By Anne Spiselman
Getting to Cagliari, the capital city near the southern end of Sardinia, was easy on the SS131, the main highway, but finding our Airbnb in the center of the Old Town was not. We’d been warned about the one-way streets, but nothing prepared us for just how narrow they were as we wound our way up to the top. After going round and round several times, we finally located the right street and a space to stop, but since we were almost an hour earlier than I’d emailed our host, Angelo, we weren’t sure what to do next.
So we called the number I’d been given and got not Angelo but his father, who spoke very little English and wasn’t prepared for our early arrival, but came out to meet us and direct us to the parking space (a precious amenity) behind the building. He took us up to what was listed as “Elegance Apartment” and was supposed to be wheelchair accessible but wasn’t. Eight or so steps made it impossible for anyone confined to a wheelchair (I’m not, fortunately), and though the apartment was more spacious than it looked in the photos, “elegance” was hyperbole. Instead, the place was set up for quite a few guests with five beds in the living room/dining room in addition to the double bed in the bedroom. But Angelo’s stuff (he actually lives in Hungary, apparently) crammed the closet and every nook and cranny. The floors and furniture were dusty, and one of the two bathrooms was really crummy. Worst, though, was the deafening disco music booming up from a downstairs bar into the wee hours.
On the other hand, the price was right ($50 a night), and the location was great. After unpacking a bit, we headed out for a late lunch at Is Fradis, a restaurant a “Travel + Leisure” article said served “elevated Sardinian classics in an airy dining room.” Well, everything changes, and Is Fradis (Via Francesco Coco, 1) had just switched to a casual all-day concept two months earlier. Still, it was a cute place, and we enjoyed the toast with artichoke crema, bottarga strips, and pecorino cheese and an octopus “burger” that was really more of a sandwich since the octopus was coarsely chopped, not ground.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria, our next destination, was in the fortified Castello district near where we were staying, and happily, a very nice woman let us in a side door, so we avoided the front steps. She also (mostly in Italian) pointed out things we should photograph. Renovated and restored over the years, especially in the 17th and early 20th centuries, it is a truly magnificent building with breath-taking marble carvings and statuary, mosaics, paintings, works by famous silversmiths, and richly adorned chapels galore. Particularly lavish is the Shrine of the Martyrs, down about a dozen steps. Inaugurated in 1618, it has a lobby and three interconnecting marble-paneled chapels with 179 niches that contain relics of martyrs from the city’s history. One of the chapels is dedicated to St. Lucifer not the fallen angel but a bishop of Cagliari whose bones and statue are within. A brochure in English explains all this and more, but we didn’t actually read it until after our visit, which frankly was a little overwhelming.
We probably shouldn’t have tried to go to the Citadel of Museums the same day, but feeling pressed for time, we did anyway. The National Archeological Museum, on four levels and ramped, had a good collection of artifacts like those we’d seen in Olbia, Oristano, and Cabras (see Parts 1 and 2), but the layout was confusing. We had to go through it on the second floor to avoid a flight of steps to the Pinacoteca Nazionale (National Picture Gallery), a modern building with a small collection of mostly medieval and 17th-century paintings. A couple of other museums were closed.
The circumlocutious stroll back to our apartment was consumed by a quest to find a store to buy coffee to use in our espresso machine, a failure until about an hour later, when we were a block or so from home and stopped in at Alimentari Market Il Portico. L’Osteria di Castello (Via Alberto Lamarmora, 62), a cafe with prepared foods to take out or eat in, also caught our eye, so we got fennel and orange salad, baked eggplant, and gorgonzola-stuffed ravioli with bacon and green beans to go. I liked the salad best—and sitting at the glass dining room table looking out the window at the mountains.
Next morning we headed down the hill to the San Benedetto Municipal Market, said to be the largest covered market in Italy and one of the largest in Europe. Surrounded by stalls selling clothing and bric-a-brac of little consequence, the brick building has rows and rows of stands of produce, meats (including separate beef and pork butchers, several with whole suckling pigs on display), salumi, cheeses, baked goods, and prepared foods on the main floor. We bought a local goat cheese and Fiori di Sardo at Formaggi Armando Caria, bread and cookies at Panetteria di Boi Bonaria, and a couple of blood oranges.
We wondered why the only seafood we saw was one purveyor of tiny clams—until we discovered the market’s lower level. It was a boisterous wonderland of fish, spiny lobsters, and every kind of shellfish you can imagine, overseen by fishmongers who seemed to delight in arranging their wares artfully and hawking them loudly. If we’d planned on cooking at home, we certainly would have bought some.
Instead we wandered down to the marina, stopping along the way at Panificio Moi Ignazio & Atzori Roberto (Via Sonnino, 130), a tempting-looking little storefront where some pointing at the baked goods yielded explanations (in Italian) we couldn’t quite understand and a bag full of goodies that kept us satisfied throughout the afternoon. They included a cylinder of dough stuffed with spinach, a big rectangular slice of pizza studded with canned tuna, and deliciously crunchy nutella-stuffed cookies that looked like baby croissants plus two cookies the patient counter woman threw in for free.
