In the city of Cagliari, there is one day of the year when the capital of the island of Sardinia turns into the most-colourful religious festival in the world; a real feast for all senses.
Every year, on May 1st, the world celebrates the International Worker’s Day. On this Italian island, however, Sardinians transform the city of Cagliari into an incredible spectacle of colours, songs, flowers and all sorts of gifts of the land. I travelled to Cagliari to see the elaborate, flamboyant and multi-coloured traditional costumes that Sardinian women proudly parade during the Festival of Sant’Efisio.
To learn more about this old tradition and the people still taking part in it fervently, I met a local woman who takes part in the celebrations for nearly fifty years. On the day of this Cagrliari festival, I joined her in her home to witness the ritual of dressing her ancient costume. Later, I followed her to the place where all the participants gather before the beginning of the procession. Can’t thank enough Gaveena and Giorgia for helping me realise this idea. Their contribution was a goodwill gesture and made this article possible.
This Cagliari Festival is All About „Emotion, Faith and Tradition“
At five-thirty in the morning, the capital of the island wakes up. Outside is still cold, summer just begins. Cagliari has been in a festive mood for several days now, as Sardinia’s most important holiday is about to start.
Anna Aledda is a woman who keeps the Sardinian traditions close to her heart. For nearly fifty years, she has been one of the most enthusiastic participants in Saint Ephysius’ day. To her, this celebration is all about „emotion, faith and tradition“, as she puts it.
When asked about what the most emotional moment is for her, she says it is the dressing up. Indeed. Just as an experienced jeweller works on a masterpiece, it takes her up to three hours to assemble the costume on herself.
When I arrive at her home, it is still dark outside but the house already exuberates with coffee aroma. One of the walls in her living room displays her extended family in large, colourful photographs. The only in black and white are the wedding portraits of her grandparents. It was a shocking surprise to see on the opposite wall two framed, yellowed from the time, price lists from brothels! In the middle of the room, a round table with comfortable chairs invites the guests.
After taking the Italian Moka coffees prepared by Anna’s husband in a short gulp, Anna starts her celebratory dressing routine with the petticoats. Six in number.
Following are the camisole, vest, skirts and other clothing parts representing the Italian fashion two hundred years ago. But besides beautiful, the traditional costume that Anna puts on for that day is also very uncomfortable. It is hard to imagine that women were spending days in this kind of outfit, without even being able to go to the bathroom.
A House or a Dress?
For this year’s Cagliari Festival, Anna has chosen to wear a costume from Quartu Sant’Elena. She tells me that in the past when girls were about to marry, their parents asked them – “What do you want as a dowry – a house or a costume?” So great was the value of such a costume!
However, the lavish costumes you will see on the streets of Cagliari were not everyday clothing. Women wore them once or twice a year, only on special occasions. From mother to daughter and so forth, a traditional costume is passing down for generations. Every woman added her own decorative element to it, including pieces of jewellery. Thereby these costumes not only became more extravagant with every generation but also represent the families’ history.
During Sant’Efisio Festival, the Streets of Cagliari abound of Fabrics,
Colours and Adornments
In addition to the family features, the costumes also differ geographically. On May 1st the narrow streets of Cagliari abound of fabrics, colours and adornments. Ruff collars adorn the held up high heads. White and black lace veils cover the dark-haired heads of the women and make them resemble the saints from the icons. Puffed sleeves bring a portion of jest to the clothing ensembles. Crimson, purple and indigo blend surprisingly well on elegantly pleated skirts, swaying seductively from the majestic gaits. Brocade, silk and lace intricately inwrought with tangerine and magenta, gold and chartreuse sensually flirt on the bodies. With every new group passing along, the colours change before the eyes like in a kaleidoscope.
Each Village with Its Own Fashion Style
Every town and village in Sardinia has a different traditional costume. Although Sardinia is just an island, it is, in fact, a universe of diverse subcultures and traditions. These folk costumes are one of the ways for each village to show their identity. They differ not only in the pattern but also the colours and fabrics used. Some designs have similarities, but others are so surprisingly different! I couldn’t but wonder if some of these were borrowed from the movie set of Star Wars. My guess – it is rather the opposite.
The variety also comes from the fact that some have chosen to wear festive clothing this year, while others show more casual, although, equally beautiful, but poorer embellished costumes. For this reason, some women appear like the arrogant and wealthy whereas others as grieving beauties. Here you understand how true the saying “clothes make the man“ is; in the case – the woman.
Wealth is in the Details
Anna is adding the last but most lavish element of her time-honoured attire – the jewellery pieces. Putting them all on takes one hour alone. About thirty gold brooches, necklaces, earrings and rings transform the old clothes into incredible regalia. Dazzling in its wastefulness, they are the enchanting centre of her traditional costume. Looking at Anna, I am thinking that their glitter comes from her passionate heart rather than from the gold they were made of.
Anna didn’t want to tell me how many pieces there are in her collection of traditional Sardinian costumes. “They are more than a few”, she said. These costumes represent the history of the island but especially the history of Cagliari. They are unique and very difficult to keep in good condition as the fabrics wear out with time. “One day,” she says, “I will donate them to one of the museums on the island. To keep the traditions known and let more people see them.”
