One of the places to include in your Sardinia holidays, Oristano city and province have many reasons to attract visitors. If you are planning your trip for the summer, here you will find some of the most beautiful beaches in Sardinia. If you are traveling in winter, you are in for one of the most exciting Carnivals in Italy, the Sartiglia.
While Carnival is usually a two-day celebration (Sunday and Shrove Tuesday), considering all the preparation process, Oristano’s Sartiglia takes a couple of weeks. Visitors from other parts of Sardinia, Italy and Europe usually attend Sunday and some on Tuesday, which are the days with the biggest celebrations. The weeks prior to this are in general more intimate and mainly locals attend.
If you are in Sardinia for the whole duration of the Carnival, you might decide to attend the festival in two different towns. So on Sunday, you can see the Mamuthones of Mamoiada and on Shrove Tuesday Sa Sartiglia in Oristano. Both are ancient and fascinating festivals anyone should see at least once.
History of Oristano’s Sartiglia
The Sartiglia is one of the oldest equestrian carousels that still take place within the Mediterranean area. The name refers to both “ring” and “luck”, which are both strictly connected to the festival where horse riders rely on their luck to catch the star, Oristano’s version of the ring/target.
While the costumes of the riders evoke medieval times, it’s likely that the Sartiglia has much older origins as it probably was an ancient equestrian military training. An expert eye won’t fail to notice also a rich symbology reminding of ancient propitiatory rituals to augur fertility and a plentiful harvest.
Over time, as cultural, social, and political circumstances changed, also this festival adapted. Gradually, from routine military training, it became more of a mundane event to entertain the public during celebrations important for the whole community. These were usually in honor of saints, kings, and leaders as well as for royal weddings and births. To some extent, we can say that the joust has been downgraded from the world of chivalry to entertainment.
So far, the most ancient document mentioning Oristano’s Sartiglia dates back to 1546. An official document from 1722 tells us that the Sartiglia was also part of the local celebrations of the wedding of Carlo Emanuele II of Savoy in Turin on April 27th. For this particular occasion, all the local professional leagues participated in the tournament. The professional Guilds (Gremi) played a major role in the local community. They had strict rules to follow and their own elections.
It’s not fully clear when the Sartiglia went from being the entertainment on the big occasions to representing the official Carnival of Oristano. Some documents and a spoken tradition reveal the existence of a legacy from a priest who lived in the 16th century and left land to the guild of the farmers. The endowment didn’t come without conditions. The income produced on this land was supposed to be used to pay the expenses for the Sartiglia race to be run every year.
It is at least from 1807 that the Sartiglia has been celebrated every Carnival as well as for other important events such as the visit of the Turin royal family, future crowns of Sardinia, too, or the inauguration of monuments such as the statue of Eleonora d’Arborea in Oristano.
Main characters and preparations for the Sartiglia
While Carnival dates can change depending on the religious year, the beginning of the preparations for the Sartiglia is always on February 2nd, the day known in Sardinia as “Candelora”.
The most common professions of the medieval were organized in guilds, such as carpenters, farmers, tailors, shoemakers, and more. Today’s festival reveals the strong connection between the Sartiglia and these professional leagues as they still are the groups that run the race. But since they are not official bodies like in the Middle Ages, we now have only two guilds, the carpenters and the farmers.
Each of these leagues runs the Sartiglia following their leader, called Su Componidori. His costume is different from the rest of the riders of his league and his dressing is a long ritual lasting a couple of hours. Usually, this ritual is closed to the public. Or better, you can access it only if the Guild (Gremio) invites you. In a nutshell, you need to know someone in Oristano. We were lucky enough to receive an invitation for the dressing of Su Componidori of the “Gremio dei Falegnami” (Guild of the Carpenters).
In Fall, the riders start training for the equestrian vaulting they are going to do during the Sartiglia. Meanwhile, in the private homes of the riders, the women of the family create beautiful costumes and colorful decorations and cockades ornaments of the horses.
