Sailing to the 'smallest kingdom' in the world


Antonio Bartoleoni is his full name, and he is the sixth ruler of the smallest inhabited kingdom in the world.

Tavolara is a mere four miles long and one mile wide, but only the isthmus of this predominantly vertiginous island known locally as “the wall” is habitable…unless you are a goat.

In fact, the island first became famous for its yellow-toothed goats.

The wild herds which tainted their teeth by eating rare lichens on the island play a part in the story of how this imposing outcrop became a kingdom.

This is a tale that has been passed down through six generations so there are various versions of how and when events unfolded; some details are sketchy and others have potentially been elaborated.

Though with us, Tonino found a captive audience so with increasing animation and detail he related the story as we feasted on seafood from the surrounding waters which his family has fished for over 200 years.

Friendships formed with King of Sardinia

It began in 1806 with Tonino’s great-great-great-grandfather, Giuseppe Bartoleoni, a Genovese sailor who laid claim to Santa Maria that’s part of the Maddalena archipelago and Tavolara — 18 kilometers from Olbia.

“He was the self-proclaimed leader of both islands because they were uninhabited,” Tonino explained. “He liked islands and solitude.”

Giuseppe divided his time between both islands and was good friends with one of the Maddalena’s most famous residents, Italian war hero Giuseppe Garibaldi who lived out the last 20 years of his life on the nearby island of Caprera.

War hero Garibaldi was godfather to Giuseppe’s son Paolo — the man who would later secure Tavolara’s official status as a kingdom.

For many years, Giuseppe lived a simple life as a farmer until 1836, when the King of Piedmont and Sardinia Carlo Alberto, turned up wanting to hunt the island’s storied “gold-toothed” goats.

Giuseppe hosted the king in his home for a week so they could hunt the rare wild goats.

“Before the king left, he gifted Giuseppe with a wind up clock with the royal crest,” Tonino told us. “And there was a joke about them both being kings. Carlo was King of Piedmont and Sardinia, but Giuseppe was King of Tavolara.”

Some years later King Carlo sent the lauded General La Marmora back to Tavolara to fetch some live goats. By this time, Giuseppe was living on Santa Maria but his son Paolo had inherited Tavolara.

“They gathered a few people and managed to corner the goats and they caught three. They’re wild goats so not easy to catch,” Tonino explained as if to excuse the paltry booty captured by so great a general as La Marmora.

Paolo refused compensation for the yellow-toothed trio but ultimately this small gift helped secure Tavolara’s status as a kingdom.

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As Tonino tells it, the Italian state later refused to recognize the Bartoleoni family’s claim but Paolo refused to concede his throne and launched a three-year legal battle that ultimately failed.

In desperation, he traveled to Turin to see King Carlo.

In his memoirs, General La Marmora describes the affection that King Carlo had for the Bartoleoni family and the goats of Tavolara.

It is therefore not too far-fetched to believe this part of the family tale where the words of the king are recalled.

“Paolo listen, we will sort it out. Don’t you worry. We will make it right.”

And indeed, King Carlo was true to his word. Twenty days after Paolo’s visit he was summonsed to the registry office in Tempio and presented with a notice complete with the King’s stamp, declaring “there is no owner of the island of Tavolara other than Paolo Bartoleoni.”

There was of course much celebration among the island’s 33 residents and news soon spread that Tavolara had officially been declared a “kingdom” (a country, state, or territory which is ruled by a king or queen).

The news even reached Queen Victoria who had a collection of photographs of all the kingdoms in the world. Her Majesty sent a vessel with a photographer to Tavolara to capture an image of the new royals and Tonino says the photo hung in Buckingham Palace with the inscription “The royal family of Tavolara in the gulf of Terranova Pausania, the smallest kingdom in the world.”

The Queen sent a copy of the photograph to King Paolo and to this day it hangs proudly in a frame in Tonino’s restaurant.

While the story goes that the photo hung on the walls of Buckingham Palace, officials told CNN that they haven’t been able to find it in the Royal Collection inventories.

The photo itself is just one reminder of the Bartoleoni family history. The other is the cemetery where Paolo’s tombstone, topped with a stone crown, looks up at the towering peak of his kingdom.

While Tonino is considered the monarch of the island’s handful of permanent residents — with the Bartoleoni family owning most properties and the ferry service — they no longer reign over all of Tavolara due to the installation of a NATO base in 1962 which has restricted the eastern half to military personnel only.

The rest is protected as a a marine reserve, but the western peninsula with its long white beach, sand dunes, restaurants and aquamarine waters is a favored spot for day trippers and yachts.

These environmental laws go a long way to ensuring the conservation of Tavolara’s spectacular ecosystem, but it is Tonino and his descendants who, through the art of storytelling, will continue to preserve this island’s legacy as the smallest kingdom in the world. And as far as they are concerned, it is still their throne.

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