Crowning the Bonaria hill, around 1km southeast of Via Roma, is this hugely popular pilgrimage site. Devotees come from all over the world to pray to Nostra Signora di Bonaria, a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ, kept in a niche behind the altar, which is said to have saved a 14th-century Spanish ship during a storm. To the right of the sanctuary is the much larger basilica, which still acts as a landmark to returning sailors.
The sanctuary was originally part of a much bigger fortress complex built by the Catalano-Aragonese in 1323. Little remains of the original compound, apart from the truncated bell tower, which originally served as a watchtower, and the Gothic portal. Building began in 1704, but the money ran out and the basilica wasn’t officially finished until 1926.
You’ll find yet more model boats, as well as other ex-voto offerings and a golden crown from Carlo Emanuele I in the sanctuary’s museum, accessible through the small cloister. There are also the mummified corpses of four plague-ridden Catalano-Aragonese nobles whose bodies were found miraculously preserved inside the church.
When the Catalano-Aragonese arrived to take Cagliari in 1323, it became clear it would be no easy task. So they sensibly set up camp on the fresh mountain slopes of Montixeddu, which came to be known as Bonaria (from buon’aria meaning ‘good air’). In the three years of the siege, the camp became a fortress with its own church.
After ejecting the Pisans and taking the city in 1335, the Aragonese invited Mercedari monks from Barcelona to establish a monastery at the Bonaria church, where they remain to this day.
The Bonaria monks were kept well employed for centuries ransoming Christian slaves from Muslim pirates, and they are credited with saving the Genoese community of Tabarka in Tunisia and bringing them to Isola di San Pietro. But what makes this a place of international pilgrimage is the statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ. Legend has it that the statue was washed up after being cast overboard by Spanish seamen caught in a storm in the 14th century, and today mariners still pray to the Madonna for protection on the high seas. Above the altar hangs a tiny 15th-century ivory ship, whose movements are said to indicate the wind direction in the Golfo degli Angeli.