On February 2nd, the day of “Candelora” (from “candle”), 40 days after Christmas, each “Gremio” (guild) chooses its “Componidori”, leader of the race. Then, the main representative “maggiorali” gives him one of the candles blessed during the Mass and finely decorated with the colors of the guild, red for the farmers, pink and blue for the carpenters.
In the not-so-distant past, this day was an intimate celebration among the members of the guild. The name of the leader of the race was often a secret until the day of the Sartiglia, sometimes even after the race itself.
The day before the race, they prepare the scepter decorated with fresh flowers that the componidori will use to salute and bless the crowd. This part of the preparations is the prerogative of the members of the guilds. And for the first step of this event, when they prepare the flowers, the wives of the members of the leagues are in charge.
Sartiglia celebrations – A step-by-step guide
In the past, the race to catch the star, the first event of the day, took place in front of the government building. Today they run along Via del Duomo, in front of the city’s cathedral.
The second race, the equestrian vaulting, is on Via Mazzini. Wherever you are in Via del Duomo, it will take you around 10 minutes to get to Via Mazzini for the second leg of the race.
Phases of the Sartiglia festival
Preparing the horses
The large stables and courtyards where the riders prepare and dress up their horses are a bit out of the city. The process is a ritual in itself as there are many people from the town to help the riders dress up their horses.
In the large courtyards, you will also find locals making and offering food to whoever visits. There are typical foods such as stews and grilled meats and sausages, cakes and pastries, wines and soft drinks. Just like everywhere else in Sardinia, when they offer, you can’t really say no.
I visited a couple of stables in the morning before the races. The riders, including some women, were brushing and sprucing their horses up applying the colorful rosettes with the traditional colors and symbols of their Gremio.
Vestizione de Su Componidori (The Dressing of Su Componidori)
Around noon, after having visited the riders in the stables, the parade arrives at the house where Su Componidori will get wear the costume for the race. Part of the parade are drums and trumpeters that announce their arrival, as well as the massaieddas, young girls wearing the local costume and carrying the different parts of the costume the leader of the race will wear.
Together with the parade are also the members of the Gremio carrying the swords and what’s needed for the race, the massaia manna, the woman in charge of the dressing of the leader, and Su Componidori himself.
The room or courtyard where the dressing will happen is crowded with spectators, and for each piece of the costume worn is the sound of drums and trumpets followed by cheering applause.
The rider chosen to be the leader reaches what is called “sa mesitta” in the local dialect, which is the table where the ritual of the dressing takes place. From the moment he or she goes up to that table, the ritual starts and the leader is forbidden from touching the ground because he/she is becoming a divinity. Only once the festival is over and Su Componidori proceeds with the undressing, symbolizing becoming human again, he/she will be allowed to touch the ground.
Sitting on the chair, the componidori lets the women dress him helping him wear the ancient costume. A toast and one last salute define the pivotal moment of wearing the mask that symbolizes the last moment of the transformation of the rider that has now become componidori.
Since now the leader of the race can’t touch the ground, they bring his horse to him up to the table where he was dressed and he mounts from there.
Race of the Star (Corsa alla Stella)
This race starts after the componidori and his first assistant cross their sword under the star symbol of the race.
From now, the race is on and all riders try to hit the target by sticking the sword in the star. The first to try his luck is the componidori himself followed by his two assistants and then the riders to whom the leader gives the sword, “allowing” them to try to catch the star.
At the end of the race, the componidori gallops across the whole street one last time. This time, to show the loyalty between the rider and his horse, he does it with his back on the horse’s saddle. He blesses everyone and heads to Via Mazzini where they will shortly start the equestrian vaulting.
Pair equestrian vaulting (Pariglie)
According to some spoken traditions, while the race to catch the star was the prerogative of the noble families and military training, equestrian vaulting was mainly practiced by the commoners. This would explain why, unlike the first competition, this one takes place outside the walls of the ancient city.
This is probably the most spectacular of the two races. The 3-rider teams show their abilities in the most difficult vaulting. The leader of the day, the componidori, can’t run any risk, so his team can’t do dangerous or risky vaulting. With his team, he opens this last competition by racing in the middle of his two assistants with his hands on their shoulders.
