The world’s smallest kingdom

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Source: BBC

Just south of Sardinia’s world-famous Costa Smeralda, the lonely island of Tavolara rises wildly from the cerulean sea like a jagged mountain. There are no roads or hotels, and the only inhabitable stretch is a white-sand tongue that’s best measured from end to end in steps.

Tavolara's jagged 565m limestone stack (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

Tavolara’s jagged 565m limestone stack (Credit: Eliot Stein)

This is where I found Antonio Bertoleoni as our ferry sputtered to a float. Better known as “Tonino”, the 83-year-old former fisherman owns Tavolara’s only restaurant and is the reigning ruler of the island, which happens to be the smallest inhabited kingdom in the world. For the past 22 years, Tonino has commanded this 5sqkm mini-monarchy in shorts and sandals.

I’m probably the world’s most ordinary king.

“I’m probably the world’s most ordinary king,” Tonino said, burying his feet in the sand and looking toward his restaurant. “The only privilege I enjoy is free meals.”

The Kingdom of Tavolara is currently celebrating its 180th anniversary and actually predates Italy by 25 years. Forming your own island nation might sound like the kind of thing you’d dream up when you’re marooned in the Mediterranean, but the story began in 1807 when Tonino’s great-great-grandfather, Giuseppe Bertoleoni, became the then uninhabited island’s first settler. Described as a “half shepherd, half pirate” in the book Tavolara, Island of the Kings, the Genovese immigrant had recently married two sisters and was seeking a safe haven to escape his bigamy charge.

King Tonino outside of his restaurant (Credit: Credit: Riccardo Finelli)

King Tonino outside of his restaurant (Credit: Riccardo Finelli)

Giuseppe and his small harem soon realised that they were sharing their island paradise with a rare species of wild goats whose teeth were dyed a golden-yellow colour by the seaweed and lichen they ate. Word of the gilt-toothed goats eventually spread to Sardinia’s ruler, Carlo Alberto, who eagerly travelled to Tavolara to hunt the animals in 1836. Giuseppe’s 24-year-old son, Paolo, guided the hunting excursions.

“When he landed, Carlo Alberto introduced himself by saying, ‘I’m Carlo Alberto, the King of Sardinia,’” Tonino said. “And so my great-grandfather replied, ‘Well, I’m Paolo, the King of Tavolara.’”

After killing several goats and feasting for three days at Paolo’s home, Carlo Alberto was so delighted that he said, “Paolo, you really are the King of Tavolara!” before sailing off, according to Tonino. Joking or not, Carlo Alberto later confirmed that the far-flung island had never officially been part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, and he sent Paolo a scroll from Carlo Alberto’s royal family, the House of Savoy, that certified the monarchy’s status.

A rare species of wild goats roam Tavolara (Credit: Credit: REDA &CO srl/Alamy)

A rare species of wild goats roam Tavolara (Credit: REDA &CO srl/Alamy)

Paolo promptly created the Bertoleoni coat of arms and painted it on the wall of his home. He also drew a royal family tree and built a cemetery on the island for himself and his descendants. When he died, he insisted on being buried with a crown cemented atop his tombstone – something he never wore while alive.

In the years that followed, news of the island’s sovereignty spread beyond the Mediterranean, and tiny Tavolara even formed a handful of political allies.Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of Italy’s founding fathers, soon became a trusted advisor of the Bertoleoni family; and the King of Sardinia at the time, Vittorio Emanuele II, went so far as to sign a peace treaty with the stamp-sized island’s 33 residents in 1903.

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