Anna Mulas turned 100 in March. Just two years ago, she was still plowing the garden outside her house (her son Sergio shows me a video of his 98-year-old mother using a hoe with aplomb).
Anna is one of five centenarians in Seulo, Sardinia – a town of only 800 or so inhabitants. Last week there were seven. From 1996 to 2016, Seulo had 20 people aged 100 or more – making it, locals claimed, the record holder for the most centenarians per capita on the planet.
Several cities in the area dispute this, and each fight separately for the crown. All are part of Sardinia’s ‘Blue Zone’ – one of five such areas around the world where scientists have found that people live abnormally long lives.
This cluster of villages in the spiky mountains of Nuoro province has about 10 times more centenarians per capita than the United States or Britain, according to the Blue Zones Institute, which identifies and researches these timeless regions.
For cities, longevity has become something of a calling card. In Seulo, portraits of deceased centenarians adorn the stone walls of the homes they once lived in – with captions describing their stories and the secrets of their long lives. One reads: “Antonio Carta: Never smoked. Used to eat everything, but never ate too much. Loved eggs with lard.”
I’m 27 and my only current anti-ageing rituals are wearing an SPF moisturizer and turning on Radio 1 when I have friends over… before immediately switching back to Radio 4 when they leave. I have a lot to learn.
“It’s a very natural way of life here. The traditional lifestyle of goat herders and shepherds is still influential. Even the oldest residents have a very active lifestyle, explains Maria Paola Loi, a guide who works with the luxury travel company Black Tomato to offer tours in the Blue Zone. Luigi Carta, 99, who ran a tailor shop in Seulo, says: “Until last year, I still drove to my vineyard to look after my grapes and plant vegetables. Then I lost my certificate.”
Diet is also important, but the superfood is surprising: namely, huge amounts of pork. – The pigs roam freely here and sometimes mate with wild boar – so the meat is of very high quality, says Maria Paola.
Add in the local crispy flatbread (pane carasau), plus pasta, and you’ve got an anti-aging feast that sends Gwyneth Paltrow running.
There is no better celebration of the Sardinian diet than the one put on by Pasqua Salis (age 84) at her hotel, Su Gologone. Hidden in the rugged folds of the Blue Zone, the hotel channels old Sardinian customs, with hand-embroidered furniture and galleries selling local crafts in rustic buildings. On regular evenings, guests are invited to the “brødredet” – a terrace located above an oven where elderly ladies in traditional dress bake delights after gluten delights while you enjoy the sunset’s last kiss.
Pasqua is a force of nature in her own right, putting local life expectancy down to respect for the elderly, close neighbors and a good glass of red wine: “People here are not afraid of getting old because they are always respected and feel useful by working. »
One of the main threads between the five blue zones is that they tend to be geographically and culturally isolated from the rest of the world. So traditional ways of living, eating and working are more likely to be preserved.
When it comes to wine, there is science behind it. Cannonau di Sardegna, widely drunk in the blue zone, has two to three times as much flavonoids as other wines. This has been shown to help maintain arteries and normal blood pressure, and reduce the chance of heart disease. Fitting then that a traditional toast is here A kent’annos (“May you live to be 100”).
Apart from clues to a long life, the Nuoro region hides other treasures: from the exquisite filigree workshops of Dorgali to the 150 murals that tell the streets of Orgosolo that tell its history, and one of Europe’s deepest gorges, Gola Su Gorropu, where golden eagles glide over 500m of limestone walls.
Longevity is retreating
As life expectancy increases globally, interest in travel based on how to age well is growing, and the industry is adapting to accommodate. In Sardinia, 7Pines, a new luxury resort on the glamorous Costa Smeralda, also offers excursions to the Blue Zone, including a guided tour and tasting of local produce. Prices start from €395 (£331) per person including food and transport.
You can also hold cooking workshops at the hotel, where the chef takes you into the diet of the blue zone – with ingredients picked from the surrounding sea and 15 hectares of gardens. Two pools and tennis courts (the latter opening soon) help you embrace the active lifestyle.
Aside from Nuoro, Black Tomato has begun offering trips, known as field trips, to some of the other four Blue Zones around the world: Okinawa in Japan, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, Loma Linda in California and the Greek island of Ikaria.
“People have embraced the possibility of an experience with a lasting positive effect on their daily lives and the people around them,” says Black Tomato’s Carolyn Addison.
In Okinawa, longevity retreats involve lessons about ishoku dogen (the concept of medicine and food comes from the same source) and martial arts sessions at a local dojo.
Wannabe Blue Zones are even starting to form. In Puglia (not itself a designated zone), the Borgo Egnazia hotel has started offering Longevity Retreats certified by the Blue Zones Institute. Guests participate in “movement classes” (apparently not just an extended game of adult Twister), cooking workshops and group parties.
So should I start taking two-hour siesta’s at the office (“Sorry boss, that’s too long”), open a bottle of merlot in the canteen and ask my landlord to keep pigs in our shared yard? All in all, probably not.
But even if my 21st century hedonistic ways turn out to be incurably incurable, there is hope.
Research has shown that the very act of traveling can add years to your life. In 2018, the results of a 40-year study at the University of Helsinki revealed that people who take more time off work each year to vacation live longer. Now there is a recipe I can come up with.
How to do it: EasyJet (easyjet.com) flights to Olbia, Sardinia depart from London, Bristol and Manchester. Fares start from £19 one way. Black Tomato (blacktomato.com) offers a seven-night stay at Su Gologone and 7Pines Resort from £4,100 per person on a B&B basis, including flights, car hire and the Blue Zone Field Trip Experience.
Blue zones around the world
Once called the “Land of the Immortals”, Okinawa is a chain of more than 150 islands located between Japan and Taiwan. Islanders enjoy tropical climates, pristine beaches, coral reefs – oh, and one of the longest life expectancies in the world.
The islands have about twice as many centenarians per capita as the rest of Japan – a country already among the nations with the highest life expectancy – according to the Okinawa Research Center for Longevity Science.
Okinawans are known for their plant- and soy-based diets and their powerful social networks – called moai – which supports them well into old age.
Nicoya, Costa Rica
Costa Rica consistently ranks as one of the happiest places on earth. It is also home to the Nicoya Peninsula, where many people reach their 100s.
Nicoyans are known for their sociability and good sense of humor – you can often hear the tinkling of marimba players coming from the endless honey-coloured beaches.
A simple diet with a hearty breakfast and light dinners is a central part of people’s routines. Join Nicoya’s cowboys who roam the mountains on horseback from dawn, sharing their simple breakfast with gallo pinto (rice and beans) and homemade tortillas, for a taste of local life.
Planted between Mykonos and Samos, Ikaria is often overlooked by travelers. All the better for the local population, who have managed to preserve much of their traditional customs and strong family values.
“They enjoy strong red wine, midday naps, late-night dominoes and a relaxed pace of life that ignores clocks,” says Dan Buettner, who founded the Blue Zones Institute. Walking the spiky rock landscape ensures that even centenarians are fit as fiddles, and their diet is high in vegetables and olive oil, but low in dairy (except goat’s milk). Napping and long lie-ins are an integral part of local culture. Don’t expect anything to be done on time.