They reign over secluded islands and preside over exhilarating parties. One well-disguised ruler even has Queen Victoria to prove his lineage
The ruler strides through his kingdom, tanned and clad in a polo shirt and shorts. Antonio the First nods graciously and smiles at his loyal subjects, who sit around tables on his estate, tucking into plates piled high with pasta vongole and grilled gamberetti. He sits down on his low throne, aka a stool. Antonio I is, as he puts it, “the most ordinary king in the world.” His gaze falls on a large black and white photo of his ancestors on the wall, and then over to the azure Mediterranean ahead of him – the two constants in his life. After the 83-year-old restaurant owner Antonio Bertoleoni has told the story of why he believes he is the king and rightful ruler of the rocky little island of Tavolara, his eyes drift back to the sea, and he silently admires the view of the coast of Sardinia on the hazy horizon.
Tavolara has an area of six square kilometers and is Bertoleoni’s home. It is allegedly the smallest kingdom in the world – a rock rising out of the sea off the northeastern tip of Sardinia, surrounded by a long, crescent-shaped beach. For 22 years, Bertoleoni – whom everyone here calls Tonino – has considered himself the uncontested ruler of this island. Admittedly, there’s not much to rule over: twenty inhabitants, just over a hundred goats, a few falcons. No cars, no hotels. And Antonio’s castle? It’s his restaurant, Da Tonino Re di Tavolara.
Nightlife in Porto Cervo is like a Ferrari. Plenty of power, but you have to know how to ride it
The crystal-clear water attracts tourists who come to swim with dolphins and turtles, or simply relax on the beach. Most will stroll up to the restaurant, hungry for the catch of the day and curious to hear the unusual story of the former fisherman who was born a crown prince. In his version, an ancestor, Giuseppe Bertoleoni, was given exclusive possession of the island by the then rulers, the royal house of Savoyard, in 1836. The kingdom of Tavolara was founded.
Unfortunately and very regrettably the document somehow inexplicably got lost, explains Tonino. Instead, in lieu of a decree, he points to the family portrait, taken by the royal photographer whom Queen Victoria once sent out with the ambitious mission to take pictures of all the royal families and rulers. For Tonino, this is irrefutable proof of his blue-blooded ancestry. Despite the fact that his Italian passport declares him an ordinary citizen, Tonino’s story is great for business. Camera teams from across Europe request audiences, guests are eager to shake his hand – where else can you get this close to a monarch?
Of course, Tavolara and Sardinia belong to Italy, and have done so since 1861. But Sardinia, the second-largest island in the Mediterranean, has preserved its majestic allure. Battled over by rulers and admirals on account of its strategic location between Europe and North Africa, the island’s Costa Smeralda, Costa Rei and Costa del Sud still attract the aristocracy. The water shimmers emerald green and sapphire blue thanks to white sand and gentle sunlight. Karim Aga Khan IV, the religious leader of the Nizari Ismaili muslims, and one of the wealthiest men in the world, saw the Costa Smeralda and was smitten.
Karim Aga Khan was in his mid-20s when his yacht passed the turquoise bays at the beginning of the 1960s. Cows, goats and sheep grazed on the dunes back then. It was the perfect place, declared his Highness, to invite his friends: models, industrial magnates, aristocrats – all of whom had certain standards, naturally. Soon, the sleepy coastline was transformed into a jet-set playground. Porto Cervo, where mega-yachts jostle for space in the harbor, is the center. Here you can get a cappuccino for nine euros and an apartment for millions.
