Following on from last week’s Beginner’s Guide to Alghero, this week I’ve chosen to go off the beaten track to a lesser known tourist destination, the town of Oristano.
Oristano isn’t very famous internationally, but it’s steeped in history, and the surrounding countryside is full of amazing things to see.
It has white quartz stone beaches, Roman and Phoenician ruins, wild west villages, Byzantine churches, amazing mountains, waterfalls, and it’s the home of the last wild horses in Europe.
With all of this in mind, it’s easy to see why it is definitely up there as one of my favourite areas of Sardinia.
So, first off…
Where is Oristano?
Oristano, home to around 30,000 people, is on Sardinia’s west coast in the province of the same name – Oristano.
The town of Oristano can date its origins back to the 11th century, when it became the capital of the Judicate (Kingdom) of Arborea, and the seat of the bishop. The town itself is said to have been built using stone from the nearby Punic and Roman ruins in the ancient city of Tharros.
During medieval times, while under the rule of Eleanor of Arborea, the town fought against other regional Judicates for control of the entire island of Sardinia, ultimately failing in their goal. Eleanor died of plague in 1404, and Arborea slowly fell into decline due to her death.
In 1420 the Judicate of Arborea became the last Sardinian kingdom to fall to Aragonese (Spanish) occupation after losing the Battle of Sanluri. The town was then ceded to the Aragonese crown for 100,000 gold coins.
Oristano remained under Spanish rule until the 18th century, when it fell under the rule of the Italian region of Piemonte.
Do they speak English in Oristano?
Oristano is a little less used to international tourism than other areas of Sardinia, however a lot of the younger population are able to speak English. Many hotels and B&Bs also have staff that can speak English, Spanish, French and German.
How do you get to Oristano?
Oristano doesn’t have its own commercial airport, so the nearest and easiest airport to fly into is Cagliari-Elmas Airport, approximately one hour away. There are regular train connections from Cagliari to Oristano and the tickets are relatively cheap. If you’re renting a car, the road to Oristano is well sign-posted, and it’s hard to miss the motorway exit.
If you’re flying via Alghero Fertilia Airport or Olbia Airport, it’s worth noting that there are very little direct connections to Oristano. If you find yourself flying into either of these airports, I highly recommend renting a car.
Useful tips for accommodation
July and August are usually the busiest months for tourism in Sardinia, and with that come higher prices for accommodation. Oristano isn’t as busy during these periods as other places on the island, however it’s always best to book accommodation in advance to avoid disappointment.
If you want to avoid the Summer crowds, and still enjoy the warm sunshine, I recommend May, June, and September. Outside of the main tourist season, the cost of accommodation is relatively low.
If you’re travelling on a budget, I recommend using Airbnb to find self-catering apartments. There are many to choose from, and it can work out considerably cheaper than a hotel or traditional Bed and Breakfast. Usually you can also look at the reviews and see what previous guests have said about the host and/or accommodation.
If you don’t have an account, you can use my link here to create one, and get up to €25 off your first booking!
If you prefer a more luxurious stay, www.booking.com is a great site for finding hotels in the surrounding area – just make sure that it’s close to the centre of Oristano if you don’t have a car.
One thing to note is that the biggest event in Oristano, Sa Sartiglia happens around the weekend of Carnevale (the Italian version of Mardi Gras), and it can be very difficult to find last minute accommodation anywhere in the town during these few days.
Getting Around Oristano
Once you’re in Oristano it is really easy to get around on foot, the historical centre is relatively small, and it’s mainly concentrated around the central Piazza Eleonora, named after Eleanor of Arborea where a statue in her honour was erected in 1881.
Oristano also has a relatively efficient bus system in place, thanks to the Sardinian regional transport company ARST. Tickets can be bought from newspaper stands and tobacconists, marked with a big black and white T outside the shop.
Ninety-minute tickets – valid for 90 minutes on any bus from the time you stamp the ticket – cost €1, or €1.50 if purchased on the bus from the driver.
Daily tickets for €2.50 are also available (biglietti giornalieri), and are valid for the whole day, on any bus within the town.
The exact fare is always needed in cash, as the bus drivers don’t give change or take credit cards.
If you plan on travelling to the surrounding countryside, or to the small towns around Oristano, ARST buses do provide a service, but timetables vary depending on the day so be sure to check their website here (unfortunately only in Italian) for times.
If you prefer a little bit more freedom, I really recommend renting a car – a quick Google will show you the rental companies operating in the town.
Things to do in and around Oristano
Oristano Historical Centre
Oristano’s historical town centre is characterised by small narrow winding streets, leading into three main open squares – Piazza Eleonora D’Arborea, Piazza Roma, and Piazza Mariano. These three squares create a triangle of sorts, and most of the historical centre is located within it.
The biggest pedestrianised square, and the most central, is the Piazza Eleonora D’Arborea – the main square in the town since the 19th century. Here, you’ll find the statue of Oristano’s last Judicate Judge, Eleanor of Arborea. On the first Saturday of every month the piazza is also home to a vibrant antiques market, in front of the Town Hall.
