The salt-kissed island’s capital Cagliari is both bustling city and laidback beach town – and somehow unlike anywhere else in Italy.
The Sardinian capital, a city of 154,000 that lies in a wide, sandy bay facing due south toward the coast of Tunisia, is physically closer to Africa than the Italian mainland. This remoteness has long made Cagliari, in the centre of the western Mediterranean, both a trading post and a melting pot – and is part of its enigmatic allure to this day.
“Cagliari has always hosted many different cultures,” says Nicola Marongiu, one of three friends behind Pipette, a bar in the Marina district. The trio have set up shop a block inland from the Piedmontese arcades of Via Roma that give arrivals from the docked ferries and occasional mega-cruise ship a kind of Turin-on-Sea impression of the city. “We wanted to be part of the cultural mish-mash here,” he adds.
Pipette’s wine list is brimming with choice local vintages – a reminder of the fecundity of the surrounding countryside. One of the partners behind the restaurant also founded a superb wine shop called Sabores nearby. Sometimes, however, influences come from further afield, including those of chef Maki Taeko, originally from Tokyo.
Taeko spent years touring Italy’s food capitals and provincial hubs before settling on Cagliari in 2017. The clincher? “The fresh fish,” she says without hesitation. “And the vegetables are excellent too.” She mentions the San Benedetto market halls. “In fact, the meat is also very good,” she adds, laughing.
Sardinia’s varied geography and rich soil explain some of Cagliari’s cuisine. The city’s own landscape, though, is dominated by the medieval Castello neighbourhood, high up on a long craggy ridge. Up here, at the National Archaeological Museum, the displays tell the tale of a strong and defiant Sardinian heritage. The ancient Nuragic civilisation even produced statues and bronze figurines that seem to express the sturdy and resolute island spirit that can be found in Sardinia to this day.
Tall mountains rise east and west of Cagliari but to the north the fertile Campidano plain opens up to the centre of the island. It has its own language and an identity that’s hard to explain. Just as the island doesn’t feel very Italian, in some ways its capital doesn’t feel particularly Sardinian compared with its inland regions.
“The foreigners in my team had no idea where Cagliari was,” says Max Sirena, an Italian professional sailor who has been based here since 2014. He is the skipper and team director of Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, a team in the America’s Cup sailing competition. With Cagliari’s rugged urban coast stretching out behind him, Sirena is standing in a windy spot by the Ichnusa dock, named after the Ancient Greek word for the island (Sardinia’s widely exported local beer is also called Ichnusa).
“We needed somewhere that guarantees the maximum number of sailing days,” says Sirena. With up to 240 a year, the island offers the Luna Rossa crew an ideal place to train. “Here you can choose the coastal conditions you want from one day to the next.” He turns from the sea to add that, “behind us there is a great city. Cagliari has a good lifestyle.”
Lasting precisely six minutes, the train journey to Via Roma from Elmas international airport has to be one of the quickest transfers that Monocle has come across. Take a shiny hybrid bus or electric trolleybus in the other direction and you travel along palm-lined thoroughfares and past swanky apartment buildings overlooking lagoons that are home to hundreds of nesting flamingos. In no more than 10 minutes, you arrive at one of Cagliari’s prime assets. Stretching for nearly 8km, Poetto Beach is one of the largest within a European city. A century ago a tram would bring bathers to the various lidos along the sandy shore and much of its old-world charm remains. Despite the grand backdrop of the Sella del Diavolo mountain, Poetto feels like Cagliari’s living room.
At the bottom end of the Castello’s rocky spine is the graceful Bastione St Remy, a neoclassical 19th-century edifice that provides the city with a natural terrace from which to gaze out to sea. But in the other direction, the Campidano stretches northward. It’s there, a 30-minute drive away in Serdiana, that winery owner Valentina Argiolas helps to manage the business founded by her grandfather Antonio. After developing the L’Aquila lido at Poetto, Argiolas says her ancestor focused his attention inland, when he inherited some good quality terroir here in the place of his birth.
In the 1980s, the Argiolas family were a part of the first wave of growers to make fine wine in Sardinia. “We are on a constant search for varietals that preserve and improve the quality of our wine,” says Argiolas. We speak as northern Italy suffers an ongoing drought but, a glass of the family prize-winning turriga in hand, she is philosophical about her island’s future in the face of a warming climate. “There has always been a drought in Sardinia,” she says between sips. “We are resilient.”
Back in the Marina district, with a ferry rumbling its horn out across the harbour, music producer and graphic designer Simone Deiana is holding forth on his hometown. “There’s this perception that if you don’t live in Milan, you can’t do anything,” he says, noting how island life can be connected and fulfilling. “If you have laid the groundwork of your career, like to travel and are open to new ideas, then I don’t see any benefit in basing yourself in one of the big centres such as Milan.” He pauses and looks out to sea while he finds the right words to sum up what he’s thinking. “Cagliari is perfect; it really all starts and ends here for me.”
Cagliari address book
Hotel Regina Margherita
Don’t let the brutalist, bunker-style exterior throw you – this is a smart hotel in an excellent location.
A meeting point that’s a city institution, sat at the feet of the Bastione di Saint Remy. Open 07.00 to 02.00, for added convenience.
Part of the Villanova neighbourhood’s revival. Frequented by a fun crowd and great for an ice-cold beer.
Via S Domenico, 90
Delicious contemporary dishes with Sardianian and global influences, with a wine list that includes many local bottles and fine finds from smaller producers.
Ristorante Pani e Casu
Traditional Sardinian cuisine made fresh and without the fuss.
Via Santa Croce, 51
A by-appointment showroom just outside town, stocking artisanal designs.
Mercato di San Benedetto
The capital’s peerless fish market.
Via Cocco Ortu, 50