The Sardinian province of Ogliastra has a higher proportion of centenarians than anywhere else in Europe. We take a tour of the region, and try to learn some of their secrets
(First published in Thomas Cook Travel magazine, February 2018. With photography by Allesandra Spairani)
When it’s time to go outside to have his photograph taken, the ever-courteous Adolfo Melis doesn’t want to keep us waiting, so he runs to the back of the bar he owns to grab his blazer. “Let’s go,” he says as he meets us by the door, with a beaming smile.
None of this would be that remarkable, except that Adolfo is 94, and still runs the bar he owns in the Sardinian village of Perdasdefogu like he’s in his thirties. He gets up at 5am, prays, has some breakfast, then opens the place at 6.30am without fail. Then he prepares the coffee machine, washes cups and waits for the locals of this parish, in the green hills of the Ogliastra province.
But in the Melis family, Adolfo isn’t really remarkable at all. He’s merely one of 11 siblings, six of which are still alive. One of his sisters, Consolata, passed away just short of her 108th birthday; another lived to to 103. In 2012, when nine of the brothers and sisters were alive, they entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest-lived siblings, with a collective age of 818 years and 205 days. The family have become increasingly famous, and Adolfo remembers when the Italian news did a live broadcast from his bar, as the locals watched in real-time on the TV in the corner.
But today is just a normal day at the bar, where there are pictures of the Pope in between the Chupa Chup lollipops and the trophies won by the village football team over the years. A group of old boys are playing chess, while some youngsters are playing draughts. There are a couple of lively games of pool happening in the green-lit room out the back, and there’s a group in one corner watching the TV, which is surrounded by black-and-white images of the Melis family. When we sit with Adolfo for the interview it’s notable how many of the smiling customers pat him on the back as they pass, or give him a little kiss on the cheek.
In the bar that he built in 1956, Adolfo is clearly at home, as are his guests, who don’t seem under much pressure to spend money. The regulars include Adolfo’s brothers, 98-year-old Antonio and 92-year-old Vitalio, who worked as the local postman for 35 years. “Vitalio would walk 25 kilometres a day to deliver the post,” says Adolfo. “He’s still so fit that he climbs trees to pick olives. He could race you up the street out there.”
Vitalio [aged 92] would walk 25 kilometres a day to deliver the post. He’s still so fit that he climbs trees to pick olives. He could race you up the street out there.
Adolfo has been asked many times why he and his siblings are in such rude health, and there are many answers. “It helps to be part of a community,” he begins. “Up here in the hills, we help each other, and we get help. We get together, we talk and we laugh. It’s also important to stay calm and not stress about the little things. My faith helps me, too – praying every day keeps me centred.”
Adolfo’s father had a food and wine shop, but also had a farm, which the siblings would work for him, learning to plough from an early age. “We were always working, and we’d only eat what we grew,” he remembers. “My father was one of the first in the area to have a vegetable garden.”
Since he was a child, Adolfo has been eating minestrone soup, which he now makes with beans and potatoes from his allotment, and sometimes livens up with some local sow’s milk or lard. Scientists and nutritionists have come to analyse the soup for possible health-giving properties, which Adolfo seems somewhat bemused by.
“I’ve just always eaten in moderation,” he says, which applies to the rest of his life, too. He’s never smoked, and only drinks a small amount of the local wine. “I don’t like anyone getting too drunk in the bar, either,” he says. “I like a quiet life, and a simple one.”
We hear similar stories on a tour through Ogliastra, which is one of the world’s five so-called Blue Zones, where people live exceptionally long lives. People here are ten times as likely to reach 100 than in America, and more likely to reach the milestone than anywhere else in Europe.
In the hilltop village of Villagrande Strisaili, where the walls are adorned with murals of locals who have lived past 100, many locals tell us about the good air, the good water and the fact that most of the older residents worked as shepherds, and would have to walk up and down the steep surrounding hills.
