Santuario & Basilica di Nostra Signora di Bonaria

Top choice church in Cagliari

Image by DEA / DIEGO M.ROSSI De Agostini

Crowning the Bonaria hill, around 1km southeast of Via Roma, this religious complex is a hugely popular pilgrimage site. Devotees come from all over the world to visit the 14th-century Gothic church sanctuary and pray to Nostra Signora di Bonaria, a statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ that supposedly saved a ship’s crew during a storm. To the right of the sanctuary, the towering basilica still acts as a landmark to returning sailors.

The sanctuary, the historic seat of the Mercedari order of monks, was originally part of a fortified compound built by the Aragonese. The Spaniards arrived in Cagliari in 1323 intent on wresting the city from the Pisans, but when they saw what they were up against, they set up camp on the fresh mountain slopes of Montixeddu, which over time came to be known as Bonaria for its clean air – from the Italian buon’aria meaning ‘good air’. A three-year siege ensued, during which the camp grew to become a fortress with its own church.

Nowadays little remains of the fortress, apart from its Gothic portal, a truncated bell tower, which initially served as a watchtower, and the church. And it’s in the church that you’ll find the revered Virgin Mary and Christ. Legend has it that the statue had a magical calming effect on the sea after it was cast overboard by Spanish seamen during a storm in the 14th century, and still today mariners pray to it for protection on the high seas. Above the church altar hangs a tiny 15th-century ivory ship, whose movements are said to indicate the wind direction in the Golfo degli Angeli.

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 Aragonese nobles whose bodies were found miraculously preserved inside the church.

Adjacent to the sanctuary is the hulking neoclassical basilica. Construction started on this in 1704 but the money ran out and it wasn’t officially completed until 1926.