The Kingdom of Tavolara

The Kingdom of Tavolara

By Laura Secorun Palet

The view of Isola Tavolara from Porto San Paolo.
SourceNick Ledger/Corbis


Because in a day and age when real getaways are hard to find, the lure of the uncharted is as strong as ever.

By Laura Secorun Palet

Few places excite our collective imagination like islands. From Aldous Huxley’s portrayal of a water-locked Utopia to Daniel Defoe’s classic Robinson Crusoe, islands make us dream.

Fortunately, not all of them are imaginary. Take Tavolara, for instance: Hidden along the east coast of Sardinia, this tiny strip of land — just over three miles long and a mile wide — is one of the Mediterranean’s best-kept secrets.

Only 14 people live on what looks like a mountain peak jutting from the sea. And while none of the residents are pirates or castaways, some are members of a unique royal family.

Even Queen Victoria of England, when she heard of us, sent a photographer in a boat to take a picture of Tavolara’s royal family for her collection.

At first glance, one could mistake Antonio Bertoleoni for an ordinary fisherman, but he is the king of the island. “Tonnino” — as his subjects call him — is the descendant of Giuseppe Bertoleoni, a sailor from Genova, who, in the late 18th century, came across this uninhabited rock, claimed it and crowned himself king.

Photo of the family of Carlo Bertoleoni, ca. 1890.

Photo of the family of Carlo Bertoleoni, ca. 1890.

Source Wikimedia Commons

Several years later, while on a hunting trip, King Charles Albert of Sardinia is said to have recognized Giuseppe’s authority, and his descendants have been self-proclaimed royals ever since.

“We are a real royal family,” King Bertoleoni says. ”Even Queen Victoria of England, when she heard of us, sent a photographer in a boat to take a picture of Tavolara’s royal family for her collection. And I think it must still be somewhere at Buckingham Palace,” he adds by way of proof.

While the Bertoleoni reign only lasted a century — in 1934 Tavolara was officially annexed by Italy — the royal family still carries on its role as protector of the island by ignoring the siren call of mass tourism and chasing away speculators.

Case in point: In the 1990s a company wanted to harvest wood from Tavolara’s well-stocked forest. The timber sale would’ve been a good earner for the tiny island, which is short on natural resources it can sell. The king stuck to his guns, however, and pointed the lumberjacks back to the mainland.

Tavolara has also refused to build more houses on the beach, pave any roads or provide lodging for tourists. Unlike the tourist meccas of Mikonos or Ibiza, Tavolara is unplagued by cruise ships, nightclubs and beach vendors. Instead, visitors can chose between the following attractions: the island’s little beach bar, its only restaurant, Da Tonnino — which is run by the king and offers the local fishermen’s catch of the day — or its long white beach and turquoise waters.

And tourists can only come for the day, taking the 15-minute ferry back to Porto San Paolo at the end of their island adventure.

Tavolara’s prettiest sight may actually be underwater. The island offers the Mediterranean’s most successful marine reserve — with the highest levels of biomass per square meter — which makes it a prime diving destination for those looking to experience the great sea like it was decades ago, before overfishing took its toll. Treats include flora, fauna and shipwrecks.

Natural marvels aside, Tavolara also has a glamorous side. For more than 20 years, the island has been home to a very special film festival: Una Note in Italia — a night in Italy — showcases the best of contemporary Italian cinema.

I think this island is perfect as it is.

Every July, yachts surround Tavolara. The beach bar orders extra bottles of champagne to quench the visitors’ thirst, and a big screen is set outdoors for the event. 

The festival’s atmosphere is informal, but film stars seem happy to trade in red carpets for a walk on the beach and theaters for a screening under the stars. 

To visitors, Tavolara feels like a time capsule. Because, while change can’t be fought, it seems the islanders have found a way to slow it down — just enough to protect their corner of paradise from the claws of globalization.

“I think this island is perfect as it is,” says King Bertoleoni. “So it should stay the same in the future. Sometimes by trying to improve things, we just make them worse.” 

Seeing the children jump off the pier as the sun sets behind the sand dunes, it is hard to disagree with his majesty.

Some things are best left alone.