A DREAM COME TRUE
by Carole Ellis #332
March 28 – April 8, 2000
For the past few years I have been inspired by Jim Forti’s travels to Sicily; which is also the homeland of my grandparents. As he shared his wonderful experience and slides of his trip with our society, I began to dream of going to Sicily and finding my grandparents’ place of birth and to see their culture.
My aunt had been to Sicily once before to her parent’s village. She mentioned she would love to go back to the Old Country "one more time." I was thrilled. I knew she would be the best one to travel with in order to understand the true culture and home life of my grandparents. She had all the family stories, although she often said she didn’t remember anything, and she knew exactly what we needed to do. We decided we would go together.
I began to research package deals, and became very discouraged. The cost, and the timing around my work schedule, seemed to prevent us from making any plans. Over a year had passed and we had no plans in the making. My uncle then took sick and our plan seemed more distant. I continued to talk and dream about going to Sicily but it seemed so far away, almost unreal.
In November 1999, (5 months after my uncle passed away) my aunt called me. She had received the Sons of Italy newsletter and read of a 12-day tour to Sicily that seemed to be "exactly what we were looking for". She felt "the trip would do her good". She asked me to call and get the finer details. The group tour was packed with daily trips covering 80% of Sicily. It seemed too good to be true. I became excited! She became excited! I went into work the next day asking for 9 days off for "a once in a life time opportunity." Within a few days we were mailing in a deposit to join the tour, not expecting much (because of the great deal) but the thrill of going to Sicily.
Now that plans were made to join the group, I anguished over how I could alter the itinerary to squeeze in some genealogy research and visit my grandparents’ birthplaces. Our tour guide didn’t seem to mind if we ventured off on our own, but how would we do it??? I found myself calling Italy and trying to communicate with my less than ten words of Italian. It didn’t work! I finally imposed upon one of my husband’s Italian speaking employees to call Sicily for me and make arrangements for an English-speaking driver to transport us from our hotel to the village of Villarosa for one day and to the Archives.
On March 28th, 2000, aboard Alitalia, we took off from Logan to Catania via Milan at 6:00 pm to see the largest island in the Mediterranean. With much emotion, I said to my aunt "I can’t believe we are on our way to Sicily". She replied, "I won’t believe it until I’m eating a cannolli." Our Italian flight attendants exhilarated us for the culture before us. We savored our first bottle of vino en flight and became familiar with what would be our new family (group of 29) for the next 11 days.
Upon arrival, on March 29th, 2:15 pm, we were met by our guide, Giaccomo Mazza, who remained with us for the entire trip. He was such an outstanding guide and couldn’t do enough to ensure we had a wonderful trip. We boarded our private coach for Taormina Mare where we would spend 4 nights at the Bay Palace Hotel in the mountainside; a new hotel with all the amenities and the Sicilian flair. Our room had a terrace with a panoramic view of the Spisone Bay and of the trains going through the mountains. We felt one step closer to heaven and new our loved ones above made this dream come true for us. We met our next-door neighbors Arthur and Delores Zaniboni, via terrace talk, enjoyed some vino and rested up for our Welcome Dinner tonight.
Our Welcome Dinner was held at Azienda Agricola Il Limoneto, via Madonna, Della Liberta 129 Giarre. It was an authentic Italian restaurant up in the mountain. Most of the group walked up the mountain but Aunt Jane and I opted to travel by car. A small car picked us up and seemed to have an awfully hard time chugging to get back up the mountain. An array of Italian appetizers set the tone. We had Italian entertainment. Aunt Jane was enjoying the Italian love songs she often heard on the victrola as a child. Her Italian was starting to come back. Just as we finished dinner, our guide Giacommo yelled, "Come quick, Mt. Etna is erupting – you see - you are so lucky, this is second time only it happen." We all ran outside and off in a distance we could see Mt. Etna flowing with liquid lava. A wonderful beginning to our first day in Sicily.
March 30th, our first full day in Sicily; we enjoy the hotel’s continental breakfast of salami, mortadella, provolone, Rice Krispies and fruit, with homemade breads and juices. Blood orange juice soon became a new favorite. (This breakfast often stretched to Paninis (sandwiches) for the day.) Today we would have a bus trip to the active volcano Mt. Etna where we would see thousands of acres of lava and enjoy lunch at 8,000 feet with a panoramic view. Photos of the craters, yellow, pink, and black lava, and the snow were a must before we did some shopping. Returning through the winding streets of the mountainside and seeing the vendors selling their wares, fruits and vegetables from their small vehicles was a treat. My aunt had told me that her mother told her she would lower a basket from her second floor by rope to the vendor in the street. The vendor would put her produce in the basket and raise it back up to her. Once back at the hotel we managed to run up to Taormina Square, to enjoy the beautiful high-end shops, sample the local cannoli, and view the Greek Amphi Theatre ruins and also its use for gladiatorial combat in the Roman period.
