Cross-dressing in Sardinia

On 28 February I was in Oristano in Sardinia. It was martedì grasso, Fat Tuesday, the last day of Carnival before Lent. Oristano has celebrated this day for a long time, 552 years to be precise, as the festival Sa Sartiglia. You can imagine that in over more than half a millennium it has accumulated many meanings and observances.

Horseman at Sa Sartiglia

Cavaliere galloping toward his star

At its most basic and obvious it’s a giostra, a joust like the one at Arezzo with a feat to perform at the end of a charge on horseback. At Sa Sartiglia the horseman (with one or two exceptions they are all men) attempts to insert his lance in a small hole in a star dangling by a thread while galloping at full speed.

At a more fundamental level is the idea of trasvestire. Although our noun ‘transvestite’ derives ultimately from the same Latin root as this Italian verb, the similarity is misleading. In Italian the word means simply ‘to disguise’ or ‘to dress up as’ anyone or anything. For Sa Sartiglia, farmers and craftsmen dress up as knights and joust with fate. In the past it was their day of glory in which to display their horsemanship and affirm their equality with the nobility. Wearing their eerie, expressionless white masks, they could be anyone.

Sa Sartiglia masked horsemen

Despite the merriment, the masks seem sad.

Today two charitable organisations, descendants of the mediaeval gremi or guilds are entrusted with perpetuating the tradition. The contadini (farmers) guarantee the funding and the falegnami (carpenters) do the organising. Is this division of labour significant, I wonder. The word ‘gremio’ turned up some interesting meanings. It’s the archaic version of the present day grembo meaning ‘lap’ or ‘womb’ and by extension any community with the aim of giving spiritual refuge. Now you can figure out why the word for ‘apron’ is grembiule, not that my lap feels much spiritual uplift when I’m  doing the washing up in one!

Each gremo has its own day for the tournament. On Fat Tuesday it’s the carpenters’ turn. After some preliminary waving of banners and sounding of trumpets and drums, the ceremony of dressing of the Componidori (the leader of the event) begins at noon. The outdoor courtyard is packed with spectators. I squeeze in and some kind veterans give me a place near the front because it’s my first time there.

Public dressing at Sartiglia

Playing to a packed house

Don’t imagine the buttoning of a shirt, the zipping of trousers, the throwing on of a cape and the balancing of a hat on a head. The dressing takes an hour an a half during which expert seamstresses stitch every garment in place, especially the mask. I overheard one spectator wondering whether he’d remembered to fare la pipì before taking his place on the stage. 

Masking the horseman

Women in traditional dress patiently stitch the mask in place.

It was thoroughly boring at the same time as being absolutely fascinating. Maybe for him, a craftsman, to be transformed into a noble in the space of 90 minutes was a dream come true, a great honour to participate in a ritual not only of his own city but practised by kings from Charlemagne onwards, who invited the public to their bedchambers for their rising and dressing.

From time to time the tedium was broken by a roll of snare drums or the blast of trumpets, one of which finally signalled the Componidori rising from his chair, mounting a horse, and, before exiting to lead the cavalcade, making the sign of a cross with a baton of sweet violets, symbol of spring and new growth.

Dressing finished

The fully dressed Componidori finds his feet and salutes the cheering crowd.

Componidori on horse

He mounts his bedecked horse and the seamstresses admire their handiwork.

The rest was more exciting but less intriguing: the procession, the pounding hooves, the cheers when a lance pierced the star.

Drummers marching

The drummers lead the procession to the start of the joust.


The trumpeters announce the imminent arrival of a cavaliere.


Here he comes!

Once you get your eyes and ears in, you realise Sa Sartiglia had its roots in pagan solstice festivals heralding fresh spring growth and appealing for a bountiful harvest. For those lucky horsemen who manage to insert their lances in the hole in the star, the earth will bear abundant fruit. Some of it was available at the food stalls lining the streets of Oristano.

Sardinian pecorino

You can’t beat Sardinian pecorino cheese (apologies to Tuscany).

