Flamingos, flamingos everywhere. When you land in Cagliari you find these exotic tropical birds crowded onto one of the biggest Europe’s lagoons, the Laguna di Santa Gilla, next to the airport.
Spring is the perfect time to be here; when thousands of chicks, called ‘pulle’, are just few weeks old. And now Cagliari, the small, cosmopolitan ‘capital’ of Sardinia, is pinker than ever. And not only because of the flamingos, it is also the most gay-friendly city of Sardinia, the ‘Caribbean’ island between Spain and Italy.
Cagliari is surprising: culture, history, sea. But, even in spring or summer, the city is void of the hoards of tourists that you’d think might be there.
If you want to see the flamingos close up, the biggest European community of this African bird is in the ponds close to Cagliari. So visit Molentargius Lake, just behind Poetto Beach – a clean and gorgeous city beach (something which is usually really hard to find in Europe).
A path has been created by the Cagliari council, which has founded a new regional park, named ‘Parco di Molentargius-Terramaini’. So, now, Molentargius is open to everyone, after having been used as a saltpan for centuries.
DH Lawrence also loved this city. He saw a very different Cagliari. ‘Sardinia is like freedom itself,’ he used to say. This is still true, but now the capital is not ‘nothing finished, nothing definitive’, as the writer said.
Instead it is a vibrant city, where, almost all year round, people go to the beach for rollerblading, running or just drinking a coffee. And where clubs, pubs and bars constitute a harbor for tourists and locals. The Sardinian capital hosts a gay club – Go Fish – and some gay bars, such as Rainbow and, in summer, Fico d’India and Chiringuito. Two gay beaches can also be found nearby: Cala Mosca and Mari Pintau.
One of my favorite things to do is to have a mint tea on the beach, on a Saturday evening – the sunset makes me feel quiet but also anxious for the night. What will be your fate this evening in this island ‘without a fate’, as Lawrence wrote?
The city’s ‘quartieri’ (boroughs) have simple names: Marina, Castello, Quartiere del Sole, San Benedetto, and so on. Under the stars, you can drink a local beer at micro-brewery Birrificio di Cagliari. Drinking here gives you a free history lesson on Cagliari’s city centre. Beers on offer take the name of historical neighbourhoods, Casteddu (the Castel), Biddanoa (new town), Marina (Marina) and Stampaxi.
When you are almost drunk, head off to the Bastione, an old terrace over the Golfo degli Angeli, the gulf of Cagliari, and next to the cathedral and to the Savoia’s palace (the Reign of Italy was born in Sardinia). Here young people gather in the evenings to sing and play the guitar. And, under the stars, it’s perfect.
Next morning, when you wake up, have milk and pane carasau for breakfast. This is a traditional flatbread, thin and crisp, usually in the form of a dish half a meter wide. It is the traditional Sardinian Flatbread and eaten almost everyday. Now, with a lot of carbs in your body, you will be ready for a new day.
The Marina is the district of artisan shops and pedestrian streets. Here you will find shops selling the Sardinian carnival masks – anthropomorphous and zoomorphic masks evoke mysterious local rituals and remind you of the strong relationship between men and animals. In other areas of the island, in spring, there are burlesque carnivals or horse riding exhibitions.
With thousands of plants, the Orto Botanico is certainly a definite must-see. It is one of the most famous botanical gardens in Italy and contains some 2,000 species of Mediterranean origin but with a good collection of succulents and tropical plants as well.
Walking through the garden, you can discover a secret if you look in the right place: in a corner, under a wood of palms, there’s a Roman cistern and natural cave. The Romans loved this island – Sardinia was the perfect place for their holidays. Nothing has changed today and millions from the ‘Continente’ still land here every year.
But, after culture and history, nature is the predominant character in Cagliari. I love the flamingos and, despite having lived in the city for 10 years, I still find myself returning to see them again when I visit.
But there is even more to see – a short journey will take you to the Stagno del Giunco, near Villasimius, a coastal village in the South-East of Sardinia. The road is a mule track, but the seascape is magnificent. Cala Regina, Mari Pintau, Solanas, Kala e’ Moru, Baia Azzurra… wonderful sandy beaches adorn the coast like pearls. And, finally, Villasimius, where hundreds of pink flamingos are waiting for me.
Here the scenario is superb: a pond, then a beach, then a promontory with a medieval tower. And there’s even a Caribbean-like sea. Here you can experience an African dream. In fact, seeing a scene like that, it feels strange to be in Europe, not in Africa. And despite what you can see all around you, you are on an ancestral island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, where old ladies in the mountains wear black headscarves, where the shepherds still produce a fragrant cheese, and where you can see Phoenician, Byzantine, Roman, Arab and Spanish faces.
And where you can also find a cosmopolitan pink flamingo.
Where to eat
- Eat at Trattoria Ristorante Lapola or Da Lillicu or perhaps Trattoria Ci Pensa Cannas.
- The best area for other restaurants is around the Marina, close to the harbour.
Where to stay
- T-Hotel: An ultra-modern hotel set in central Cagliari, opposite the Lyric Theatre.
- Hotel Regina Margherita: Set in Cagliari’s historic centre, surrounded by restaurants.
- There’s also a lot of bed and breakfast options available in Cagliari.