An internet billionaire may sound like an unlikely conservationist. But Renato Soru has made it his mission to save the island of his birth from the ravages of the developers. Peter Popham reports from Gavoi
The hills of Barbagia, the wild sheep-rearing country in the dead centre of Sardinia is a place where normally almost no-one ever goes. Mention La Barbagia to an Italian and the first thing that comes to mind is kidnapping: this was until recently a famous centre of brigandage, and the thinness of the population made it ideal for squirrelling away the victims.
Barbagia is also rich in archeological remains: it has an extraordinary number of neolithic stone towers, nuraghi in Sardinian, dolmens, giants' tombs, menhirs, the so-called "domus de janas" or "houses of the fairy witches", egg-like tombs carved out of the rocks where tribal leaders were laid to rest in the foetal position.
It also has wonderful wine, cheese and prosciutto, a culinary tradition as rich as anywhere in Italy, and local people happy to tell you all about it. What it has lacked - until now - has been visitors.
The resorts on Sardinia's beautiful coast are packed with tourists, local and foreign. The Costa Smerelda, developed by the Aga Khan in the 1960s, is a playground for Europe's rich and glamorous.
The interior, by contrast, with its rocky mountain slopes and forests of cork oak and empty roads, is almost virgin terrain. But visitors are beginning to beat a path in their thousands to the hills of Barbagia, for "L'isola delle storie", "Island of stories", a literary festival in a village called Gavoi, one of the more unlikely places in the world to find people talking about books. The man chiefly responsible is an internet billionaire called Renato Soru.
Renato Soru is Sardinia's most celebrated businessman, a supermarket owner who branched out with dazzling success into internet services, founding Tiscali and becoming the most important internet player in Italy. In 2003, at 46, he decided to go into politics, launching "Project Sardinia" on the centre-left, committed to checking the despoliation of the coastline by what he called "savage tourism".
One year later, Mr Soru swept to power as president of the Sardinian region. His first act, to the fury of the developers, was to freeze all building within two kilometres (1.25 miles) of the coast. "This is a measure that will protect Sardinia and Sardinians for the next 500 years," he said.
But conservation of what remains of the coastline was only one part of his vision: the other was to restore vitality to the island's interior. "Now a different model of development is possible," he says, "one that is based on the culture of the local people."
He was not the only person who dreamed of revitalising Sardinia's interior.
Andreuccia Podda was born and raised in the village then went away to university. But she did not want to become a permanent migrant to the city like so many other Sardinians. "I like living here," she said, "and when I graduated from university I decided to come back here to live. But when you live in a place that is so small and remote, where there is no entertainment and nothing ever happens, you have to do something to survive.
"So in 2001 a group of us who like reading got together and decided to organise some events. On Saturday evenings once a month throughout the winter, from September to March, we invited a different writer to the village to give a reading, usually in one of the village bars ... It was just something to do on a Saturday night. After the reading we all got together with the writer in one of the restaurants and had dinner. And that was it.
"We decided we wanted to do something bigger, so in November 2001 we formed an association, 26 of us, including 10 writers, to create some kind of a literary event. We invited one of the organisers of Mantova's famous literary festival to come over for a weekend and give us her thoughts and when she saw what we had planned she just said, carry on, that's terrific."
At about the same time in Cagliari, the Sardinian capital, a group of writers with roots in the island got together and dreamed a dream. "We know the beautiful and the ugly of festivals," said Marcello Fois, a novelist and screenwriter who is now director of Gavoi's literary festival.
"I was invited once to a festival in Spain where I was deposited in my hotel room for several hours, taken to the festival to make my presentation, then taken straight back to the hotel again and that was that. There are festivals where there is no possibility of meeting people, no warmth between the authors and the public. One evening at dinner in Cagliari we said to each other that we wanted to launch a festival which was different, where intelligence, affection and the joy of meeting people would come together, a festival where people don't just come but they stay, a sort of bubble that would be a vacation from stupidity, where intelligent things can be said."
