Carnival is celebrated all over Sardinia. But in Oristano, the provincial capital 63km south of Bosa, the grand festivities that take place during Carnival week strictly speaking have nothing to do with Carnival. Sa Sartiglia, as it’s known, is unique in Sardinia—a flamboyant, highly ritualized, 3-day affair with a strong medieval flavour and a vividly theatrical spirit. The highlights are thrilling horseback jousts, with all the various participants eerily masked and colourfully costumed. The festival is the biggest date in Oristano’s calendar, prepared months in advance and the subject of intense speculation (some joke it’s the only thing that moves this insular town).
According to some, the festival originated with knights on the 2nd Crusade, who may have imported the trappings of Saracen tournaments to Sardinia in the 12th century. Others say it’s much older—a pre-Christian Rite of Spring—while others maintain it’s a purely Spanish import (a similar festival, La Sortilla, is held annually on the island of Menorca). Whatever the case, similarly lavish feasts were held for Oristano’s ruling knights at regular intervals throughout the year during the Spanish domination, and in time these celebrations took on a more theatrical aspect, and eventually merged with the annual Carnival revelries.
The main events take place on the last Sunday before Lent and the following Tuesday (Shrove Tuesday), staged by the guilds (gremi) of San Giovanni and San Giuseppe (respectively representing the farmers and carpenters). Presiding over all is a white-masked and beribboned arbiter known as Su Componidori, selected from among the “knight” contestants according to his riding prowess. The Componidori is decked out in a bizarre version of medieval garb—the process of dressing him is itself a highly formal ceremony, according to precise rules. Accompanied by costumed drummers and trumpeters, the Componidori initiates the proceedings riding up and down and blessing the sanded track, the contenders and the audience alike with a bouquet of violets. The joust commences soon after, with riders galloping at full pelt, sword raised, with the aim of lancing a star-shaped ring—stella or sartiglia—suspended 3 metres above the ground. Each charge is heralded by a fanfare of drums and trumpets, and followed by groans of disappointment or wild cheering according to whether the ring is speared or missed; traditionally, more hits represent a better chance of a good harvest and thus good luck for both farmers and townspeople.
Elsewhere in town, you can watch Le Pariglie—hair-raising horseback stunts, with prizes given to the greatest equestrian feats. In the evenings, singing and traditional dancing take place in the town’s piazzas, and on the Monday between the two main events, Sa Sartigliedda is dedicated to younger riders mounted on the miniature horses of the Giara di Gesturi plateau in the centre of the island.
The festival draws big crowds, both locals and tourists, but it’s usually possible to get a view of the events. The best vantage point for the horseback events is from the grandstand seating (tickets cost 10–30 euros).