Wandering Sardinia

Horses are very much a part of Sardinian culture. L'Ardia di San Costantino is a celebration of faith and humanity's long relationships with horses.

L'Ardia di San Costantino

Updated Jun 22, 2023

ardia of sedilo picture
L'Ardia di San Costantino, Sedilo, Sardinia

One of my all time favorite festivals in the world is coming up. It’s the Ardia held in the little town of Sedilo, where I spend several summers working on an archaeological project and slaving away in the kitchen for the crew.

The picture you see up there is special to me. I got up for the early morning race, the one they run for the locals, and positioned myself right outside the gates to the Sanctuary of Constantine (a saint in Sardinia) and waited for the horses to race down the hill toward this dangerous entrance to the grounds. I set my shutter speed low. I was planning to do the sort of pan shot I did when I photographed auto racing. Cars are one thing, horses? Well, I expected the hooves to be a blur, because they move in many dimensions, not just in the panning direction. That was fine with me. The danger of this spot deserved a menacing speed blur.

The picture actually turned out just the way I planned it. But I’d taken the film to the local Sedilo shop, and the guy at the desk, who’d been used to telling people what was wrong with their photos, told me there was a problem. My heart lurched, thinking the picture was lost (Oh, those days of fragile film!) He showed me the picture. While I admired it, he started telling me why it was crap. He hated the blur. He told me I had to use a very, very high shutter speed to capture the horses in focus.

I didn’t know what to say (or how to say it in Italian). I finally mumbled a curt, “grazie” and grabbed my prize from his hand.

Art. It’s a personal thing, I guess.

What to Expect at L’Ardia

One of the biggest festivals in Sardinia is L’ardia DI San Costantino, commemorating Constantine’s victory over Maxentious at the Mulvian Bridge in 312, where Constantine is reported to have seen a flaming cross inscribed with the words “in this sign thou shall conquer”.

Every year on July 5th through 7th, Constantine’s charge is recreated with a monumental horse race held on the grounds of the Sanctuario DI San Costantino, just outside Sedilo’s eastern boundary. These are my recollections of it from forty years ago.

On the evening of the race, horses and riders gather on a hill outside the sanctuary grounds. The local priest and the mayor give grand speeches accompanied by the eloquent gestures: prayers for safety, prayers for the victory of Constantine and thus for Christianity. The moment the pomp settles the horses sense their duty and charge down the hill, the man representing Constantine first, his two flag bearers next, then the thundering herd close behind.

When they reach the Sanctuary, they stop, then circle the sanctuary slowly, getting blessed by the priest each time they pass the front gate—seven times. But on this day, Constantine takes off after the sixth pass, leading all challengers to the dry fountain that marks the end of the race. The town of Sedilo breathes a collective sigh of relief; a win means the basic tenets of Christianity have been renewed for another year.

Afterwards the crowd eases toward an open field where suckling pigs rotate in wood fired ovens and live skewered eels writhe in painful ecstasy over hot coals. While munching on a few of these eels from a greasy newspaper cone, I learn from a local the reason for “Constantine’s” violation of the rules.

Only one person per year is allowed to play Constantine, and only if he has received some special dispensation from God. God has evidently become increasingly magnanimous in His gestures toward the people of Sedilo; there are so many applicants that a rider can be assured of having to wait quite a few years before he gets a chance to repay his Maker. By then, he’s old enough to require every advantage he can muster against the younger and wilder horsemen. Most gravitate toward the element of surprise.

The next morning, the race is run for the locals—except this time the course has been transformed into a minefield of crushed beer cans and bottle shards. After the race everyone trudges down to the priest’s house for a few sips of vernaccia (the local wine) and a mouthful of pastry. Then it’s on to the houses of the flag bearers for more of the same.

And by the way—there’s only one glass for that vernaccia. It’s a kind of intimate sharing thing. This is Sardinia. You’ll get used to it.

Getting to L’Ardia

Take a flight to Cagliari from Rome or Milano, or Tirrenia Ferry from Civitavecchia to Caglairi or Olbia/Golfo Aranchi or Sardinia Ferries from Civitavecchia to Cagliari. There is no train station in Sedilo. Your best bet to experience this festival is to rent a car in Cagliari and drive north to Sedilo.

Lodging Near Sedilo for the Festival

It’s unlikely you’ll find lodging in Sedilo for the festival. One of our favorite hotels in Sardinia is a bit far away, but very in tune with the Sardinian way of life: Hotel Su Gologone.

There are some hotels around Sardinia which can be found on this map if they’re available.

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