Ferragosto, two years ago today…

Two years ago today we joined the crowds in my ancestral village of Scigliano, Calabria to watch the procession. Many great memories of our visit!



Where are you from?

Italians have a long and strong memory of place. My family’s ancestral village is Scigliano, but my great-grandmother left there about 115 years ago. Only a handful of her hundreds of descendants have ever been there, and to my knowledge she never returned.

Malito, with the Sila rising in the background.

Malito, with the Sila rising in the background.

When we visited in August 2013, we found a vacation rental house in another small town about 30 minutes away, the town of Malito, across the Savuto valley, and across the A3 motorway. In Malito we wandered around the town, shopped in the local market, and had some beers in the bar to cool off.

The people were very friendly, always wondering why strangers have chosen to stay in their town, and we told them our ancestors came from Scigliano. Since we couldn’t find a place to stay in Scigliano, we stayed in Malito, and we would go to Scigliano to see our distant cousins there.

Several times, after explaining this, I heard the same comments among them in Italian: “Oh, they aren’t from Malito. They are from Scigliano.” Still friendly, but I could almost see their interest wane as they nodded knowingly to one another. They’re strangers, not our own people.

I translated for my husband and brother, and we thought it was funny that they considered us to be “from” Scigliano–a description I would apply to someone who had at some time actually lived there, but not someone three generations removed from that experience.

John, a native born man from Malito who moved to Canada with his family at 14, heard us speaking English as we walked around Malito and invited us in for a drink. John spends a few months every year, now that he’s retired, in a house inherited from his parents. His wife doesn’t come with him. She’s from Marzi, he explained. She doesn’t like to come and stay in Malito. Marzi is another small town across the motorway–about 25 minutes by car from Malito.

On our visits to Scigliano, when we explain our local heritage, we have been welcomed warmly by pretty much everyone, whether related to us or not. They also think of us as being “from” Scigliano. Their bright-eyed curiosity kindles, and they have more questions. It’s a very warm and embracing experience, the kind I wish for every visitor to an ancestral place.

Digging at the roots in Calabria

Vern (with hat), Glenn, and I exploring Calabria.

Vern (with hat), Glenn, and I exploring Calabria.

After a week in Venice in August, we headed to Calabria for the week of Ferragosto and a visit to my ancestral village, Scigliano. For the first time, my brother, Glenn, traveled to Calabria, and we shared a rented house about a thirty minute drive from Scigliano, along with my niece Sasha and her college friend Anna.

In a way, our Ferragosto week was like that of many Italian families, getting together with family members we don’t often see, and spending some family and recreational time together catching up. Funny that Glenn and I traveled to Italy for that experience, when we live only a couple of hours from one another in the U.S.

And one of our goals for family time was to explore the Italian root-ball of our past. It often seems like a big messy root-ball doing the research, but it is lots of fun to be there in person.

Our Italian cousins: Anna Maria, Francesco, and their father Ottavio.

Our Italian cousins: Anna Maria, Francesco, and their father Ottavio.

Our Italian cousin, Anna Maria, never explained to us how our family trees connect in the past. On this visit I met her father for the first time, and he set out some of his family tree for me, finally showing me where the Gualtieri line intersects. Ottavio is 94, and still lives in the house his mother bought in the frazione of Lupia. She built an oven and ran a bakery from that house, and the oven is still there today.

The old bread oven built by Ottavio's mother many years ago.

The old bread oven built by Ottavio’s mother many years ago.

Now Anna Maria owns the house. Ottavio is a retired policeman, and he understands a bit of English, but doesn’t speak it much, though his children are fluent. Anna Maria’s brother Francesco was in town for Ferragosto too, and we had some great talks with him, ranging from archeology (his post-retirement career) to health care in America and Europe.

A section of the cemetery in Scigliano--typical with its many above-ground vaults.

A section of the cemetery in Scigliano–typical with its many above-ground vaults.

We explored the Scigliano cemetery, and took lots of photos to compare with family records. So many Gualtieris!! And since I recently discovered several other surnames in the family, I took photos of those, too. Genealogy is a hobby that is never “finished” because there are always additional lines to follow. I’ll share more of our fun week in Scigliano in future posts.

One of the Gualtieri family vaults in the Scigliano cemetery--but whether it's 'our' Gualtieri people, I don't know!

One of the Gualtieri family vaults in the Scigliano cemetery–but whether it’s ‘our’ Gualtieri people, I don’t know!

August vacation in Italy

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I’ve heard lots of advice about avoiding the August heat and August holiday, Ferragosto, celebrated on August 15, was established by the Roman emperor, Augustus, in 18 BC (according to Wikipedia). The date also marks the Roman Catholic celebration of the Assumption of Mary, widely marked with religious processions in Italy.

