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Underground galleries and shelters in Cagliari

Cagliari is a very ancient city, which rises on the sea mainly on calcareous rocks; a peculiarity that allowed it to make the most of the heights of the hills, but also the hidden, underground side dug into the rock.

In fact, its inhabitants, since ever, and the many peoples who have settled here over the centuries (from the Punic to the Romans, from the Pisans to the Aragonese to the Piedmontese) used caves, tunnels and underground shelters to protect themselves, to hide or for religious purposes.

Who is more than forty and has at least one ancestor from Cagliari, will have certainly heard of the city shelters scattered between Stampace and Castello that saved hundreds of human lives during the bombings of World War II.

These shelters were nothing more than grottoes and underground galleries dating back to the previous centuries, set up in some cases, to accommodate a large number of people in case of air attack.

Underground galleries and shelters in Cagliari: let’s start from Stampace!

In Stampace, one of the four historical districts of Cagliari, you can visit two splendid examples of underground shelters: the Crypt of Santa Restituta and the prison of Sant’Efisio.

The crypt of Santa Restituta is a natural cave enlarged by the intervention of man: it has lived alternate events, it was a quarry of limestone blocks, an early Christian church, a deposit of amphorae, again a church, and finally an air raid shelter during the Second World War.

After a long closure, today it’s safe and open to the public.

Saint Restituta's shelter
The crypt of Santa Restituta – Photo Credit Valentina Cugusi

The prison of St. Efisio

A few steps away from the church of the same name, from a small door in Via Sant’Efisio, you can access an impassable staircase that reaches nine meters depth.

Here, according to tradition, the Roman army imprisoned and tortured Efisio in 303 A.D. before beheading him on the beach of Nora.

The ground is uneven, the lighting dim and the air humid and still.

A column in the middle of the hypogeum and an altar with ceramic decorations recall the warrior martyr that all Sardinia celebrates every year on May 1st.

prison of st efisio
The prison of St. Efisio

Don Bosco Gallery

Excavated in 1700 by the Piedmontese for military purposes between what is today Viale Merello and Viale Fra Ignazio, the Don Bosco Gallery is 180 meters long and originally connected to other galleries.

Its use was precious especially during the Second World War when it’d house and protect hundreds of citizens from bombing attacks.

Today there’s only one entrance, in Via Don Bosco, from which you can walk the entire length of the gallery.

don bosco gallery
Don Bosco Gallery

Grotta della Vipera – The Viper’s Cave

Walking from the Stampace district we can ideally reach the neighbor of Sant’Avendrace: here, between modern buildings, bars, and shops, we can finally admire the tomb of Atilia Pomptilla, after years of restoration

It is commonly called a cave, but it is the tomb dedicated to Atilia Pomptilla by her husband Lucio Cassio Filippo.

Legend has it that Atilia offered her life to the gods in exchange for that of her seriously ill husband. Her husband Lucio survived and she died shortly afterward.

The tomb consists of three rooms: a vestibule and two funeral chambers.

The friezes at the entrance show two snakes, hence the name of the Viper’s cave, which symbolizes love and marital fidelity.

The crypt of Santo Sepolcro

From the district of Sant’Avendrace we move to the Marina: in front of one of the most characteristic little squares of the district stands the church of Santo Sepolcro.

Inside, right in the middle of the nave, a trap door leads to the crypt and a short staircase to an underground space with three barrel-vaulted chambers.

Among the many frescoes, one, in particular, strikes the attention.

It’s the one depicting Death, dressed in an ermine mantle and with a scythe in his hand. “Nemini parco” (I spare no one) reads the inscription on the blade of the scythe.

Santo Sepolcro square
Santo Sepolcro Square – Photo Credit Valentina Cugusi

A few meters from the crypt of Santo Sepolcro, without leaving the Marina district, you can admire the underground archaeological area of the Church of Sant’Eulalia while, heading back towards Castello, we advise you to pay a visit to the monumental crypt of the Cathedral of Santa Maria, dating back to the 17th-18th centuries.

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