When you think of ancient sites in Italy you think all sorts of things, Roman sites, Etruscan sites, neolithic burial grounds and so on. But then are also churches.
Cagliari’s Basilica of San Saturnino sits within a walled area which includes a Paleo-Christian necropolis. I like the word “Paleo” because it means “very old” except in the paleo diet because that’s new and it seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with ancient food as eaten by ancient people.
In any case, the basilica is named after St. Saturninus of Cagliari, who was said to have been beheaded in 303 after refusing to offer sacrifices to Jupiter during the persecutions of Christians by Diocletian. Paleo indeed. His saint’s day is October 30.
Some think the legend began well after the saint’s death. Saturninus was a very common name for martyrs as it turns out.
The first mention of the basilica comes to us around 600. Still pretty paleo. It was restored in 1484 after the Catalan siege in the first part of the 14th century. The the allies bombed it during the war.
The interior of this ancient church after restoration, particularly the dome, is quietly spectacular.
Restoration is evident in some of the walls.
This is not the easiest church to visit. As you can see from the picture above, it is still used for special church services, so if you are lucky to come at the right time, you can get in, as we did. The tourist office may be of some help.
Have fun viewing the church and grounds (if you manage to get in) and then head out to the San Benedetto Fish Market. Really.
Sardinia has many fine examples of indigenous architecture. The island’s nuraghi and sacred wells will amaze you.
And then there’s the “Roman Stuff”.
I was shown the ruins of the Roman thermal baths at Fordongianus in 1984. They were open to the public, a roadside attraction for tourists that wasn’t locked down. Yes, it was the good old days. Now you buy a ticket.
As we walked around the ruins we came across a women washing clothes in the hot pool. Steam rose from the exceedingly white underwear that she clamped in her sturdy hands.
Yes-siree, the hot, sulfurous waters of thermal baths at Fordongianus have provided healing and cleansing waters for over 2,000 years. How does something last that long?
The short answer—besides the “built like a brick shit-house” one—is reuse. The Pantheon in Rome became a Christian church in in 609 A.D., and this reuse has been cited as a singular reason for its long life. According to modern fact-making, this reuse prevented folks from taking away the stones to build something a little less ostentatious, like a hovel. So now you can have a libation in front of a perfectly preserved Roman building while you watch the young folks make out drunkenly on the stairs of the fountain just in front of it. The benefits to society are clear. Preserve and (you will) Protect.
The second time I visited Fordongianus I came with a noble intent. It was an Olympic year, and visiting archaeologists from England had brought us a bottle of Scotch. After imbibing it they challenged the American team to a faux-Olympic swim-off in the main pool. It was late in the evening. We had seen the pool earlier. It was, shall we say, between infrequent cleanings. The American team would hold out for better water. The visiting Brits were nonplussed, and flopped around in the water before cranking out a few serpentine victory laps. We were losers, but at least we didn’t have to burn our underwear the next day.
When we returned for a visit in 2016, the place was fenced, and you needed a ticket to get in. I was disappointed. Had the Sardinians come over to the dark side? Sure, they needed the money, but didn’t fencing the thing off mean an end to the glorious era of actually making use of a place to preserve it?
Well, the short answer is no. The clever Sards had created a way to make it all work out in the end.
Yes, after walking the pavement of the Roman spa, we exited the complex and walked down the road that paralleled the Tirso river. A construction worker was cleaning his tools in the steaming waters of a hot spring on the banks of the river. When he was almost done, he removed his pants and slid into the healing waters. Now that’s something you won’t see every day.
We turned around to make our way back to the car, when we noticed a man scooping water into several buckets. He was outside the archaeological site. Intrigued, I asked him what he was doing. He answered that he was taking the waters back to his house to put them in his bath tub.
Yes, not all the site was inside the fence. They’d left a little access. For continuity. Sorry, more than that: so that it wouldn’t die.
(Re)use it or lose it? I’m all for that. Value is more than the money you can get out of a thing.
For an excellent article on Fordongianus written by my friend, Sardinian journalist Angela Corrias, click here.
What would a tourist do in little Milis, a town of barely 2000 souls on the Campidano plain in the Oristano province of Sardinia?
Ok, let’s face it, the interior of Sardinia has been shunned by nearly everyone. It’s the edges of this island people want to explore. Warm, sandy beaches, ten euro beer at the bar, nut brown bodies, some of the women topless.
