How is it that everyone in Italy, unless they’re a teenager or younger, has most likely heard of the town of Cellino San Marco?
How is it that this small town in the north of the Salento region, between Brindisi and Lecce, a village with no seashore, no episodes of particular note in its history, is so well-known throughout Italy?
The answer is simple: love.
A love for the land, plus a great love story: that of Albano Carrisi and Romina Power.
It all started when the two met, and the flame of love was ignited between the American girl whose parents were both famous Hollywood actors and the young man with the incredible voice who had left his native southern Italy for the northern metropolis of Milan, determined to make his fortune.
And to think that Al Bano (the stage name that Albano Carrisi crafted from his actual first name) loved Milan, mainly because it was the exact opposite of his tiny hometown of Cellino San Marco. In the 60’s, the Apulia region had not yet made a name for itself: farms were still farms, and not yet tourist attractions. The area was considered old-fashioned, out-of-date, and few would have considered it a vacation destination.
Back then Apulia was a land of sweat and toil, of soil that had to be constantly tamed to produce a strong wine that the French used to cut their own vintages, and then there were the abundant olive groves. Other opportunities were few and far between, and anyone hoping to break into the world of entertainment had to leave.
Once they did, any tie to their hometown depended on the family they had left behind, not fond longings for a landscape which brought to mind memories of hardship rather than dreams.
But when Albano first took Romina to Cellino San Marco, the eyes of this young American woman saw something else: they saw what Albano, his eyes blinkered by the toil and hardship of the past, could not yet see.
Romina fell in love with the landscape of olive trees and vineyards, the flat land that smells of the sea, the food that changes from family to family, not just from town to town. She fell in love with the genuineness of the local residents, who are the exact opposite of the hypocritical status seekers she must have known in droves back in America.
And she immediately asked Albano to buy the Bosco di Curtipetrizzi forest, the last strip of land covered with the original Mediterranean brush that had once covered all of Apulia, before it was cleared away for the vineyards and olive groves: a patch of woodland preserved by a mad baron who had closed it off behind a wall, most likely because he too was a man deeply in love.
It was Romina who brought Albano to rediscover his hometown of Cellino San Marco, urging him to rediscover his Apulian roots by recasting them in a new light of love.
The language of stone, the language of nature.
Cellino was much more than his hometown. Even today, it is a place where friendships with schoolmates, with those who gathered in local cafés on sunny afternoons in their younger years, last forever. Where the aroma of the dishes such as those that Al Bano’s Mamma Jolanda would make for him has been handed down for generations. Where you come back to raise your children.
And after the forest, came the village, where they first made their home, and then brought into being the winery, the hotel, the restaurant, the pool, the sauna. There is even a church. Each single stone in this tiny village was placed just so, based on a memory, a dream, an idea, a master plan for the ideal surroundings.
Albano considers himself a “failed architect”, but in actual fact, he is much more than an architect, as shown by his village, every last inch of which is set apart by its distinctive style and history.
Once again, the secret is love: for the rediscovered roots that grew even stronger, to the point where they there for everyone to see, thanks again to the features of the village. Then again an intense public life, along with a private life that, for better or worse, was often made public, has so much to show the rest of the word.
In the meantime, Cellino San Marco, until it is no longer the village that Al Bano left in the 1960’s. Yet in a twist of fate, young people are once again leaving the town, especially university graduates, as the brain-drain continues, drawing them to seek their fortune elsewhere.
What they need is a Romina Power of their own to show them the opportunities waiting to be exploited in their hometowns, thanks too to the fact that modern technology and transport can create new neighbourhoods. The youth continue to leave, but they are far more likely to return if they have a good reason to do so.
When we leave, the idea is always to strike it rich: fusion creates wealth, and Romina’s vision ultimately proved to be a catalyst of change for Cellino San Marco. But now the challenge is that facing Al Bano’s children and all the young people of Cellino.
Will they come back? Will they find a way to harness their energy and creativity to ensure that Cellino San Marco prospers (making it an example for countless towns in southern Italy, but also, as things stand today, in northern Italy as well)?
How much do these young people know about their town? Are they able to see it through the eyes of a foreigner who falls in love with its aromas, its landscape, its flavours and traditions? How many are able to see the opportunities they could draw on to create their own business or professional activity, thanks in part to the fame of Cellino San Marco and the Salento region as a whole? Al Bano is a visionary: he swam against the stream, returning to his hometown to live, and ultimately showing everyone that he had the right idea. He has promoted his community in every way possible, doing interviews with television broadcasters from all over the world for the last 50 years, efforts that have helped spread the fame of the entire Apulia region too.
He is a visionary who began working with young people years ago, long before the worth of such efforts could be fully appreciated. But today, if we can manage to open the eyes of the young the way Romina opened Al Bano’s eyes, then the future will be that much brighter, with the young people devoting their energies to continuing to build the community, even if the path followed is different from that of the past.
And we will be happy.