I stand in the Piazza d’Italia at the blue hour, my favourite time to explore a city. The sun has set, but it’s not yet dark, the streetlights gradually flicker on, lending everything a beautiful, ethereal look. Following the murmurings of life, I walked along the Via Roma, a long, palm-tree lined boulevard leading to one of the loveliest public squares in Sardinia, and now find myself surrounded by a crescendo of noise.
To my left are a couple of palazzi, now re-purposed as banks, to my right is the neoclassical Prefettura di Sassari, the local government office and directly ahead of me is a statue of Vittorio Emmanuele II, the former King of Sardinia and the first King of the reunified Italy. Students, teenagers, tourists, and pensioners sit around the statue. There are cafés and gelaterie dotted around the square, couples and friends enjoying an ice cream or a drink at the pavement tables.
After spending several underwhelming days in Cagliari, the Island’s capital, which felt flat and devoid of life, it is invigorating to be here and to feel like I’ve actually arrived in Italy. There is noise and laughter and shouting in a setting that the Italians do so well; elegance juxtaposed with decay, young and old mingling together in a way you don’t tend to see in England. As the day fades to night this city comes alive.
The following day we set out to explore the city properly. We again make our way along the Via Roma, through the Piazza d’Italia and into the city beyond and we find the city to ourselves. Despite being the second largest city in Sardinia, it has a fairly small population of just over 120,000 and this translates to the relatively empty streets.
It’s quiet here but the atmosphere is different from that of Cagliari. There’s an unpretentious, working-class vibe. You gain an insight into a real, working city, not a city whose existence revolves around tourism. You feel like the city is your playground to explore as the locals are working and living life.
This makes it that much more exciting when you stumble across a surprise courtyard with locals eating their lunch, lanterns festooned between the buildings or you walk through a quintessential Italian alleyway, the sun casting a golden hue on the houses as colourful washing dries in the breeze. You see a snapshot of the locals going about their daily business, allowing you an intimate glimpse into their lives.
There are few blockbuster sights here which is possibly why it’s fairly off the tourist radar but there are several sites of interest: the Cathedral of Santa Maria is a splendid baroque church in the Piazza Duomo. Walking through the narrow Via Al Duomo and arriving in the open square, hearing our footsteps echo through the empty space and looking up at the intricately carved stonework was a fantastic experience.
Prendiamo un caffè (we take a coffee: Italian’s don’t have a coffee, they take one) at the Bar al Duomo overlooking the cathedral. This is usually the sort of place I’d avoid as it screams “tourist trap” but I figure it can’t be a tourist trap if there aren’t any tourists. I am right, the coffee is good, the service is friendly and the view wonderful. Just around the corner from here is the Palazzo Ducale, an elegant 18th-century palazzo with a limestone facade that houses the city museum and hosts art exhibitions.
Another major sight here is the Romanesque Church of St. Maria of Bethlehem. It is a little out of the way, somewhat tragically located on an ugly, traffic-choked street but with its simple exterior and large dome, it is one of the prettier churches in Sassari. It is also the finishing point for the Procession of the Candlesticks, a popular religious festival and a 500-year-old tradition where the “bearers” carry 400-kilo wooden candlesticks through the streets of Sassari. It is held on the 14th August every year and in 2013 it was declared by UNESCO as a world intangible cultural heritage. It’s worth going out of your way to visit here but if you’re leaving Sassari by bus then the church is around the corner from the bus terminal on Via Padre Zarano so you’ll likely see it as you’re leaving.
There are other sights to see of course: numerous piazze, like the Piazza Tola and the Piazza Domenico Alberto Azun are both elegant and are worthy of a visit. As are the many palazzi spread throughout the city. The public gardens are a nice place to sit for an hour-or-so with a book. There’s a multitude of independent shops in the Centro Storico, around the Piazza Domenico Alberto Azun, and there are some great restaurants serving typical Sardinian cuisine. But the real joy here is simply exploring the streets. There are small courtyards to discover, crooked alleyways to wander through and a wealth of surprises to find. The Via Camillo Cavour, being one such surprise, with illuminated swings suspended above you; it’s reminiscent of London’s Carnaby Street and it lends a cosmopolitan air that belies the small size of the city.
It feels like the most “Italian” of Sardinia’s cities too. Locals enjoy lazy lunches in piazzas and down side-streets, Vespas whizz by in a haphazard fashion and winding, sun-dappled alleyways connecting the larger avenues proliferate. It’s quintessentially Italian when the rest of the Island doesn’t always feel so.
As I trudge along the Via Coppino Michele to the bus terminal, a suitcase in each hand, I realise I am sad to be leaving. The strangest thing of all is we didn’t really want to come here. We only come because we didn’t want to do too much travelling with our luggage between Cagliari and our next stop, Porto Torres (easily the worst place I’ve ever been, more on that next time) but it is the highlight of a fortnight spent in a naturally spectacular but sometimes mundane island.
It’s not often I go on holiday and feel disappointed to be leaving or feel like I have discovered somewhere off-the-beaten-track, a rarity in today’s hyper-connected world where the next big travel secret is “outed” with a well hashtagged Instagram post but that is the over-riding feeling of my time here. I’ve never been more pleasantly surprised; partly because I had absolutely no expectations and partly because the city itself has so much charm. I was here for only 2 days but it was short and sweet and I was left wanting more. Sometimes, just sometimes, a place gets under the skin of this jaded cynic. Isn’t that just the beauty of travelling?
Thanks for reading.
Sassari: Getting There
There are no direct flights to Sassari but it’s easily reachable from all three of the other main cities with airports:
- Direct trains from Cagliari station take three hours and tickets start from €15.
- From Olbia, you take a bus to Ozieri-Chilivani from the stop on Via Giacomo Pala and then the train to Sassari. Journey time is around 2 hours and the tickets start from €8.
- Booking both of the above is easy using the Trenitalia app (in English), available on iOS & Android.
- From Alghero, you take the bus from Via Catalogna. The journey time is around an hour and the price starts from €4. Tickets available from the ticket booth on Via Catalogna.
- A taxi from Sassari station to the centre costs around €7.