Ok, there’s a lot to be said about the rim of Sardinia. Except for the price of beer. But I am not a beach person. I always head for the interior. Life is interesting there. And lots of things have changed since the time I spent excavating Nuraghe Santa Barbara in Balaudu, a short drive (or long walk) away from Milis.
We just had to have a little glass of something in the main piazza of Milis, the piazza of the Martyrs. The view we had is shown in the picture above, which features the bell tower and dome of the San Sabastian church as well as the Pallazo Boyl, which houses the interesting Museum of Sardinian Jewellery and Folk Costumes (you’ll have to make arrangements to visit). Soon after sitting, we were motioned over to a table of a couple of regulars.
Despite the shrinking Italian economy, Milis is doing fine, the boys at the bar told us as they poured some Vernaccia from their pitcher into the traditional tiny glasses the waitress had set in front of us. The reason? Some of Italy’s finest and most sought-after oranges. If you go there at the right time, they’re stacked on the sidewalk so you can taste what the fuss is all about.
You can stroll the garden, called S’Ortu de is Paras.
Milis is near legendary Vernaccia di Oristano wine country. The white wine is nothing like the Vernaccia of San Gimignano, so you should try it.
The folks of Milis are known to be fine woodcarvers. They even take their sharp tools to their garage doors:
12th century Romanesque church with interesting cemetery? Check.
There is also bread and fresh pasta in abundance in the shops; Milis is locally known for excellence in producing both.
Small town Sardinia? You can learn some quick Italian in town. The availability of local food and wine for folks who like to cook makes this a great place to rent an apartment or stay in an agriturismo. Unlike 30 years ago when I first began exploring the island, there are plenty of places to stay that are highly rated in Milis and nearby Bauladu.
Domus Maria is inexpensive and very highly rated (9.7 out of 10!). It’s right in the heart of town. Domus is “casa” in the Sardinian language.
Casa Christina is a highly-rated large apartment with a mountain view and bike rental available.
Just a short way away is the town of Bauladu which has an extraordinary B&B we’ve eaten at. Casa Atza is attached to a working farm, and cheese is made when the cows are giving milk and you can watch the process. Meals are fabulous and gargantuan—and very inexpensive for the quality and quantity. Ask to have the traditional maialino sardo, the island’s famous roast suckling pig. It’s fantastic.
Suggested Postcard Scribblings
“Hi All. We’re spending a week in the Sardinian town of Milis. It’s right near Bauladu. The people are nice and the boys that bought us wine in the piazza are crazy and on the Saint’s days they go all out with processions and then they eat like it’s their last meal.
Milis is…well, try to find it on the map. By the time you do, we’ll be home to tell you about our adventure there.”
Etruscan tombs like those at Tarquinia may thrill you with their frescoes or mastery of architectural details, but the 20 “fairy houses” of the Necropolis of Sant’Andrea Priu just might astound you.
Come in spring and the plain of Saint Lucia will likely be verdant and colorful with wildflowers. Even the rock faces are alive with color in May.
In the middle of this fertile valley is a rock outcrop 180 meters long, pocked with carved terraces and tomb openings.
There is a reason they are called fairy houses. They are carved to be just like the houses of the times, perhaps the houses the dead lived in. They have beams and wainscotting; some are tent-like as we see below. They are dated to the final neolithic (3500-2900 BC) period.
The Necropolis of Sant’Andrea Priu is located in the municipality of Bonorva in what they call “La valle dei nuraghi,” the valley of Nuraghi, a new designation. It should be combined with a trip to the Nuragic complex of Santu Antine di Torralba. The city of Torralba also includes the Museo della Valle dei Nuraghi del Logudoro Meilogu. There is a longer itinerary starting from Bosa, a great city to stay in, as outlined on Tharros.info.
Unfortunately the largest and most elaborate cave, called the Chief’s Tomb, may not be visitable. This complex of chambers was transformed in an early Christian church in the Byzantine period with frescoes which are being conserved by the Centro di Conservatione Archeologica.
Restaurant Recommendations in Bonorva and Rebeccu, valle dei nuraghi
Just outside Bonorva on the other side of the superstrada is the “Ristorante Valle dei Nuraghi”: which serves excellent food. Try Bonorva’s specialty pasta made from bread dough, Zichi di Bonorva.
Between Bonorva and Sant’Andrea Priu is the medieval village of Rebeccu. Despite the fact that the town is largely deserted, Ristorante Pizzeria Su Lumarzu serves excellent local food and pizza.