I’d like to thank Antonio Arca, my Sardinian friend who suggested I attend Sa Sartiglia. We hope to offer more tours to Sardinia in future. Right now, there’s still one place left on the Celebrating Sardinia tour in April 2017, and new dates for 2018 are already on the website: If you’re lucky enough to live near London, you can get some of the wonderful food from Antonio’s market stalls:

Erica Jarman invites you on inspiring culinary tours of life behind the scenes that you won’t find in any guidebook — get to know the food artisans and craftspeople of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and Liguria. Come join me and my Italian friends and dip into a lifestyle where lunch is more important than business. Find out more at Sapori e Saperi Adventures and follow Erica’s own adventures on her blog.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.


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Navigating Terminal 1 at Barcelona’s El Prat Airport

You would think, living in San Diego, that the San Diego’s airport would be the one I am most familiar with. But it is not the case. Because of Vueling airlines, who flies from Barcelona to many of the places I run tours, I find myself transiting through Barcelona’s El Prat more than any other airport.

The first time I flew out of Barcelona was in 2004. It was a smaller, sleepier airport in those days. In 2009, everything changed. It is now possible to even sleep IN the airport, there are many nice shops inside the security area, a well-managed left-luggage office, and some decent cafes. But it is big and sprawling and can be difficult to navigate. Here are some tips.

If you are flying out of Barcelona El Prat, you will need to know your terminal (1 or 2.) Vueling and many international carriers fly out of Terminal 1, while most of the low-cost airlines fly out of Terminal 2. This blog post will focus on Terminal 1.

When you arrive at the check-in area, it can be insanely busy so allow plenty of time. If you are flying on a weekday morning, you will be arriving at the same time as many business travelers. You will see large boards, where you can find your airline and the counter to report to for check-in.

The hall is very big and lines can be long. I allow three hours for an international flight and two for flying within Europe. Sometimes you don’t need all that time, but I hate to stress out about it.

If you are flying out of Europe, you will go to a different gate area with passport control. If you are flying within Europe, (excepting non-Schengen countries) and you get to passport control, you are at the wrong entrance. Make sure you are going to the correct gate, because if you are flying to Germany and you end up going through passport control, it is not so easy to get out.

Once you are in the secured area, there are a lot of great shops and some nice cafes. I like to go to Sibarium to buy ham to eat on the plane. Just make sure you eat it all if you are flying to the US, because you can’t take it home with you.

You can also buy tasty flight picnic supplies in the Duty Free shop. There is absolutely no reason to eat that airline food. Not when you are flying from Barcelona.

Terminal 1 is not so hard to navigate when you are flying out of it. But, flying IN and trying to get OUT is another story. The secured area is a big oval shape with the stores and cafes in the middle of the oval. Signs are posted to exit, but it is easy to walk around in circles there.

What you want to look for when you are walking around in circles, is this McDonald’s sign.

Once you see that sign, hang a right and you will be out of there.

If you are renting a car, or want to leave your luggage in the left-luggage office (sometime I do if I am only in Barcelona for a day or two) follow the signs to “La Placa.” You will come to a big hall where the car rental agencies are, plus the tourist office.

Near here, you will see escalators down to the left luggage area. Look for “Intermodal T1.” At the bottom of the escalator, you will be in a large room. The left-luggage office is at the back of the room. The cost is 10 euros for 24 hours.

If you are looking for the Aerobus into the city center, it departs from outside the bottom of the escalator. Whoever planned to put the left-luggage office close to the Aerobus was really thinking!

As I mentioned above, it is also possible to sleep at El Prat. And I am not talking about sleeping on the floor. For very early flights, there is the not-inexpensive but very convenient AirRooms. You can stay overnight and literally roll your luggage cart right inside, then roll it out in the morning. You can also rent the rooms by the hour if you have a long layover. Once in the airport, the hotel, which is located in the business center area, is not easy to find. You walk past the car rental area, and look for this sign:

The hotel is literally part of the business center. So follow the signs there.

If you do decide to stay in the hotel inside the airport, note that there is not a lot to do so don’t plan to do much but sleep there. You can take the Aerobus to the city center once you’ve stashed your things in your room. But if you don’t want to, there are a couple of places to eat and drink something.

