather fond of my Cuban girlfriend) and headed back to the new town for some shopping.

We walk south along Via La Marmora towards the Bastione of San Remy and the southern gate of the Castello District, Porta dei Leoni, behind us. In the early 1900s, the southern portion of the Spanish defensive walls were transferand into this bastion, which opens onto a wide esplanade with amazing views of the Marina district below and the harbor in the distance.

We through the Gate and down the steps to this square, at the north end of the shopping area of town. We walked around for a while, did some shopping, Casandra bought some clothes, and we stopped for coffee.

Continuing towards the Marina district, Casandra spotted this children's clothing store.

The next day, we packed our bags and headed to the rent-a-car place to pick up the car we'd use over the next three weeks to drive around this island. As we waited for the taxi on Via Roma, we heard a loud rucous approaching from the left. It turned out that the street was closing because of some organized protest. Our taxi arrived just in time, and we were off to explore Sardinia

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