1 Hotel Capo D’Orso
2 Resort Cala di Falco
3 Ruins Sa Sedda ’e Sos Carros
4 Gorge Gola su Gorroppu
5 Restaurant sa Domu Sarda & Bar Inu
Money is very obviously plentiful here. The town is like an open-air mall with two distinct categories of visitors, and one group marveling at the decadence of the other. The nightlife kings reign lavishly in the exclusive restaurants and clubs. At Phi Beach club in front of Rituals, or the Billionaire Club, the nightclub owned by former Formula One boss, Flavio Briatore, the Bentleys and Lamborghinis drive past thick and fast. The doors open to reveal mainly elderly gents accompanied by ladies of a certain age, whose facial expressions may appear a little rigid, but nature seems to have compensated by giving them unusually full lips …
One of the very first celebrity clubs to open here, 37 years ago, was Sottovento, a stage for the antics of the Prince of Brunei, Roman Abramovich and Ronaldinho. Champagne and vodka costing thousands of euros per bottle are served in private lounges, which divide the VIPs from the Super VIPs in a strict caste system. Although the club’s interior shrieks 1980s style, it is packed every evening. Owner Alberto Verona gives anyone who survives the cull at the door the feeling of being a best friend for all eternity, as he hugs, air-kisses and gushes compliments.
The 50-year-old, a native Sardinian, reaches for a vodka-tonic and reminisces about nights gone by with a broad smile, lingering on “drinks and beautiful women.” His gaze is softened by nostalgia as he recalls Hollywood stars with flowers in their hair and joints between their lips dancing first on the beach, and then in the club, which used to belong to his father. Back then, Verona firmly believes, Porto Cervo was one gigantic family, more intimate and with fewer rules. Gone are the days when Muammar al-Gaddafi drove past with his convoy, his bodyguards peppering shots into the Sardinian night. Verona was the only person permitted to serve the Libyan dictator. He would carefully draw the curtains of the VIP lounge to hide the revelries of Gaddafi and his pals from view of the ordinary guests. “Nightlife in Porto Cervo is like a Ferrari,” says Alberto, “plenty of power, but you need to know how to ride it.”
Antonello Salis’ red Fiat Panda climbs the hills around Teulada at a leisurely pace. Located roughly 300 kilometers to the south of Porto Cervo, at the other end of the island, this is a completely different world. Salis, 56, describes the party people as “impazziti,” deranged. He far prefers his own particular subjects: the island’s goats, of which 300 are his. Salis is a third-generation shepherd. In the evening, when the summer heat has lifted slightly from the cedars and pine trees, when the arid, copper-colored soil has cooled down slightly, he guides his herd across the extensive grazing grounds that cover several thousand hectares. He protects them against stray dogs and wild boars, makes sure they don’t get caught in fences. Salis roams up the hills and down into the valleys, along meandering paths used by his grandfather. The goats chew grass and nibble on bushes, while the shepherd keeps a watchful eye and deeply inhales the scent of wild thyme and eucalyptus.
Salis proudly sticks to the traditions of his forefathers; he knows all his animals by name, milks by hand, controls the flock with dogs and a crook. Milk, cheese and meat – everything is done by hand. “I don’t want to hear those mechanical noises, because otherwise I might as well work in a factory,” he explains. “I prefer to listen to the sound of the wind.” His family lives off the income of a small hotel and the sale of ricotta, pecorino cheese and goat meat. Salis knows he won’t get rich, but he keeps the treasure that is most important to him: his freedom. Of course, he is familiar with the story of Tavolara, like everyone on the island. He smiles as he thinks of Tonino up in the north. Porto Cervo really isn’t his world. And this is what makes Sardinia so special: Everyone can find their own small realm here and live like a king – if only for a summer.
Where to go in Sardinia
Sa Sedda ’e Sos Carros, an old Nuragic settlement, features the ruins of stone and bronze handicraft dating back to 3300 years ago.
The remote beaches on the Costa Verde offer a relaxing contrast to the party culture on the Costa Smeralda.
Gola su Gorruppu is one of the steepest gorges in Europe, with walls rising 500 meters into the sky. An ideal spot for trekking and climbing.
Flavors of the island
Sa Domu Sarda in Cagliari serves delicious local Sardinian cuisine and the inviting Inu bar has a fine selection of wines from the island.