Lizarran is a chain specializing in Pinchos – small pieces of bread with assorted toppings – and other tapas. They have wine and beer and coffee. I would much rather hang out in the city center, but if you have a good imagination, many things are possible.

There is also a cafe with drinks, sandwiches and tapas right where people exit from the customs area. So if you are waiting for someone, or are spending the night at the airport and just want to do some people watching, you can do this in relative comfort at Cafe di Fiore.

All this talk about El Prat airport is making me anxious to get back!


Shannon Essa leads small-group tours focusing on wine, food, and local culture in Croatia, Slovenia, Northern Italy and Northern Spain & Portugal.

Discover the backstreets of Venice or the wine, craft beer, and slow food of Piedmont, Italy. In Spain, experience the rustic foods and low-key lifestyle in beautiful Galicia, the wineries along the Camino de Santiago in the Bierzo region, or the justifiably famous wine regions and local food traditions of Catalonia. See many of Croatia’s most beautiful sights and learn about the rebirth of one of Europe’s oldest wine areas. And see all this with Shannon, who loves unique and out of the way wine and food experiences.

When not in Europe, Shannon does her eating and drinking in San Diego, California.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.






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Take me to Church! Photographing Houses of Worship in some of Europe’s most amazing locations

Chapel of St. Primoz, Slovenia

Chapel of St. Primoz, Slovenia

Small Chapel, Southern Moravia, Czech Republic

Chapel in Southern Moravia, Czech Republic

Yes, I borrowed the title from Hozier’s great song: “Take me to Church.” Hard to resist!

After 20 plus years of travelling and photographing in Europe I came to realize that many of my favorite photographs feature churches as a main compositional element. For a guy who grew up doing everything in his power to flee Sunday school and suffered through hour-long sermons in a Lutheran church it is surprising that photographing churches has such a draw for me. I have come to realize that it has nothing to do with organized religion or that the churches that I photograph are necessarily of great architectural value. The fact is that I am drawn to these compositions for a very simple reason: “The locations of these churches and chapels are absolutely stunning.”

Venice, Italy

Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, Italy

Church of St. Magdalena, Dolomites, Italy

Church of St. Magdalena, Dolomites, Italy

Of course, if you think about it, the planners and builders of these Houses of Worship choose these locations with great intention. The idea was to accentuate the church and to feature it as the most important element in the landscape. Many of my photographs demonstrate how this was achieved by building the church at a high point or even on an island.

Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, Italy

Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, Italy

Church of Mary the Queen, Lake Bled, Slovenia

Church of Mary the Queen, Lake Bled, Slovenia

Many of the images in this article were photographed during the “Magical Blue Hour,” that window of time before sunrise and after sunset when the warm artificial light illuminating the church balances evenly with the intense blue of the sky. You can read more about this technique in one of my previous blog posts by clicking here. »

Chapel of Vitaleta, Tuscany, Italy

Chapel of Vitaleta, Tuscany, Italy

Senanque Abbey, Provence, France

Senanque Abbey, Provence, France

St. Barbara church, Wengen, Dolomites, Italy

Church of St. Barbara, Dolomites, Italy

All of the images featured in this article were photographed in locations where we conduct our Photography Travel Tours each year in Europe.

Why don’t you come to church with us?


Chapel of San Giovanni, Dolomites, Italy

J_M_150x150(1)Jim and Magrit have been photographing professionally and traveling in Europe for the past 20 years.

They started Photography Travel Tours in 2011 with the goal of educating and guiding photographers to some of the most beautiful and iconic scenes in Europe.

The tours are not just about getting great photographs but also have the side benefits of doing so in wonderful environments. Great food, wine, people, and ambiance.

Read more about Jim & Magrit and their wonderful photo tours here: (

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.

Posted in Bled, Italy, Jim and Magrit Nilsen, Photography, Slovenia, Tuscany, Venice | Tagged , | Comments Off on Take me to Church! Photographing Houses of Worship in some of Europe’s most amazing locations