In Bari Sardo, another Ogliastran village, we meet 84-year-old Emma Pisu, whose mother lived beyond a hundred, like a good number of the locals here. “Her secret was not having a fridge,” says Emma, who helps her daughter run a business making traditional Sardinian flat breads. “Everything she ate was fresh and local. She also took life as it came, didn’t stress, and would sit out here chatting to people. It was a simple life, but a good one.”
Life here is increasingly of interest not just to scientists, but to normal visitors, with an increasing number of experiences based on the traditional good life (see sidebar). On our three-day visit, as the weather turns chillier despite the blue skies, many of the tour companies have closed for the winter, as have Sardinia’s many agriturismos, which serve local food straight from the farm. But we still get a strong sense of the kind of lifestyle – based around strong communities and a healthy, local diet – that has led to so many Sardinians reaching three figures and beyond.
Not far from the pretty hilltop town of Baunei – a jumping off point for many of Sardinia’s most beautiful and remote beaches, such as Cala Goloritze – we visit an olive oil press run by the Tangianu family, which consists of Antonio, Angela and their five daughters. Outside the small warehouse that houses the machinery, 20 local people, most of them of advancing years, have brought plastic crates filled with olives that they’ve picked themselves. For a small fee, the Tangianus will run the olives through the olive press, and the locals will have enough olive oil to last them through the winter.
“Ogliastra olives have a particularly delicate aroma,” says Antonio, a former farmer who bought the press 15 years ago, partly as a way to ensure that his daughters would have a guaranteed income. “We don’t know if it’s healthier than other olive oil, but we do know it’s fresh and local. There was a guy who lives in a farm nearby, who swears that the local olive oil cured his stomach problems.”
Licia, one of Antonio’s daughters, shows us the pleasing process of the olives going through the machine, with the waste coming out of one pipe to be used as fertiliser, and another spewing out crushed olive stones, which can be burned as fuel. Like her sisters, the ever-smiling Licia has another job, running a bakery and coffee shop nearby – but they all help out at the press. “It’s a family thing, as well as a local thing,” she says. “There’s something pleasing about the process. It makes me grounded and happy to work here.”
Doing things the old way is a recurring theme. In the pretty seaside village of Santa Maria Navarrese, which is as quiet as everywhere else in Sardinia at this time of the year, we meet Mariano Incollu, who is making cheese the traditional way, in his kitchen – with a huge bucket of Sarda cow’s milk, some starter cultures and a flame. A former trekking guide, he gave it up for a simpler life, and to be closer to his parents.
Up the hill, near the tiny village of Triei, we visit the Cantina di Talavè winery, where the wines are made the same way they were centuries ago – many using Sardinian Cannonau grapes, which are said to have higher levels than other grapes of antioxidant polyphenols, which are good for the heart.
“We use only local grapes and only ancient local wine-making traditions,” says Vincenzo, a social worker who founded the winery in 2012, with a commitment to employing local people with health problems that stopped them working elsewhere.
“Everything’s done by hand, and we don’t water the vines, so you can tell if it was a dry or wet year. We don’t try to follow peoples’ taste – we follow the local grapes, and the local traditions. We respect nature completely.”
We don’t try to follow peoples’ taste – we follow the local grapes, and the local traditions. We respect nature completely.
The red Amanthosu wine, one of the wines you can try on the winery’s rustic terrace in the summer, is deep, earthy and delicious. “It might not be perfect, but it’s true to the land,” says Vincenzo, who learned to make wine with his father, who had his own vines, like many Sardinians. “Of course, if people like it, all the better.”
Vincenzo says that his journey back to the soil is one that has been shared by many Sardinians over the past decade. “After the financial crash, a lot of people here went back to more traditional, more sustainable production methods,” he says. “And working like this, so close to Nature, it’s not just good for your body – it’s good for your soul. Maybe that’s the real reason people here live so long.”