Early in the morning, the beach of Cagliari is still deserted and photographing from a lifeguard watch tower gives a good view on Poetto beach sunrise. The name Poetto may be derived from Poet, after the Aragon Tower (‘Torre del Poeta’) on the promontory in the west build during the Spanish occupation, or it comes from the many wells over there that are called ‘pohuet’ in Catalan, or maybe it stems from the port below, which is called ‘Puerto’ in Spanish and ‘Puettu’ in local dialect.
As a geologist, thinking of the beach, I see waves of water and sand going to and fro on the scale of geologic time lapse. Then Poetto beach is absent during the interglacial time, before the last ice age, about 120.000 years ago, drowned below 10 meters higher sea. During the last ice age, about 50.000 years ago, sea level has dropped 140 m and instead of beach, there is a cold climate landscape of dunes and forests, extending far into the Mediterranean. Only quite recently, during the relatively warm ‘Holocene climatic optimum’, about 6500 years ago, the contours of modern Poetto emerge as coastal sand bars form between ‘Sella del Diavolo’ (Devil’s Saddle) in the west and ‘Margine Rosso’ (Red Margin, Quartu Sant’Helena) in the east, behind which the lagoon of Molentargius can already been seen.
Beach life as we know it today appears only a century ago. Before then, sunbathing on a beach is not in vogue. The poor have no leisure time to spend and the rich prefer to remain lily white, unlike the tanned poor working outside under the sun. This changes as the poor start working in offices and factories and an acceptable reason for sunbathing is scientifically established at the beginning of the 20th century when ‘heliotherapy’ is born at Tenerife in 1910. Thus, sunbathing is recognised as a desirable activity for the leisured class, electricity arrives at Poetto, the first bathing season begins with the arise of bathing establishments and the arrival of a tram line connecting city and beach every half hour since 13 July of 1913. Bathhouses, casino and cinema, together with hundreds of little wooden beach houses appear at Poetto.
In 1932, an asphalted promenade is laid down and telephones installed. Consequently, the bath houses Lido and D’aquila are rebuild in stone and villas appear along the road. In 1943, towards the end of the Second World War, the beach becomes a militarised zone and is occupied by the fascists, destroying not only their entire country, but also the beach houses for the wood needed for heating.
Shortly after the war, while every newly (re-)constructed house in Cagliari contains a bit of sand of Poetto, the beach itself starts to disappear, as too much sand is retrieved and the protective meadows of sea grass (Posidonia oceanica) vanish. Meanwhile, during the economic boom of 50ties and 60ties, beach life proliferates as never before and Poetto becomes overpopulated by the masses, erecting 1400 private wooden beach houses, destroying dunes by even more private construction of hospital, hotel and parking spaces, while the public tram line is abolished.
Already 40 meters of the beach are gone, before 10 years ago the restoration begins with hydraulic dragging of grey coloured, coarse-grained sands from the bottom of the sea unto the beach, covering the finer-grained white Aeolian sand the Cagliaritani are so fond of.
One may wonder if these interventions will hold. Sure enough, they might appear stable on the short term during the regular to and fro of waves of water and sand, but how about the long term characterised by exceptional strong winter storms, that actually define the coastal profile and are still to come, fuelled by the gradual increase of sea level as a consequence of melting icecaps, and by our talent to let the private commercial interests of a few prevail over the public benefits of all?