The main drag of the Marina District is Via Roma, an arcaded street lined with cafes and restaurants, gelato shops, and a variety of other stores, as are the little lanes behind it. We walked its length and happened upon the tourist office, where we got a map and booklet about the city and, more importantly, learned which bus to take to get back up to Castello (line 8), as well as where to catch it and that you have to buy tickets in advance at a newsstand.
We were tired and ready to catch the bus, then decided to go to the Orto Botanico (Botanical Garden) in the Stampace District. It turned out to be another long walk, but a restful hour contemplating the plants was restorative, though we didn’t make it up to the nearby Roman amphitheater. Unfortunately, we learned from an attendant that we had to go back all the way to where we’d been to get the bus. It stopped within a couple of blocks of home, and once we decided not to go out again, we enjoyed our bread, cheeses, oranges, and cookies with white wine and mirto, the Sardinian liqueur made from mrytle berries (more about this in Part 4), left by a previous guest.
A field trip south to the archaeological site at Nora and the nearby modern town of Pula was on the agenda for Thursday. Adjacent to the sea, Nora was founded by the Phoenicians around the 8th-century B.C., then occupied by the Carthaginians, but all that remains are the ruins of the Roman city dating mostly from the first few centuries A.D. They’re about the most impressive Roman ruins I’ve ever seen (including in Rome), partly because they weren’t crowded with tourists and really evoked what living there must have been like. It helped that you have to tour them with a guide (visitors had been stealing stuff like pieces of mosaics), and we got one of our own, because the nicely ramped wheelchair route (a rarity at archaeological sites) was a little different from the regular one. Marco pointed out the remains of the houses for the rich (with mosaic floors still intact) and poor in different areas, the four thermal baths, and the theater in the center of town, which still is used for performances (chairs have replaced the stone seating).
Finds from Nora fill the Civic Archeological Museum in a typical Sardinian house in Pula, but we managed to miss it. The highlight of our visit to the town—after a long drive to see others in the area—was dinner at Su Furriadroxu (Via XXIV Maggio, 11), a restaurant famous for its roast suckling pig. Just past the spit with a pig roasting on it was a beautiful candlelit courtyard with red-and-white-checkered cloths on tables both outdoors and in. The menu was multilingual (with Sardo first), and the gracious owner, Andrea Zucca, spoke perfect English.
We began with two typical Sardinian pastas, fregola (a little like Israeli couscous) with a rich goat stew, and ravioli-like culurgiones stuffed with potato, cheese, and mint in a slightly acidic tomato sauce. The main event, an order of suckling pig (one was enough for two people) featured three sections of meat with different textures under superbly crispy skin. It definitely lived up to the hype. With a basket of semolina and flat breads, a side order of grilled vegetables, mineral water, a half bottle of Costera Cannonau wine, and espresso, the whole tab came to 46 euros.
We decided to take it easy on our last day in Cagliari and didn’t get out until after 11 a.m. I wanted to see San Saturnino, one of the oldest Christian churches on the island, but it was closed when we got there (though a sign said it had been open the previous weekend). It looked like renovation work was in progress, because the building had big new windows, but the only information we got from the related social club and cultural center nearby was that a new exhibit was scheduled to open in about a week.
For lunch, we settled on a table outside at Ristorante Antica Cagliari (Via Sardegna, 49), one of the many touristic restaurants on the back streets of the Marina District, because I’d read good things about it. The grilled sea bass with olive oil and parsley, presented whole by the waiter, then deboned for us, was moist and delicious, but the fregola with seafood was an exercise in frustration. A couple of overcooked head-and-shell-on shrimp and small section of what looked like lobster shell were impossible to eat, even if they flavored the soupy sauce nicely. The bill was 34 euros with a carafe of slightly sweet house white wine, water, and a basket of rolls and flatbread. One nice touch was that the waiter brought olive oil for the rolls without being asked.
After lunch, we went in search of the Basilica of Our Lady of Bonaria and found the imposing building at the top of a hill with great views overlooking the city, port, and sea. Started in 1704, the Roman Catholic basilica wasn’t completed until 1960. Setbacks over the centuries included a lack of funds and destruction from heavy bombardment by the Allied forces in 1943. Reconstruction finished only in 1998 for Easter. The basilica is part of a complex with an attached museum with some noteworthy art, a sanctuary, and an adjacent cemetery. The lovely multitiered park was very peaceful, if windy, and a great place to gain perspective.
We ended the day with…what else, gelato. Back in the Marina District to catch the bus up to Castello, we stopped at Vaniglia e Pistacchio (Via Napoli, 30). I had the pistachio and chocolate rather than vanilla; they were good but not near the top of my list.