The province of Oristano roughly corresponds to the much older entity of Arborea, the medieval giudicato which championed the Sardinian cause in the struggle against the Spaniards. Then as now, ORISTANO was the region’s main town, and today it retains more than a hint of medieval atmosphere. The historic centre has a relaxed and elegant feel, and although it is 4km from the sea, the town is attractively surrounded by water, its lagoons and irrigation canals helping to make this a richly productive agricultural zone (the southern lagoon, the Stagno di Santa Giusta, is home to a local colony of Sardinia’s flamingo population). Many people, however, come to Oristano simply to visit the nearby Sinis peninsula, home to the impressive Punic and Roman ruins of Tharros and a string of wild beaches.
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The rituals of Oristano’s flamboyant Sa Sartiglia festival perhaps originated with knights on the Second Crusade, who in the eleventh century may well have imported the trappings of Saracen tournaments to Sardinia. In the period of the Spanish domination, similarly lavish feasts were held for the ruling knights. In time, these celebrations took on a more theatrical aspect and merged with the annual Carnival – the Sa Sartiglia is now a three-day festival ending on Shrove Tuesday. With all the participants masked and costumed, the whole affair exudes a drama unrivalled by Sardinia’s other festivals. The climax of proceedings, in Piazza Eleonora, is the joust after which the festival is named, when mounted contestants attempt to lance a ring, or sartiglia, suspended in the air, charging towards it at full gallop.