“If we don’t find something open soon,” I said to Rich, “I’m not going to have much to write about on my blog.”
We were standing in front of the massive locked doors of the cathedral in Cagliari, Sardinia, which an online search had assured us was open continuously from 7:30 am to 8:00 pm. It was nearly lunchtime, and it didn’t look like we had a prayer of seeing the interior any time in the foreseeable future. The 13th-century Cathedral of Saint Mary and Saint Cecilia was one of a long series of closed churches, palaces, and museums we’d visited under the auspices of our online self-guided walking tour. Don’t get me wrong; we were having a perfectly lovely time meandering around the narrow streets, pausing to admire the gorgeous old buildings and spectacular harbor views, fortifying ourselves from time to time with cappuccino or freshly squeezed orange juice. But my plans to write about Cagliari’s charming points of interest were fading fast.
“What’s with this town?” I added. “You’d think they didn’t care about tourists.”
“Why should they?” asked Rich. “There aren’t any.”
He was so right. We’d been on the island of Sardinia for four days, visiting its two largest cities, Sassari and Cagliari, and the total number of tourists we’d spotted was somewhere south of twenty. Maybe south of ten. True, this was the offseason; no doubt there were plenty in the summer months to fill all those great hotels, B&Bs, and trattorias dotting the landscape. Everyone we’d met had been incredibly warm and friendly but without the slightly forced charm of those who cater to foreigners for a living. Now, looking around the serene, sun-drenched plaza, I realized why the cathedral wasn’t surrounded with Starbucks and souvenir stands: this was a place of worship, not an attraction.
“There’s your story,” Rich pointed out. “We’ve actually managed to find a place in Italy that is totally and completely off the beaten path. People here arrange things to suit themselves, not the whims and habits of tourists.”
Obviously I had been feeling for the pulse of this city in all the wrong places. Sure, Cagliari is an ancient city whose roots go back 5000 years to the Neolithic era. And its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean attracted occupying forces from just about every seafaring nation in the Old World, creating a rich landscape of gorgeous buildings, some dating back to pre-Roman times. But Cagliari is no museum, no theme park paying homage to its own past. It’s a vibrant city with plenty to say about living in modern times.
As a travel writer and photographer, I’m always trying to get a bit further out there on the road less traveled so I can develop a fresh perspective on the world. I find it enormously disconcerting to take that unique, once-in-a-lifetime photo — only to turn around and discover that six other visitors are standing behind me snapping precisely the same image. And I have learned the hard way that crowds of sightseers in shorts and sneakers milling about in front of monuments rarely do anything to improve the romantic atmosphere I’m trying to capture. (To be fair, I’m sure many of them have cursed me for inadvertently ruining their photos, too.) So as you can imagine, my camera and I are having a field day here in Sardinia. Take a look. Can you find a single tourist in any of these shots?
Tomorrow, Rich and I are taking a long walk to the Shrine of Our Lady of Bonaria (Fair Winds), built to house the statue of the Blessed Virgin that washed up on shore in 1370 under mysterious, possibly miraculous circumstances. Considered the jewel in the crown of Cagliari’s many ancient religious structures, the complex includes a basilica, a sanctuary, and a monastery for the Mercedarian friars who have watched over the site since the 14th century. I want to light a candle to the Virgin in hopes she’ll arrange for us to have fair winds and a smooth passage when we take the night ferry from Cagliari to Palermo on Friday.
The website assured me that the shrine is open mornings and afternoons to welcome visitors and celebrate mass. But of course, I am fully prepared to arrive and find the doors closed and locked, the candles out of reach, and all the friars away on vacation. No matter. I can still say a prayer to Our Lady of Bonaria, asking her blessings on our journey and on the good people of Sardinia, whose island remains one of the most warmly welcoming and delightfully tourist-free places in modern Italy.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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