After the opening, the equestrian vaulting will take place for the rest of the evening.
What to do in Oristano for the Sartiglia
See the races
Obviously, the main thing to do in Oristano during the Sartiglia festival is to see the races, both the one of the Star and equestrian vaulting. Before the first competition is over, I suggest you move to the next one to have more chances to find a better spot.
If you were lucky enough to receive an invitation for the Vestizione (Dressing), by all means, go as it’s a fascinating ritual.
Walk around the open fair
All around the streets of the city center, you will see plenty of stalls. Check out their products as often they are local handicrafts as well as traditional foods. There usually are delicious sandwiches, fried foods, and stalls selling nuts and candies.
There will also be plenty of places to have a drink, especially beer as in Sardinia it’s very popular.
Join the parade
After the dressing, everybody goes towards the cathedral with the newly-made componidori leading the parade and drums and trumpeters announcing their arrival.
It’s nice to join the parade and reach the spots of the race together with the riders, but you will have the risk of not finding a spot to actually view the race. However, keep in mind that both the race of the star and the vaulting last quite a long time, so there are always people who come and leave. Which makes it easier to earn a better spot even later.
See the undressing (Svestizione) of Su Componidori
As I mentioned, the dressing is the ritual that makes the rider become componidori, and the moment he wears the mask is the climax. Similarly, the ritual of the Svestizione (Undressing) is what makes the componidori transform into the rider (human) again.
While the Vestizione is by invitation only, for the Undressing the entrance is open, so you can just get in.
Tips to enjoy the Sartiglia in Oristano
Plan in advance
Carnival dates are set depending on Easter, which is the Sunday after the first full moon of Spring. Check out the exact days of Carnival and start planning your trip to the Sartiglia as soon as you can as hotels and restaurants will be fully booked.
For the stands to see the race, they start selling the tickets about a month and a half before. And this would be around the time you should start looking for your accommodation.
Find the best viewpoints
Admittedly, this is not an easy task. But since you will want to have a great view and snap your best shots, it’s important that you find good positions.
For the race of the star, the best viewpoint is in front of the cathedral. The closer you get to the star, the better you are going to see if the rider catches it.
As the paired acrobatic race takes place in Via Mazzini, all along this road, recognizable by the sand that covers it, is a good viewpoint up to the end in Piazza Mariano.
Oristano is not a huge city and the two races take place not far from each other. So the hard part is not getting from one place to another, it’s making your way through the huge crowd. The race of the star is the first event, so you can be there in advance. The acrobatic pair race is next when the sun starts setting and the day gets dark. If you stay at the star race until the end, you won’t find an empty spot for the second race. So my suggestion is to get to Via Mazzini before the star race ends and start looking for your spot.
Another way is to purchase a ticket to the stands, so you are sure to have your seat and also a great view. Check out the official website for info and prices and if you decide, buy them weeks in advance to find a spot.
Where to eat
There are some cool restaurants to try in Oristano not far from the historic center so in the heart of the celebrations. Some of these are the inexpensive “Trattoria Portixedda: (Vicolo Solferino 6, tel. +39 334 7941010), “Cocco & Dessì”, more expensive and very good (Via Tirso 31, tel. +39 0783 252648), and Da SID (Via Figoli 56) for great seafood fares.
Not in the immediate historic center but only a 10-minute walk away is “Lo Zen” (Via Umbria 5, closed on Monday). Hearty dishes, generous portions, and very reasonable prices.
Where to stay
We stayed at Il Melograno B&B in Via Spano. It’s very simple, clean, no-frills, and offers delicious homemade breakfast.
If you have rented a car and prefer to stay out of the city on these hectic days, check out the lovely Hotel Lucrezia in the nearby town of Riola. There, you can stay in a very peaceful space and relax before setting off to see the Carnival. Obviously, if you plan to stay out of Oristano and visit other towns, renting your own car in Sardinia is highly recommended as public transport is seldom seen.