Cagliari on the Day of Sant’Efisio
Outside Anna’s house, the rest of the Sardinians rush through the streets in equally beautiful garments. The streets are silent despite the many people walking them. The Church of Saint’Efisio is already filled with people. Saints are seldom young and beautiful, but Sant’Efisio is one of the exceptions. Is that one of the reasons why he is so beloved, I’m wondering?!
The Story of a Miracle
As it is often in life, it is not just the beauty that makes this saint so treasured.
The story of these celebrations began in 1652 when Sardinia was swept by a plague. Half of the population was affected and despair was everywhere. In their helplessness, Sardinians asked their martyr saint Ephysius (known in Italy as Sant’Efisio) to help and cure them. They promise him to carry his statue in thanksgiving procession every year, from the church in Stampache, where he was imprisoned, to Nora, where he was beheaded on the seashore because he didn’t want to give up his faith. Note that this promise doesn’t have an expiration date.
As the legend goes, Ephysius was a young soldier from the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s army sent to the island to take part in one of the fiercest Christian persecutions. Instead, he converted into Christianity and for this reason was beheaded and later martyrised.
A Promise for the Eternity
Soon after the promise was given, the plague ceases to sow death. Thus, the people of Sardinia, till today, celebrate their saint and the miracle of incredible salvation he performed. Sardinians, like most Italians, are religious people. But even if one is not, he or she cannot remain untouched by the atmosphere of the holiday.
The Sant’Efisio festival parade starts with the carts towed by buffaloes. They are the most stunning sight of the day. The carts are ornate with details made of fabric, tons of flowers and any other gifts of the land you can imagine. Most of them coming from people’s labour. Loaves marked with crosses, bundles of corn, rose petals in big baskets are all framing the lower and outer walls of carts.
The little girls have as lavish costumes as their mothers do. The carts are slowly moving one after the other, guided by men. The buffaloes obey the men, though they are much bigger and stronger. What is most surprising is the clean, soft brown fur gleaming in the midday sun and the classic beauty of the animal’s profiles.
Beauty and Trance Intertwine during the Cagliari’s Sant’Efisio Festival
The procession is slowly moving towards Via Roma where it will pass on a carpet of rose petals and be saluted by the sirens of the boats docked in the port. Then, it will continue to its endpoint at Nora.
The lingering notes of religious songs coming from inside the moving carts raise goosebumps on the skin of the people filling the street’s two sides. Each community, apart from the differences in the costumes, has its own religious hymn. The songs are repeated over and over again, in a sound that can easily bring you into a state of trance.
After the lavishly decorated carts, walk the people. The high upheld heads raise no doubt. Even as a foreigner, you understand how important this day is for the people of Sardinia. The sight of such dedication, faith and aesthetic beauty is intoxicating. You can’t get tired of watching, even though it takes hours until the parade reaches its culmination near the port of Cagliari.
Although all women’s heads are covered, even a “veil” sounds like a weak word. On her head, every Sardinian woman has at least a few ornaments. If the lace veil is the main thing your eye sees, look better. Underneath, you will see something resembling a bright colored hat or a rich array of gold ornaments. Seems like each detail is chosen to give the woman wearing it a sense of dignity. But their beauty comes not only from the physical features. It is more from the pride they wear.
The Last Attraction of the Holiday
However, it seems like the women riding on horseback are having the most fun. Horse-men and -women are the last but most attractive part of the Sant’Efisio Festival in the capital city of Sardinia. Some of the horses are covered with flower garlands. There are riders’ groups made up of twelve horses, riding side by side on the narrow streets. The horsehide touches – they are so close to each other. They step simultaneously, moving their feet under the skilful guidance of their riders, whether men or women. Some women are seated in “men’s” way and their skirts cover the horses’ backside elegantly. Others sit gracefully behind their man and smile to the international and local audience filling the streets.
The procession, ended by the cart transporting the saint’s statue, reaches the Via Roma. There, amidst the rose aroma of the flower carpet, everyone greets the saint. The ships’ sirens add magnitude to the solemn atmosphere. From here, the procession will continue to Nora, crossing the villages of La Maddalena, Su Loi, Sarroch, Villa San Pietro and Pula. On May 4th, the procession will return to Cagliari where the statue of the saint will be placed back in its church.
With this, however, begins the preparation for the next Festival of Sant’Efisio. It is time-consuming and hard work. Nevertheless, Sardinians intend to keep their promise, as their young and beautiful saint has kept his.
THE BIGGEST AND MOST-COLOURFUL RELIGIOUS PROCESSIONS IN THE WORLD
The Sant’Efisio Festival is considered to be the largest and most colourful religious procession in the world. (I don’t have proof of that so I don’t insist that it is true but sure feels like). You don’t have to be a believer to fully enjoy the celebration. Today, more than five thousand people take part in the procession, led by over thirty ox carts.
The procession begins at noon when it departs from Via Azuni and passes through Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Via Sassari, Piazza del Carmine until it reaches Cagliari City Hall.
My advice to you is to arrive in the city a few days before the Cagliari festival. This way, you can get acquainted with the city and the local cuisine, go to the beach and learn a little more about the history and the people of Sardinia.
FLIGHTS: Air company that flys directly to Cagliari all year-round is Alitalia. From the low-cost, Ryan Air does connect the city with many other European cities while Vueling flies from Barcelona. Other air careers that fly seasonally are Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, Austrian, British Airways and others. Check the latest information on Cagliari Elmas Airport website. Check for better ticket prices.