Spring Festival in Sardinia Sagra di Sant Efisio
The scent of rose petals, scattered on the streets, hangs in the warm morning. There is an overwhelming air of excitement as people chatter, and music plays while they wait for the great Sardinian festival of Saint Efisio. This event attracts people from all over the world; and this, the 360th year, UNESCO have given it International status by the Intangible Cultural Heritage, making it even more special.
Efisio a young Roman soldier was sent to Sardinia, by the Diocletian Caesar, to put down Christianity on the island, but on the way to the island from Rome, he had a vision of a huge cross in the sky. Believing it to be a sign from God; he converted to Christianity and began preaching the gospel to the nonbelievers.
Caesar recalled him to Rome on many occasions, but Efisio refused to leave the island or the people he had come to love. But when Caesar Flavian came to power, he ordered the death of the young soldier.
Efisio was imprisoned in Cagliari, where he prayed for its citizens, and the town, to keep it safe from its enemies.
After he refused to give up his faith, Efisio was taken, in secret, to Nora and on 3rd January 303AD he was beheaded. Where, later, they built the little church on the beach at Nora.
When the plague ravished the town of Cagliari in 1656, killing vast numbers of people; the citizens prayed to their Saint Efisio for help. They believed that any prayer to the Saint, said between the city walls, would be answered. A year later, the plague left the city, and the people vowed to mark the miracle with an annual festival in his honour.
Every 1st May the saint, dressed in his finest robes, is taken from the little church in Stampace, which bears his name, and makes the journey to Nora. The carriage stops at Sant Giorgino, a little fishing village, where his clothes are replaced by plain ones and all the jewellery removed and he is placed in the ‘the country coach’. The journey continues to the chapel at villa d’Orri where it receives a Eucharist blessing. On to Sarroch to the little church of Santa Vittoria for a mass.
The second day the coach arrives at Villa San Pietro, arriving at Pula around midday where it is met by the mayor of Pula. On to the church of San Giovanni Battista for another mass. After a brief stop at the church of San Raimondo, it is escorted to Nora arriving about 9 at night. The statue is placed in a niche for the third day for the celebration of another mass. In the evening, the statue is taken out of the coach and carried to the place of his martyrdom.
On the fourth night, the saint is redressed and returned to Cagliari with a candlelit procession.
he day of the procession starts with a wonderful display of traccus, decorated carts pulled by large bullocks, which have their horns elaborately decorated with fresh and paper flowers. Each cart representing a different town from all over the island.
Old men playing the Launaddas, the ancient reed pipes, young men in groups, or with their wives and children, all dressed in their colourful costumes, handed down from generation to generation.
The women are elegant and carry themselves erect, from the habit of carrying water, pots or firewood on their heads.
Next come the men on horseback. Matching chestnut or grey horses with bells on their harness that jangle and tinkle to every movement of the horses in the morning heat, their coats oiled and groomed to perfection. Some men ride with their wives up behind them; their pleated dresses spread over the rump of the horse.
Then come the women and the men carrying large baskets of rose petals, and carpet the road. They fill the air with the rich scent as they are crushed underfoot by the priests, dignitaries and the Carabinieri on horseback, in their distinctive uniform with white cross bands and red hackled hats.
Finally, the golden coach comes into view; pulled by two giant bullocks and decorated with flowers and horn coverings. Surrounded by the Guardiana who are the religious order of the saint. As the saint comes into sight, all the crowds cheer and the ships in the nearby port sound their sirens.
The air becomes electric as the faithful surge forward. Young and old eager to touch the Saint, or with rosaries in their hands, kneel in the street in prayer. Whether a believer or not I defy you not to be moved by the scene that unfolds before you.
However many times you see this festival. It never fails to excite, as faith and tradition come together in pure devotion, and all the wonderful sights, sounds and colours, fill your senses, leaving you with a memory which is both lasting and profound.
Photos with kind permission of Giampiero Melis and from my own collection