Cagliari: The City of Extremes

Arriving into the port of Cagliari, protected now from the swells of the Mediterranean sea, Via Roma faces you like a well-dressed family, stranding in a straight line, smiling with slick hair and polished teeth. The buildings are both graceful and resolute, with their flirty, carved balconies, their proud, wide columns and a row of palm trees before them, blowing in the breeze like upright sparklers.

Only as you get closer do you begin to see wrinkles and stains - the broad mouths of the porticos are filled with cavities of garish signage, plastic chairs and tables, yellowed billboards beckoning you into side streets. The columns are dirtied from the grime of traffic. There is trash on the ground. The shopkeepers are bored and disinterested, selling the easiest and cheapest to hoards of dazed cruise shippers. And yet. Cagliari is fascinating because of its extremes. It is lustrous yet dirty, touristy yet authentic, intellectual and common, polished and exuberant on one block, rough and abandoned around the corner.

The port is a long expanse of well-curated, but empty public space: white stone piazzas, tidy parking stalls, commissioned sculptures, fountains, lines of happy sailboats tied to the dock. In the days of D.H. Lawrence’s visit, this was the center of Cagliaritano life, and he describes an entire city on foot. Via Roma, after all, sits at the base of a steep, rocky pinnacle that is the historical center. Nowadays, the city blankets the plains that once surrounded it, but Lawrence’s description is still apt: "Land and sea both seem to give out, exhausted, at the bay head: the world's end. And into this world's end starts up Cagliari, and on either side, sudden, serpent-crest hills."

Though today the city, like all metropolises, is surrounded by the whizzing of cars, it is inevitably better explored on foot, with patience and determination. Cagliari, after all, is a city of extremes. Its charms are small and human in scale: an artful balcony, a curious storefront, the rough, varied pattern of the stone streets. But occasionally, and without warning, you find yourself before an unexpected, stunning view of the wide expanse of deepest, flat sea, of the plains fading away into northern rolling hills, of a patchwork of factories and seaside industries, of the marshes studded with flamingos. It is likely that, after walking all day, you’ll stumble back into the same piazza where you started and muse over the tininess of this city. The next day, sure to have conquered the town’s layout in your wanderings, you find an entirely new corner that you hadn’t realized existed.

In fact, Cagliari’s urban planning is tremendous, if not wholly non-existent. The city was built over and upon itself for centuries, and current administrators seem happy to continue effortlessly along this bumpy path. Ghettos arise like cement skeletons just blocks from the city’s only beach, gracious townhouses give way suddenly to crumbling warehouses, the island’s most prestigious tailor shares the same sidewalk as chain stores selling lingerie and anonymous childrenswear.

"Land and sea both seem to give out, exhausted, at the bay head: the world's end. And into this world's end starts up Cagliari, and on either side, sudden, serpent-crest hills."

It is a historically rich capital of a historically poor island and embraces both extremes without rancor. As such, it is beguilingly resistant to both stereotypes and order. The effect of Cagliari, in the end, is pleasantly disorienting - you don't know what to make of it. Like a stunned but giddy dinner guest, you leave, bidding farewell to the well-dressed family that welcomed you; large and raucous, equal parts aristocratic and crass.

Words: Kyre Chenven / Photos Antonio Pintus

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