The August heat is just too much for me, reason enough to find a cooler month to visit. But why avoid the holiday celebrations? Here are a few visual aids:

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Yes–many businesses are closed for the full week, and often longer, even up to a month. All these signs were along one street in Caserta, where we stopped on our way to Calabria.

In August, families gather, those who have moved away come back to visit in their hometowns. Big family dinners are held, and even those who don’t celebrate the religious holiday take pretty seriously the Latin origin of Ferragosto, a phrase that mean’s “Augustus’ rest”. It’s the Italians’ time to take a break.

So what did five Americans do in Calabria for Ferragosto? We joined a lot of Italians at the beach at Squillace Lido for the day, rented a couple of umbrellas and five chairs for a few hours. By three in the afternoon we were in Soverato having lunch at a seafood place near the beach. They served a special Ferragosto menu, four courses at a set price of 18 Euros per person. Salad of octopus with potatoes, tomatoes, parsley, lots of olive oil. Then mixed seafood lasagna. Then a big swordfish steak (again, heavy on the olive oil). And for dessert, watermelon slices.

By 6PM we were in our ancestral village to see the religious procession with our distant cousin. This was very interesting, and far outside my own Christian tradition. Following a service in the church, the statue of Mary, with a couple of cherubs hanging on, was carried on a circuit through town and back to the church. We visited afterwards with my cousin’s family.

Outside the church, as we waited for the statue to be carried out, my cousin greeted nearly everyone who came by–people she has known most of her life, even though she grew up in Rome and lives in Denmark most of the time now. Scigliano is her home town, and she returns every August, reconnecting with aunts and uncles, cousins and schoolmates, and reconnecting with the church and the meaning it brings to her life.

There are plenty of tourists in Italy in August, non-Italians playing at the beaches, lakes, and in the mountains. But it is clearly an essential Italian family time. As we watched the Virgin carried aloft through the streets, I wondered if my great-grandmother Giusseppina watched the same thing when she was a girl, 125 year ago. I wonder how she felt on the first August she spent in America, far from her village and if she felt keenly the cutting of those family ties–the ties I am trying to rediscover with my cousins in Italy.

Italian shoes: Legacy of my ancestors

Designer shoes from Taormina.

Designer shoes from Taormina.

I hired Roots in the Boot to research my family roots in Scigliano (Calabria), and learned that I come from a long line of shoemakers!! Every Gualtieri ancestor of my great-grandmother, Josephine, was a shoemaker–back as far as Pasquale Gualtieri, born about 1725.

Could my great-great grandfather's shoe shop have looked like this one, from Wikimedia Commons?

Could my great-great grandfather’s shoe shop have looked like this Sicilian one? Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I would love to see a pair of their shoes, and I wonder what their shoemaking shop looked like. As I roam around Scigliano later this summer, I will be looking for shoe shops, and hope my Italian cousins there can tell me more about our shoe-making ancestors.

Several of the women in the family were cotton or silk spinners. I imagine this as “cottage” employment rather than work outside the home, but honestly, I don’t know. The villages that make up Scigliano are fairly small, but I don’t know much in detail about their history. Could there have been a weaving business there, turning their silk into luxurious velvets and brocades?

Could it be that at some point they combined their efforts, and made shoes like these?

Woman's silk brocade shoes, 1770s, probably Italian. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Woman’s silk brocade shoes, 1770s, probably Italian. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Do you know the occupation of your Italian ancestors?

The Baroness will see you now: Family history

Just looking at this Italian birth record should convince you to hire a professional for Italian genealogy! Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Just looking at this Italian birth record should convince you to hire a professional for Italian genealogy! Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I’m getting revved up for my trip to Italy in a few months, and one of my preparations this time will be to have some genealogical research done for me before I get there. My Italian language skills aren’t adequate to do it myself, and my knowledge of the systems of records in Italy is even worse. Some relatives are pooling resources with me to hire the help, and I’ll share the results when I get home.

I was preparing for an earlier trip to Italy when Anna Maria responded to a post I made online, seeking my Italian relatives. She is one!

The last time I saw cousin Anna Maria (right) was 2009. I'm looking forward to seeing her again this summer!

The last time I saw cousin Anna Maria (right) was 2009. I’m looking forward to seeing her again this summer!

We met in person in Italy, and she came to my home a few years later, but I have not been able to document our family relationship. For now, we are just “cugini”, cousins. One of my goals is to discover the family lines that connect us. This year, I’m looking forward to spending Ferragosto, that ancient Italian holiday, with Anna Maria and other family members in our ancestral village.

We have learned a few things about our Italian roots as my sister and I have researched over the years. Some are in the category of family legends.

1.  Josephine Gualtieri was an old maid at 21 when she determined she would marry any man who asked her. The man who asked was Francesco Arcuri,

Josephine and Francesco, about 1910 in New York

Josephine and Francesco, about 1910 in New York

a man already 50 years old, and three years older than Josephine’s father. We learned that Josephine’s mother had died and her father remarried. Did she not get along with her stepmother? What other factors shaped her life?

