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Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, a city containing upwards of 35,000 inhabitants, is seen to most advantage when approached from the sea, the campagna in the vicinity being neither fertile nor picturesque. Standing at the head of a noble bay or gulf, twenty-four miles in depth and twelve across, with good anchorage everywhere, its advantageous position pointed out Cagliari as a seat of commerce from the earliest times. The Phœnicians, the Greeks, and Carthaginians were attracted by the fine harbour, and the inducements offered by the neighbouring heights for the construction of a fortified town. The Romans made it the chief seat of their rule in the island. The port, called the Darsena, is capable of containing more than all the shipping at present frequenting it, with such a depth of water that, while I was at Cagliari, one of the largest steamships in the royal Sardinian navy lay alongside the quay.

-from Rambles in the Islands of Corsica and Sardinia with Notices of their History, Antiquities, and Present Condition by Thomas Forester, pub. Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts. London. 1858.

Cagliari has grown a bit since those lines were written, but some things remain the same. There is still a stunning approach from the sea into the Gulf of Cagliari. The city now has about 160,000 inhabitants (about 400,000 if you include the greater metropolitan area).

As Forrester noted, the city is ancient, probably established around the 7th century BC as one of a string of Phoenician colonies in Sardinia, including Tharros. After a long rule by the Romans, the island was taken briefly by Vandal raiders and then became part of the Byzantine Empire. An interesting period is the one in which Cagliari was the capital of its own independent giudicato (or kritarchy) in the middle ages.

Both Pisa and Genoa, two of the so-called Italian "maritime republics," had an interest in Sardinia as a base for controlling the commercial routes between Italy and North Africa. Pisa took Cagliari for a while but eventually lost out to the Aragonese, who incorporated the entire island into the "Crown of Aragon". With the fusion of the houses of Aragon and Castille in Spain in the late 1400s, Sardinia became part of the new Spanish empire with Cagliari as the administrative capital of the vicerealm of Sardinia.

After the demise of the Spanish empire in 1700 and the subsequent Wars of the Spanish Succession, the entire island wound up in the hands of mainland Italian house of Savoy, whose domain had been limited to the Piedmont in Northwestern Italy. With that, the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia was born, the nucleus of the modern nation state of Italy. The kingdom was alternately called Sardinia-Piedmont (putting Sardinia first!), but that doesn't mean that Cagliari was the capital. The capital was the Piedmont capital, Turin, the ancestral home of all the Savoys; the government was in Turin and most of the members of the government were aristocrats from Piedmont. Cagliari had its own class of landed aristocrats, none of whom had a seat in the royal parliament at Turin.

In the early 1790s, forces of the French Revolution tried to take Cagliari and failed. (They also tried to invade in the north and failed. See this entry.) On April 28, 1794, Cagliari was then also at the center of a brief uprising against the Piedmont monarchy when they chased viceroy Balbiano off the island. Although this fling with renewed Sardinian independence was very brief, the island today celebrates Sa die de sa Sardigna (Sardinia Day) every year to commemorate the episode. The city was, however, good enough for the Savoy royals when Napoleon occupied Turin between 1799 and 1815. They took up residence in the viceroy's palace in Cagliari (photo, right), a building the origins of which go back to the 1300s and which has undergone constant remakes over the centuries. The building now houses the prefecture of the region of Sardinia.

The Cagliari City Hall, named for
Ottone Bacaredda, mayor in 1900.

After the unification of Italy, Cagilari started to grow rapidly. Entire sections of the city near the port are splendid examples of the Art Nouveau style popular throughout Europe at the end of the 19th century. During WWII Cagliari was an important Axis naval port and, thus, was subjected to heavy Allied air raids. The Italian term sfollamento (leaving, deserting, emptying) is used by historians to refer to the movement of the citizenry away from the city and into the countryside to get away from the bombing. The Germans took over the island and its capital city after Italy signed a separate armistice with the Allies in September of 1943 (which made enemies of the former Axis partners, Germany and Italy). The Germans then left the island (essentially, it could not be defended) and they retreated to the mainland to shore up their defences against the Allied drive up the peninsula. The US Army took over the capital, and the Allies then continued to use Cagliari and the island during the remainder of the war because of its strategic position in the Mediterranean. After the war, Cagliari suffered the same intense periods of overbuilding as other major cities in Italy as the Italian "economic miracle" geared up.

Today, among its many features and attractions, the city of Cagliari has a major university, founded in 1626, with 35,000 students; a number of museums, including the National Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Siamese Art; an excavated Roman amphitheater; a 5-mile-long city beach, the Poetto; and the Basilica of San Saturno, the oldest church on the island, dedicated to Saturnin, the patron saint of the city. The urban infrastructure includes, of course, the port and airport, a modern city tram line, the railway station, with connections to all points on the island (a major feat of track laying in its day), and street signs (or lack thereof!) that will drive you nuts. Cagliari is one of the most attractive port cities of any I know. There is nothing grimey about it; you drive directly from the port out onto a broad thoroughfare lined with art nouveau buildings by virtue of which the city retains a great deal of the charm it must have had when those buildings were new.

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