A couple cuddle up on a bench and share a loving kiss – a scene you might find anywhere. But this healthy pair have a combined age of nearly 200.
Antonio Vassallo, 100, and his wife Amina Fedollo, 93, are far from unusual in the idyllic Italian fishing village of Acciaroli.
It is officially the longest-lived community in the world, a place where centenarians make up a remarkable 5.8 per cent of the population – 116 out of just 2,000.
In Britain the number of centenarians has quadrupled since 1984 but they still represent just 0.02 per cent of us.
The mystery of just why people in this corner of southern Italy’s Campagnia region live so long while staying healthy is to be studied next month by experts from the University of San Diego in California.
The Sunday People went to meet these hardy souls last week to ask about their secret.
Francesco de Santis lives in the hills just outside Acciaroli and is a dapper-looking 103 years old. With a twinkle in his eye, he put his longevity down to “le donne” – the women. But there has to be more to it than that.
“I’ve lived a very happy life indeed,” he said. “I had an exciting life as a soldier and then I worked in the countryside as a farmer.
“I worked in the fields every day, so I was always moving around. Today I’m a widower with a lovely and close family. I don’t eat many sweet things but I drink a little wine and I used to smoke a bit.”
Beautiful Acciaroli certainly looks the sort of place to live a long and happy life. The welcome sign bears the name of US novelist Ernest Hemingway , who praised its tranquility when he visited back in 1953.
The pace of life is clearly still as relaxed as when he visited. And that might help explain why the area is home to 300 “anziani”, their name for senior citizens aged 90 and above.
They include 180 women and 120 men, the eldest of each sex being 108.
Another explanation could be the healthy Mediterranean diet. People shop at their local butchers and bakery or trade goods with extended family members. The nearest supermarket is a long drive and you would need to go 60 miles to find a McDonald’s – not that these folk would dream of eating a burger.
Retired fisherman Antonio Vassallo, the gent we found still snogging his wife at 100, has lived in a house overlooking the harbour all his life. Fish has always formed part of his diet but Amina Fedollo, whom he met at school, no longer lets him go to sea to catch it.
“I think the secret to longevity is a combination of things,” said Antonio. “The sea has always been an important part of my life.
“We’ve always had fresh fish, in particular shrimps I caught in special traps. The sea was plentiful, with anchovies, sardines, mackerel.
“Also we have always eaten a lot of vegetables like aubergines, peppers, cauliflowers, broccoli and beans. And we always use olive oil.
“We worked the land, always moving around, or I was rowing my little boat.” The couple have been married for 66 years and eat little and often. Food is locally sourced and they drink milk from a relative’s cow.
“We always made whatever we could, in particular pasta, bread and cheese – and our own wine,” Antonio recalled.
Desserts are for special occasions but the family enjoy a bottle of wine a day.
The six-month scientific study will pay close attention to what the anziani eat – in particular the habit of infusing food with the herb rosemary, a valuable source of calcium, vitamin B6 and iron.
Many believe the herb has healing properties as well, boosting the immune system , improving circulation and relieving muscle pain.
The family of Luigia Viciconte grow rosemary and other herbs in the garden. She looks decades younger than her 100 years and is fit as a fiddle.
She said: “I want to stay alive as long as I feel fine. I use a lot of herbs in my cooking – rosemary, especially when I make a roast, sage and laurel. I eat a little of all types of food and occasionally have a little wine.
“I hope to live a long life but I think only God knows the secret.”
Young people – who are known as “i giovani” – find Acciaroli a bit sleepy. But the old folk heartily disagree.
In the village centre after the daily siesta, a jovial group are playing a Neapolitan card game in the local bar. An octogenarian called Bruno gives them a wave as he cycles past.
It is noticeable that the people maintain an active lifestyle into old age.
Giuseppe Vassallo, the cousin of former fisherman Antonio, is aged 94 and determined to match the achievement of his late brother, also called Antonio, who died recently aged 103.
“What we have here is something priceless,” he explained. “Our fresh air and our environment. I’ve always eaten genuine local food. Imported food is not for me.
“I usually do some gardening here for myself and when you try the produce you can immediately tell the difference.
“I’m thinking I may follow in my brother’s footsteps and reach 100 – and, as long as I’m fully aware when I do, I will be very happy.”
Close family ties are also treasured. There is no old people’s home in the region and the nearest hospital nearly 30 miles away.
Professor Alan Maisel will lead the US-Italian research team arriving next month. They will analyse blood samples and test locals for their resilience to heart disease , dementia, kidney disease and cancer.
He said: “There may be a secret that we can unlock in this population.”
Village mayor Stefano Pisani agreed. “We are very excited about this research,” he said. “It is important for us to share the secrets of our longevity with the world.”
Local doctor Giuseppe Scarano believes it is simply a matter of good genes, passed on down the centuries.
We were offered a tour of the area by Valentina Marano, who is a mere 70 – a youngster around here – and still works in local government.
As she waves us goodbye, she uses a local saying, “siamo un po fuori del mondo”. It means villagers are “a little removed from the world”.
Maybe that is the secret.
Source: Mirror UK/Sunday People