2.  There is a Palazzo Gualtieri in Josephine’s home town, which (we were told) was gambled away by an ancestor. While “Palace” is somewhat of an overstatement in describing the derelict building, I’d be interested to learn more of that story!

My mom, Win Perman, at the door to the Palazzo Gualtieri in Scigliano.

My mom, Win Perman, at the door to the Palazzo Gualtieri in Scigliano.

3.  Raffaele of the B&B Calabria in Scigliano gave me a book about the history of Scigliano–in Italian, of course! However, I have been able to determine that at one time there was a “Baron Gualtieri” in Scigliano. I’d really love to know who he was and how he might be connected to my family line. And can I now start calling myself a Baroness? Please??

Planning for (not just dreaming of) a visit to Italy. Please help!

DFRINLPLUAEUKpassportstampsI’m one of those travelers who likes to imagine traveling footloose, but really wants the security of reservations and an itinerary. Hubby is happy to let me make the plans without too much of his opinion, and fortunately our likes are alike enough for that. But I’m a bit overwhelmed with planning this trip–we have a lot going on the home front, soooo…

My readers, can you help me? We will be spending two weeks in Italy this August, with the first six days committed to Venice and surroundings. We will then fly to Rome or Naples, and rent a car. Any suggestions about car rental? We are hoping my brother will join us about this point, so need a car that will suit three adults with light to moderate luggage. And I’m not familiar with the European car types being offered for rent. Lancia? Fiat? Would it be easy to find diesel if we rented a Mercedes?

We will drive to Caserta to spend that night, and plan to visit the palace the next morning. Any recommendations for hotel or palace visit?Calabria-Gonfalone

After seeing the palace (is three hours enough time to allow?) we will drive to Cosenza for a night or two. The next morning we’ll look around Cosenza and the area. Is there a good hotel with car parking? And what sightseeing do you recommend in the area? Maybe we should just go to the beach! (But more of that later.)

We’re planning to spend August 13-16 in my ancestral village, Scigliano, so will celebrate Ferragosto there–hopefully with my Italian cugini. What kind of celebration might we expect for Ferragosto?

Map_of_region_of_Calabria,_Italy,_with_provinces-it.svgFor the next three days we will be “touring the toe”. If you had three days there, how would you spend it? I’d love to hear about your favorite beach, favorite museum, favorite castle–and not just tourist experiences. Is there a great place to hear  Calabrian music? Farm visits? Hiking? I doubt we will stay in a beachfront hotel–but who knows? We’d like to have a look at both coasts of the toe.

On August 19 we’ll turn in our car and fly out of Lamezia Terme to London, so will want to spend the night of the 18th close to there. Recommendations?

I am so looking forward to your suggestions. And hope you are looking forward to coming along via the blog later in the year.

*All images on this post are from Wikimedia Commons.

A walk in the woods, near Scigliano, Calabria

We walked east on Via Roma toward the hairpin turn that leads to the Roman bridge, and at the turn, headed up the rough track that leads to the Church of the Madonna delle Timpe. Beyond the church, the track narrows to a footpath, and hopscotches a stream humming down the valley. Walk along with me…

All this beauty on a warm fall afternoon! Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path and enjoy a walk in the woods in Italy.

Travels in Calabria: My top picks

History figures large in my travels, so you won’t be surprised that my top tourist picks are mostly historical–and pretty famous!

#1: The Riace Bronzes: Two 2,500 year old classical Greek statues, found by a scuba diver off the coast near Riace in 1972, and now housed in the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia in Reggo Calabria. The full collection on the Magna Grecia occupies two floors of the museum.

#2: The Roman bridge at Scigliano: Part of the ancient Via Popilia, the Roman road from Capua to Reggio Calabria, during the Punic Wars Hannibal is said to have crossed this bridge with his armies. Not sure if that included the elephants, which Hannibal brought up through Iberia and across the Alps. The bridge is a wonderful Roman era structure. Bed and Breakfast Calabria in Scigliano is a great place to stay nearby, and I found this photo on their website.

#3: The Cattolica di Stilo: Built in the 9th century, this church is considered one of the most important Byzantine structures, and is a national monument. I love to visit churches. Along with the frescoes and Christian interior, there are Arabic inscriptions in the church–the thought of it sends my mind spinning into all kinds of historical speculations!

#4: Le Castella: I couldn’t go to Italy without visiting a castle, and the history of this one is fascinating. And the Ionian beaches couldn’t be closer! I found this interior cutaway describing life in the castle–in Italian, but it gives some good additional detail.

#5: Down time at some hot springs! There are several thermal bath options, and after visiting one in Tuscany a few years ago, I am eager to try one in Calabria. This or this should do–and then a couple of days at the beach in Tropea!