Little survives of the original medieval walled town during the time of Eleanor unfortunately, except for two towers. Most of the fortifications were demolished during town renovation works at the end of the 19th century.
The best-preserved tower, situated in Piazza Roma – the 13th century Torre di Mariano II (also known also as the Torre di Cristoforo), was the town’s northern gate, and an important part of the city’s defences. The tower bell was added in the 15th century. The other remaining tower, Torre di Portixedda, is now used to stage temporary exhibitions.
Other points of note within the old centre, are the many beautiful churches and cathedrals including the 14th century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, and the Church of San Francesco – home to the 14th century Crocifisso di Nicodemo, considered one of Sardinia’s most precious carvings.
Leaving the town centre, Torre Grande Beach can be reached in 20 minutes taking the ARST bus number 8/427.
Finally, after a day of sightseeing, I recommend a stop in one of Oristano’s many great bars and restaurants to try the locally made Vernaccia Di Oristano wine.
Is Arutas Beach
Leaving the town of Oristano behind, the beach of Is Arutas is found in the nearby territory of Cabras. This beach, about 20km north west of Oristano, is one of the most unique beaches on the island of Sardinia. Instead of sand, this beach is composed entirely of grains of ultra-thin quartz, similar to grains of rice. The colours of quartz range from white, to green, and pink. Coupled with the turquoise sea which is perfect for snorkelling – this beach is unmissable.
Other notable beaches in the area include Sa Mesa Longa, Mari Ermi, Maimoni, and Putzu Idu.
San Salvatore di Sinis
On the way back to Oristano from the Is Arutas beach, you’ll find the tiny village of San Salvatore di Sinis. This village dates back to medieval ages, but was transformed for over two decades from the 1960’s into a set for filming ‘Spaghetti Westerns’, due to the resemblance to the landscapes of the American frontier.
The village is now largely uninhabited, but comes alive at the end of every August for the Corsa degli Scalzi, or ‘Barefoot Race’. This race is, as you can imagine, ran completely barefoot for a distance of 7km, in order to honour the village’s Patron Saint Salvatore.
Twenty kilometres west of Oristano, near the village of San Giovanni di Sinis, you’ll find the ruins and open-air museum of the ancient city of Tharros. This city was originally founded by the Phoenicians, a civilisation from the eastern Mediterranean in what is now modern-day Lebanon, in approximately the 8th century BC. It is said to have been at one time, the most important city on the island.
Tharros, although originally a Phoenician city, was built on top of indigenous neolithic Nuragic ruins. Over centuries of war and conquest, the city passed to the Punics, the Romans, and eventually the Byzantines.
Tharros remained inhabited until the 11th century AD, when the local capital was moved to the newly built Oristano, due to coastal attacks by Saracen raiders. The city was then used as a quarry for centuries.
Today, you can take a guided tour of the ruins, clearly showing the influences of the different civilisations on the city over the centuries.
Nearby, in the village of San Giovanni di Sinis, you’ll find the small early Christian Church of San Giovanni, first built in the Byzantine period, in the middle of the 6th century.
The region around Oristano is home to the native Vernaccia Di Oristano grape, and you can organise wine tasting tours at any of the local wineries. You can also taste a range of the local wines at the Cantina Della Vernaccia (Vernaccia Cellar) close to the town’s historical centre.
The largest producer of Vernaccia wine in the area is the Contini winery and tours are available, although I recommend booking in advance.
Giara di Gesturi
East of Oristano you’ll find the Giara Natural Reserve, a high plain totalling 120 km2, and home to the last wild horses in Europe.
The Sardinian Cuaddeddu de sa Jara or ‘Giara Horse’, is a horse breed native to the island of Sardinia. The horse is naturally small in size due to the harsh environment of the Giara plains, and although scientifically classified as a true horse, is more similar in stature to ponies.
The park itself, full of Mediterranean scrubland and sparse woodlands of ancient oak and cork trees, offers great hiking and wildlife watching opportunities close to Oristano.
When talking about Oristano, it’s impossible not to mention Sa Sartiglia. This annual festival, unique to Oristano, falls on the Carnevale (Carnival) – the last weekend of the Christian Lent calendar usually falling between February and March.
The festival is a nod to Oristano’s medieval history, and has been held annually since the time of Eleanor of Arborea. It is one of the oldest equestrian events that still take place in the Mediterranean area, and is one of the most spectacular and choreographic forms of Carnival in Sardinia.
Participants in the race are dressed in traditional masks and costumes, and must ride a horse at full gallop through the town’s streets in order to catch a small silver star suspended above, using a small needle point sword.
Thousands gather along the course, and cheer the riders on, and the event is televised locally. At sunset on the last day of the event, the Sartiglia riders participate in the Pariglia, a show of skill where they gallop together performing amazing acrobatic feats while still on horseback.
Oristano has a lot to offer and it’s difficult to write everything about this great town in one post. If you have any further questions that haven’t already been answered, feel free to post in the comments and I’ll attempt to help as best I can!
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