Kevin Pilley raises a glass to romance in Rudolph Valentino's home town

The premise of our Italian break was romance. A celebration of marriage. Something special to mark an anniversary.

So we had discounted the container port of Taranto and kept the hand-in-hand walk around Bari airport to a minimum.

It was consensual. We had had enough cultural enrichment. Lecce, the forts and the rubble we had done.

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Neither of us have ever been that interested in Swabian castles. That's why we have been married so long.

We don't like to see each other on beaches any more either.

My wife got out the guidebook and riffled away for a suitably seductive destination.

"Perfect!" She unfolded a map and studied it like a reflexology chart.

The beautiful city of Otranto in Puglia, Italy. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Andrea D'Alba
The beautiful city of Otranto in Puglia, Italy. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Andrea D'Alba

One siesta later, we embarked on our tour of Puglia, a couple of middle-aged foot fetishists exploring the heel of Italy and a bit of its instep.

We don't like to see each other on beaches any more either.

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After miles of gnarled trees, dry-stone walls, scruffy fields, endless mozzarella farms and pomegranate groves, annoyingly innumerable olive oil mills 200 species of fig and only getting badly lost umpteen times, we eventually bumped to a hot-and-bothered halt.

Above a deep gorge.

"Another ravine," I said, unimpressed. "Puglia is not known as the Land of Ravines for nothing."

My wife told me it was no ordinary ravine. It was the gravina ravine belonging to Castellaneta, 32km from Taranto. The name rang a bell.

We parked and walked down the town's Via Roma. My wife looked more than usually smug.

"Does the name Rudolfo Alfonso Raffaelo Pierre Filberto Gugliemi di Valentine D'Antonquolia mean anything to you?"

I shrugged and guessed he played for Juventus.

Then we stopped at Number 116, a non-descript three-storey white house among many similar. My wife smiled. The way she sometimes does.

"Rudolph Valentino was born here. In 1895. Now how romantic is that?"

The site of pilgrimage is not open to the public but the life-size statue of "Valentino" around the corner is. As is a laundrette, a hotel and a restaurant bearing his name.

Naturally, there's also a Rudolph Valentino Museum. Ironically, it is a former convent.

Italian-born American heart-throb Rudolph Valentino. Photo / Getty Images
Italian-born American heart-throb Rudolph Valentino. Photo / Getty Images

We entered its "Lovers' Hall".

Under the barrelled-ceiling, we were followed (rather ambi-sexually I thought) by the eyes of the legendary Latin lover and epitome of romance.

From film posters and black and white movie stills, wearing his Cossack, matador and gaucho looks and sporting his signature Islamic older/Arabian noble pose, the silent silver screen matinee idol gave us the eye.

We enjoyed a part of the tent seen in The Son of the Sheik, a business card with his handwriting on it and comments from two visiting American "Rudy" fans.

"We've seen Rudy's Rolls-Royce in the Car and Caravan Museum in Luray Caverns, Virginia. But this is awesome. The birthplace of the world's greatest lover. The world's first hearthrob."

They admitted that the closest they had come to the legendary sex symbol was in a wax museum in Buena Park, California.

Valentine's mother was French and his father Italian, a vet who died of malaria. Rudy emigrated to the States in 1913. The museum boasts his childhood bed.

It was rags to riches. "Valesino" proved if you went to agricultural college in Genoa and combed your hair the right way and put the right stuff on it, you could become a film star and have hundreds of women and more, queuing hysterically to cuddle your coffin after your death aged just 31.

Valentino is the favourite son of what he called "My land of sun." His hometown is pure Puglia. A maze of piazzas, narrow alleys and stone steps.

At dinner back at our hotel, an old fortified farmhouse and Saracen deterrent, my wife ordered another bottle of wine because she had already had a half of one. We clinked glasses and toasted Apulia.

And ourselves. I smiled around the pepper mill and quoted from the museum walls, "I am the canvas on which women paint their dreams."

She laughed into her glass of spicy "Nero di Troia" and, after regaining her composure with several mls, she replied in fluent "Rudy". "To generalise on women is dangerous. To specialise is infinitely worse!"

I looked at the label on the oil bottle. "Prodotto Italiano cento per cento", I read. "Just like Rudolph, the red-blooded Italian stallion and fabled tight-trousered lothario."

Then came an idea.

"They use olive oil on everything around here. Maybe I should pomade my hair with it for the authentic, slicked-back you-can't-resist-me Rudy look."

My wife gave my scalp a long look that told me that it was too late for that. But not all was lost. I could still be a pop icon.

Then it twigged. Dan Castellaneta! Homer Simpson's voice.

As well as the voice of Mayor Quimby, Sideshow Bob, Groundskeeper Willie, Barney Gumble and Krusty the Clown.

Citta di Castellaneta is not only Rudolf Valentino's birthplace it is also the ancestral home of The Simpsons.

My "doh!" rang around the restaurant and echoed around the nearest ravine.

I'm sure the gorge echoed back, "Prego!"

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