Cagliari is a contrappunto (ndr. “contrappunto” meaning both counterpoint/contrast and the musical technique). It's the combination of different melodies that at first do not make you understand anything, then they fit together. And at that point you find yourself inside a tune poised between the languor of a finis terrae and the vigor of a new world. It’s the legacy of those comings and goings typical of port that has always opened and contained the city. A contrappunto to (at least) four harmonies.
Just climb up on one of the seven hills (Cagliari, like Rome, Lisbon, Prague, Istanbul has hills from which to admire below) to glimpse the historical stratifications: Nuragic, Neolithic, Phoenician and Carthaginian traces as evidenced by the Necropolis of Tuvixeddu, the widest in the Mediterranean, that spreads all the way into the heart of the city and gives its name to the homonymous hill; and then powerful traces of the Roman Empire that can be enjoyed in the ruins of the amphitheater and those of Villa Tigellio, in the district of Stampace. And yet: Byzantine footprints in the Basilica of San Saturnino in the district of Villanova and the signs that the Middle Ages left in the city, like memories of the Pisan domination (the Tower of the Elephant), of the Catalan-Aragonese domination (the baroque features in the Church of San Michele) and the Sabauda domination (the Collegiate Church of Sant'Anna and Palazzo Regio, widely restored in the 18th century).
Castello is the symbol of the Middle Ages, it’s a very central district which is accessed through the fortified walls and where the Saint Remy Bastion stands out and you can pleasantly walk and have fun in elegant and trendy cafés. Elsewhere, Cagliari gets rid of all that ancient history to leave the place to contemporary elements like the disruptive architectures of the T Hotel: it’s a glass skyscraper, with ultra-comfortable rooms and 180-degree panoramic view, so when you wake up you immediately know what the weather and what the sea is like.
Nature (in town)
Cagliari, once an industrial port of primary importance, mantains a constant dialogue with the sea that sometimes caresses and sometimes spurs the city reminding her that the secret is to look beyond the horizon. The sea then accompanies the city even on the hills, when it lets a salty smell filter through the narrow streets or down the wide and asphalted roads crossed by fast traffic. The smell of the waves mingles between the old and new buildings that appear and disappear from the horizon behind the slopes, till the marine effluvium leads up, for example, to the park of Mount Urpino where the sense of smell enjoys saltiness and the eyes are attracted to a brackish pond, where light reflects as it does only in the south of Europe. And so Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, becomes the capital of the soul by coloring the horizon pink, like the flamingos that populate the pond: the Molentargiu natural park, one of the most important wetlands in Europe and coastal ponds system that dates back to the pleistocene.
The impact from above is very impressive, but entering the reserve is extraordinary. In order to enjoy Molentargiu is highly recommended to visit the salt pans on board of a little train with a guide and to admire that “white gold”, properly piled up waiting to be manufactured, from the edge of the vast waters that evokes the Dead Sea. In some stretches form true hills, behind which opens the city skyline that is on the other side of the pond, close at hand, but from this corner of the Earth more like the moon, Cagliari seems light years away.
Staying in the salt pans until sunset, in silence, helps to tune into the polyphonic soul of the city, which is easy to embrace in the distance as if it were a scenic postcard of wonders, but it is difficult to grasp in its multiform uniqueness. If only because of the points of view that vary all the time in Cagliari, and often change its appearance thank to urban redevelopment "human-friendly" projects, such as the kilometric walk along the Poetto beach or the Sant'Elia promenade leading to the homonymous suburb with the old Lazzaretto, a newborn cultural and artistic center, venue for art exhibits. Further south, the contrappunto is the wild nature around the lighthouse and Calamosca, a corner of paradise in the city, a bay on the turquoise sea. Here the singing of birds and the backwash of waves accompany the voice of the fishermen, who speak a language that seems like music itself.
It’s with music that the kaleidoscopic soul of the city can be grasped, and it’s through it that the city is capable of spreading, among other things, so many talents around the world: the first flute of the Wiener Philharmoniker is called Silvia Careddu and is from Cagliari, she is also the first woman to cover that position in this prestigious orchestra.
Elena Ledda is a great performer of world music, and has been narrating her land for many years with songs inspired by tradition but made universal by her voice, enchanting international stages. She is often accompanied by the composer and multi-instrumentalist Mauro Palmas a scholar and experimenter of Mediterranean music who has found himself sharing stages and charts with Lester Bowie and Don Cherry, Enrico Rava and Paolo Fresu.
Alongside these artists there are “artisans of music”, such as the maestro Luigi Lai, a virtuoso player of Launeddas, a typical Sardinian instrument that has very ancient origins, built with canes that in nature resonate with the wind. It’s a polyphonic instrument, protagonist mainly in religious ceremonies and during the patronal feasts: it’s played with the technique of circular breathing and therefore requires infinite breath. The instrument is taught in the Cagliari Conservatory under the direction of Lai himself: many young musicians love it and today they continue to keep the tradition alive.
Launeddas require special manufacturing skills, especially for reeds and in Cagliari it’s possible meet one of the last remained artisans of the Launeddas, Luciano Montisci, whose laboratory is open to the public on request. The Launeddas sound is so hypnotic that it has charmed stars like Philip Glass and has intrigued jazz musicians passing by frequently, because even "black music" has a place in the life of the inhabitants of Cagliari: the Jazzino is an historical club with quality concerts and good food.
Cooking is the pop heart of every culture, but here is extremely identitary, full of contrasts in the traditional plates, as taught by the cook Claudio Ara who bases his menu on raw materials by small local producers: artichokes, kentos mushrooms, caper selargino, culurgiones ravioli fresh paste made from durum wheat stuffed with sheep or goat ricotta, eggs and saffron. The lorighittas, (handmade pasta shaped like an earring), the fregola, another typical first course dish (there are so many types that the best souvenir you can bring home is attending a class to learn how to make them at home: Cucina.eat shop and restaurant, is the right place).
The menu of Ara goes on with Sardinian lamb, suppasa (stale bread soup), different types of honey and finally fresh fish that in Cagliari has its reign in the market of San Benedetto; four thousand square meters - one of the largest in Europe - where you can find big, medium and small sellers guaranteeing a great variety of daily offer. At the market - which has as much space on the top floor hosting fruit and vegetables, cured meats, dairy products, meat - the starred chef Luigi Pomata also does his shopping. He too starts from tradition, winks at the Ligurian-Catalan influences and adds pinches of wild inspiration. Those of the brigade of Josto also find inspiration in the market. This restaurant’s name pays tribute to one of the leaders in the Sardinian-Punic insurrection, to underline how much this staff is linked to this land. Yet their menu, with the culinary hazards of chef Pierluigi Fais, lets the palates soar beyond the horizon of the island while putting in the plate all the extreme elements that the Sardinian culinary tradition embodies in flavors, colors, aromas, contrasts. So, as you taste the linguine, you seem to taste a gust of wind and salty air, meadows and rocks. Around the table the atmospheare is casual but charmante, there is an open kitchen and the design remind of the Berlin style but with the warmth of a Lusitanian taberna; the soundtrack is modern music plays on a vintage turntable: contrappunti/counterpoints, in perfect harmony with the city.
Translation by Alice Terzani