Every morning, Mauro Morandi woke up to the uninterrupted sea view that only he was privy to. Immersed in nature, he was intimately in tune with the dawn sounds and habits of the wildlife that surrounded his home, a former second world war shelter on Budelli, the Mediterranean island where he had lived alone for more than 30 years.
Now the 82-year-old is adjusting to life in a one-bedroom apartment next to a shop with a Sky TV sign outside, surrounded by neighbours and with only a glimpse of the ocean in between the gaps separating the buildings opposite on nearby La Maddalena, the largest of an archipelago of seven islands off the north coast of Sardinia, Italy.
Speaking from his new home, Morandi said: “I became so used to the silence. Now it’s continuous noise … music, motor scooters, people … it distracts you so much you don’t have time to think.”
More than three months have passed since Morandi, a former PE teacher from the northern Italian city of Modena, was forced to leave Budelli, where he had come to know every rock, tree and animal species on the rugged islet.
He had expected the public’s fascination in his life to wane after his departure; instead, it has grown more fervent. Fans from around the world continue to send him messages. A recent one read: “Mauro, the master of solitude.” Journalists still call him for quotes, or in anticipation of writing a book or making a film.
“I thought that after leaving Budelli, nobody would talk about me any more,” he said. “Instead, you journalists keep pestering.”
Asked why he thinks the intrigue in him is so intense, Morandi replied: “It’s as if people delegated me to do something they would never have the courage to do.”
Morandi had always dreamed of living on an island.
Exasperated by consumerism, politics and other aspects of society, in 1989 he decided to set sail for Polynesia in search of his idyll. But his journey to the South Pacific was scuppered soon after leaving mainland Italy due to a technical hitch on his catamaran, forcing him to anchor in La Maddalena.
He decided to work for some time on the island to pay off the cost of the boat and fund the rest of the trip. But then, after clapping eyes on the nearby uninhabited Budelli, Morandi realised his paradise was much closer to home.
In a twist of fate, the island’s caretaker was about to retire, and so Morandi abandoned the trip to Polynesia, sold the boat and took over the role.
For the next two decades he guarded Budelli without trouble, clearing its paths, keeping its beaches pristine and teaching summer day-trippers about its ecosystem.
Tourists have been banned from walking on the island’s pink beach, from where sand was often pilfered, and swimming in the sea since the 1990s, but can visit during the day via boat and are permitted to walk along a path behind the beach. They were often surprised to come across the sole inhabitant, although word soon got around, earning Morandi the nickname Robinson Crusoe after the castaway in Daniel Defoe’s novel.
Among the intrigued visitors over the years were the former Formula One boss Flavio Briatore and his then girlfriend, Naomi Campbell. The pair came in search of a meal with Morandi. The most he could offer was a coffee. They declined and left.
Food was delivered to him by boat from La Maddalena, and a homemade solar system powered his lights, fridge and internet connection. During winter, when there are no visitors, he spent his days collecting firewood, reading and sleeping.
Morandi’s life continued in much the same rhythm until the private company that owned the island went bankrupt. Plans to sell it in 2013 to Michael Harte, a businessman from New Zealand who pledged to keep Morandi on as caretaker, were thwarted amid protests and an intervention by the Italian government. In 2016, a Sardinian judge ruled the island be put back into public hands.
Until his departure in late April, Morandi was entwined in a lengthy tussle with La Maddalena national park authorities, which now manage Budelli, as he fought eviction. The authorities, which plan to turn Budelli into a hub for environmental education, accused him of making adjustments to his home on the island without the required permits and said he had to go.
The two sides appeared to have reached a compromise earlier this year, with Morandi told he might be able to return as custodian once works on the island were completed. “The director of the park suggested leaving before the works started, in return for him trying to get me a contract to return as custodian,” said Morandi. “The works were supposed to begin a week after I left, but they still haven’t started.”
Budelli is now guarded by CCTV cameras. Morandi recently went back there to collect some belongings. “It was a disaster,” he said. “The beaches were trampled on. I knew this would happen. There is nobody there any more to educate the tourists.”
Still, as he reflects over his life, Morandi accepts that maybe it was time to leave Budelli. “Last winter was very harsh. It rained a lot, there was hardly any sun to power the electricity … for three months I ate out of tins. I’m 82 and life there became more of a challenge. I have a bad leg and it was a struggle to walk – if I had a fallen on one of the rocks, there would have been nobody there to help me.”
The last few months have given him time to nurture a new hobby – he takes photos of the architecture on La Maddalena – as well as to repair relations with his three daughters, who live in Modena. “I’ll never regret the choice I made but it wasn’t an easy one,” he said. “My daughters were adults when I went to live on Budelli and I thought they accepted it … it was only later that I realised they hadn’t. One daughter didn’t speak to me for four years, we only recently started talking again.”
The day after our meeting, Morandi left for Modena to visit his family. “The experience of Budelli is over,” he said.