At the beginning of every July in the small village of Sedilo in northern Sardinia, you’ll discover L’Ardia di San Costantino – the protection of St Constantine – a frantic, traditional celebration seemingly totally untouched by the twenty first century. Constantine, renown as a warrior who was prepared to fight for the weak and helpless, is reported to have achieved a famous victory at the Mulvian Bridge in 312, after having seen a flaming cross in the sky with the words ‘ with this sign shall you conquer’ emblazoned on it. Now, between the 5th and 7th of July each year, the 3,000 inhabitants of Sedilo are joined as many as 50,000 pilgrims who come to give thanks to the Saint and renew their Christian vows.
If that doesn’t sound too ‘frantic’, then search YouTube for L’Ardia di San Costantino and have a look at the hundred horses thundering around the grounds of the Sanctuario di San Costantino, down the hill and through the terrifyingly narrow Constantine’s Arch. All this accompanied by the firing of thousands of blank cartridges – all full of thick, black powder – shot simultaneously into the air.
The ritual of the festival has been well-established for hundreds of years now. An honoured local man is chosen to represent Constantine in the celebrations. He may have had to wait many years for the distinction to come his way, when he will carry the ‘prima pandela’, the yellow brocade flag which symbolises Constantine. Accompanied by two standard bearing guards, the chosen one will lead the parade of horsemen around the circuit, on the afternoon of the 6th July. After six, quite leisurely laps of the course, being blessed by the local priest with each passing of the main gate, the seventh circuit becomes a terrifying race to the dry fountain which signifies the end of the course.
Victory for San Costantino means that Christianity is in safe hands for at least another year.
The accompanying party, of course, then develops very quickly into a typical Italian fiesta. Traditional food favourites include wonderful suckling pigs which have been roasted in wood-fired ovens and delicious freshwater eels. Most people will be drinking a few glasses of the local red wine, vernaccia, which is itself strong enopugh. The hardiest, however, will quickly move on to ‘filu e ferru’, which is Sardinia’s answer to poteen and normally 100% proof!
For about 360 days of the year, Sedilo is a quiet Sardinian village with a population of more sheep than people. During L’Ardia di San Costantino, though, it is a noisy, ebullient centre of the island – some pilgrims will walk for days to be able to witness the re-affirmation Constantine’s success can bring.
Just about the only way for foreign visitors to reach Sedilo – if they don’t want to walk – is by car from Cagliari, Sardinia’s main city. There is no train station in the town and the bus service is still quite undeveloped. Car hire in Cagliari is straightforward enough, though. There are flights into the airport from Milan and Rome and some budget arrivals from abroad. There are also ferry services from Civitavecchia to Cagliari and from Barcelona to Porto Torres, in the north of the island.
One of the great attractions of Sedilo, of course, is that it is so far ‘off the beaten track’, which means that a trip to the L’Ardia di San Costantino really does make you feel as if you’re attending a unique kind of local event.