Fois and his friends cast around for the best place to root the event they had conceived. The desperate housewives of Gavoi meantime were dreaming their own dream of turning the monthly readings into something more substantial.
And then up popped Renato Soru. Despite his money - in 2000 he was listed in 99th place on Forbes's billionaire list, with an estimated fortune of $4.3bn - he was an unlikely politician. You would never call him charismatic: he was and remains painfully shy. He speaks in a soft monotone, as if talking to himself; unlike every other Italian in the world, his hands remain motionless. But these handicaps were more than compensated by his advantages: his money, needless to say, but also his political vision for the island where he was born, and the courage he has shown in facing down the developers.
The nascent Gavoi festival was exactly the sort of thing Mr Soru wanted to encourage, even before his election. The Cagliari writers and the Gavoi enthusiasts found each other, Mr Soru's company, Tiscali, provided the seed money, and they were away.
Today L'isola delle storie, whose fourth edition finished this week, is being hailed as one of the most resounding new successes of Italy's cultural calendar.
It is also a pioneering example of what may be possible as concerned individuals such as Mr Soru come to power and try to redress the grotesque imbalances caused by the over-exploitation of the Mediterranean's coastlines. It is one of the Sardinian president's great themes: resort development has galloped across the island's beaches because it seemed to bring instant riches with it. This businessman is persuasive and articulate on how much of a mirage that has been, how the islanders are passive spectators or unskilled labourers in the tourist economy, how the profits are removed elsewhere - as Sardinia's mineral riches have been removed by centuries of predatory exploitation.
"The coastal economy will continue to be important," he said this week, "but the way it is going it risks killing off the culture of the interior altogether, creating a kind of city sprawling along the coastline while the rapid depopulation of the interior continues. We have to react to this, we have to create a counterbalance to what is happening on the coast."
As more and more of the Mediterranean is essentially destroyed by resort tourism, the message is bound to spread. Mr Soru's new role as "Ambassador for the Coasts" in the UN's Environment Programme gives him the chance to spread the word.
The Sardinians are still with him on this, he insists. "Of course there are critics and opponents of the policy of banning new construction on the coast," he said, "but the majority of Sardinians understand what is at stake."
Gavoi's festival is a concrete example of how to create a counterbalance. The festival has acquired a distinctly British slant, though nobody seems very clear why. Last year, Jonathan Coe and Allan Guthrie packed them in, this year Nick Hornby was top of the bill. The festival represents a flowering of the village itself. It has become a four-day excuse for the village to let its hair down. Via Roma, the main street, turns pedestrian for the duration, and its 23 bars stay open beyond midnight, thronging with locals as well as visitors.
Tiscali is still a sponsor, but now the region itself is its biggest backer, yet it is still struggling to pay its bills. "None of the organisers gets paid, said Fois. "If it seems rich it's because we exploit all the resources we have." The writers for example - they are not paid, either, not even Hornby, or the famous film director Ermanno Olmi, or the bestselling Italian comedian-turned-thriller writer Giorgio Falletti, or the photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin. The stars get rooms in a modest hotel beside the nearby lake; but they get the chance to hang out in the bars and restaurants, meet their readers and other writers, and have some country fun.
Until now Gavoi was known for its sheep, its cheese and its mutton. The village's other pleasures are equally rustic. One of its delights is the tinkling of sheep bells. The sound is so ubiquitous that the villagers no longer notice it, just as they look blank when you mention the scent of flowers which fills the village, and and the silence of the velvety night.
But now Gavoi has books as well, and modern art in the local museum, and stars of stage and screen standing in the local piazza taking questions. Villagers who have moved elsewhere and come back for a visit at festival time rub their eyes in disbelief.
President Soru turned up on Saturday night as Nick Hornby was doing his stuff. "Today people come to Sardinia for the sun and the sea," he said. "But by preserving our environment we are making an investment in our future. Sardinia is not just sun and sea, it is also silence and darkness. We have a hidden treasure here."
(by The Indipendent - 7 July 2007)