“We share a vast range of values with the UK and a communitarian feeling”, says Tonio Tondo, columnist of the Italian daily La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno. “We don’t want this to end.”
I am speaking to Tonio outside the Castello Angioino, the iconic castle that encircles most of Copertino’s old town in Italy’s southern Puglia region. But the UK is the image that looms the largest in our conversation, with Tonio stressing the contribution British society has given to cementing the very sense of European-ness over the centuries.
“We have come to learn about historical events thanks to British culture. In Italian schools, we read British political philosophers – Bacon, Locke, Hobbes.
“We find our feelings in Shakespeare’s lines; all this is part of who we are. Our minds are based on their teachings. We need vast horizons, now more than ever.”
Just like many other towns in the heart of Salento in Puglia, Copertino is a small-scale tourist hub whose businesses mostly depend on tourism.
With time British tourists, too, have come to appreciate the beauty of the architecture in the old town and the peace they can breathe in those streets, places in which time seems to have stopped.
Tonio was quick to point out the cultural boost these British visitors can guarantee to the community.
“In our own small Copertino there are some British ladies and gentlemen who have come to live here. We consider them as a gift, because they teach our children the English language, English literature and the meaning of English words.”
However, the uncertainty of Brexit now poses the threat that cultural exchanges of this sort might not be easy to repeat in the future, with question marks hovering over free movement.
“All this should not end in a sort of reciprocal entrenchment, with the UK and the EU standing at opposite poles.
“We too want to travel to the UK to visit our favourite places and learn your culture, just like we’ve done constantly over the last few decades.”
As the latest example of the validity of cultural exchanges, Tonio noticed how openness to dialogue between the UK and Italy paved the way for the development of an anti-Covid vaccine, in which the Jenner Institute of Oxford University, AstraZeneca and the Italian company IRBM Science Park all played a role.
“We’ve seen with the production of this vaccine that Europe can be a beacon of civilisation in times of need. But this can only happen if opportunities for dialogue and joint growth are preserved even after Brexit is completed.”
Asked about what kind of future he envisages for the European Union, he said: “We Italians agree with the British people with the idea that the EU should be deeply reformed.
“But how could we accomplish this without the support of the constitutional and liberal values Britain represents?
“Don’t we all remember how, when Hitler tried to impose his dominion over the whole of Europe, Britain stood its ground and repelled his attack on our civilisation?
“These values should be preserved as patrimony to the whole of Europe. We should not build a ditch all around them.”
A few miles south of Copertino, another favourite destination among international tourists is Nardò, second city in Salento by size and home to an old town which is a popular setting for movies and an Ionian coast that extends for 22 km (around 14 miles).
Giulia Puglia, town councillor for tourism and local businesses, pointed out how in the last four to five years Nardò witnessed a 40 per cent increase in the number of visits to its territory, a decent number of which were by British tourists.
She believes the fact that the area is not bound by seasonal tourism has been key to this.
“Nardò isn’t just sea and coast, it’s also history, culture, tradition. We have a beautiful old town and the climate here works to our advantage.
“Relying on the strategy of non-seasonal tourism, we promoted the restoration of old estates of huge fascination and high historical value. These, in particular, caught the eyes of European tourists.
“Many of them were British people who, having fallen in love with the old town and our way of living, decided to purchase these estates, refurbish them and now live there. In hindsight, synergy between public and private sectors worked well.”
Asked how the administration plans to tackle the repercussions on the local economy of Covid-19 – what she defined as a “dark parenthesis which eventually will go away” – and Brexit, she said that the quality of the region’s hospitality sector and relying on tradition might be the trump cards.
“I think we should continue to work the way we were doing before Covid hit us. We strongly believe in a strategy of quality, so we will have to bet on the uniqueness of our territory, on our craftsmanship, on our gastronomy and our culture.
“For example, we’ve been launching several projects in coordination with the Apulia Film Commission, so Nardò has been one of the most targeted cinematic venues.”
Lately, for instance, “Cops Una banda di poliziotti” and “Gli orologi del diavolo”, starring popular Italian actors Claudio Bisio and Beppe Fiorello respectively, have been filmed there.
Talking about the Dior fashion show which took place in Lecce – county seat of Salento – last July, Giulia stressed the significance of local weaving factories to the global fashion business.
“Nardò is also a manufacturing centre of international brands such as Dior, Gucci and many others. This is an important asset we have in our hands, because in an item of clothing you can see the history of our land.”
Involving the young generations in a traditional manufacturing process now made famous all over the world will be key to ensuring access to foreign markets remains unscathed after Brexit.
“Our administration is a founding partner of ITS Moda – the complete name is ITS “Technologies and Innovation for the Made in Italy” brand – a project launched in cooperation with Puglia Region and a series of companies in our territory which involves schools in the production process.”
Given the instability of foreign markets in the post-Brexit era, “our common thread should be the quality of our output and our traditional way of crafting the materials we use.
“We have the duty, now more than ever, of conveying to the world this precious cultural heritage that is bound to our land, but which also produces work.”