This evening the group went out to dinner, but Aunt Jane and I wanted to enjoy our hotel. We had dinner in our hotel. I ordered fish and, much to my surprise, received the whole fish; head, tail and bones! Our English-speaking driver Rosario Sanfilippo (Ross) came to our hotel to go over our plan for our trip to my grandparent’s place of birth tomorrow.
March 31st, 6:30 am Ross is on time and we are now on our exciting long journey heading southwest to Enna and Villarosa; about a two hour ride to visit the State Archives, the Town Hall, grandparents church and place of birth. The long ride (mostly on highway) was most enjoyable, viewing the beautiful countryside, mountains and learning the culture with our English-speaking driver. Enna is the poorest province in all of Sicily.
Ross convinced me the town hall would have the same info as the archives, so we bypassed the Archives and went to the town hall. We were too early for the town hall so we then went on to see the church where my grandparents were married. We arrived at Chiesa Madre (mother church) St. Giacome Church. My notes said my grandparents were married in St. Mattricie Church and I was confused. Ross explained that St. Mattricie means mother church and assured me this is the right church. As my aunt and I approached the church, an Italian gentleman walks up from the square and talks to Ross our driver. Filled with excitement my aunt and I enter the very old church of good size with very large front doors. There were many statutes around the inside perimeter of the church. As we were enjoying old history and thinking of our ancestors, the gentlemen that walked up to Ross, now approaches me and says several words in Italian. I understood only "pastore parrocchia". With my limited knowledge of Italian, I thought for a minute and said "You’re the priest of the parish?" He nodded yes and spoke more Italian. I fumbled for some Italian words and managed to come up with nonna and nonno (grandmother & grandfather) matriomonio (married) here in 1907. His next words of Italian, I did not grasp, but his hand gestures to follow him were clear. My aunt and I followed him to the back of the church where he unlocked a door leading to his office. He offered us a seat and unlocked another door to get old records. This was so similar to a story I once heard of of a lucky genealogist describe, I thought I was dreaming. This couldn’t be real I thought. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I gave him the marriage date of November 7, 1907 from my records per my grandmother. As Msgr. Salvatore Stagno paged back and forth looking through his book for their marriage he was shaking is head no. As I became discouraged, he continued to look at other dates and suddenly found they were married on October 31, 1907. The Msgr. Explained to Ross, our interpreter that before 1922 there was no civil ceremony in the church. Banns of marriage were announced three times, then the couple went to the Town Hall and was married by the Mayor. The marriage was then "announced" at Mass. Thus, the marriage was performed at the Town Hall by the Mayor on Oct. 31, 1907 and the marriage was then announced at Mass on Nov. 7, 1907. Msgr. Stagno allowed us to take a picture of the marriage document written in Latin. My aunt gave him an offering to have a mass said for her parents/my grandparents. He was so overjoyed he gave us many coins to light candles under every saint in the church. We were overjoyed to have visited the church of our Sicilian family
We questioned Msgr. Stagno if there were any Puliatti’s (my grandfather’s name) left in the town. He said he knew the whole town, has been in that parish for 16 yrs. and 46 yrs. as a priest and there is no one by that name in Villarosa. We then asked him if there were any DiFalco’s (my grandmother’s maiden name). He said his paternal grandmother was a DiFalco.
We then walked through the piazza (square). There wasn’t much there; but a few stores. It was barren, very old and very poor. Many signores (gentlemen) standing around chatting in the piazza. We went to Gran Caffe’ Centrale where they had a bar (coffee bar) and pasticceria (pastry). We bought two dozen cookies. They were so fresh; right from the oven.
We then went to visit the streets where my grandparents lived. However, the sad part being that we didn’t know the number of the house so we couldn’t tell which house was theirs. (We later found out the house number at the State Archives.) We went to Giannone St. where my grandmother was born and took some pictures. The streets were very narrow, no frontage to the houses which were all made of cement and connected for blocks. The doorways had one or two steps and went right into the street. The second and third stories had small verandas. Next was Vittoria Street where my grandfather was born. The houses were the same. As we were taking pictures, a woman in the street recognized us Americans, waved to us and came running. She was calling "America-America". She spoke Italian to Ross and said she thought and was hoping it was her aunt from America. She has an aunt that lives in CA. She spoke with her hands and described my aunt as having the same sweet face as her aunt and was disappointed. We made the mistake of not spending more time there, taking her picture, and a picture of her home which we believe was in the same area as my grandparents. We think now she would have invited us in but we were unsure of the time frame we needed for the Town Hall and the Archives.
Our next venture was to the Town Hall. We spoke with the Mayor. He explained he was short handed and had a wedding party coming in. He only had records from 1886 and I was looking for records from 1852. We felt very rushed but did observe the wedding party and family there to be married. This was a situation where the marriage could not be performed in the church, now a civil ceremony.
We then ventured on to the State Archives in Enna. They were closed, but graciously let us in, even during their lunch hour. Director Gaetano Callabrese later showed me a letter he received from Jim Forti, mentioning we would be visiting. The staff of four Italian men, attentive to help, spent about 1 ½ hrs. with us. They filled us in on some details that I did not have and found they did not have any records for the dates I was looking for. We left the Archives a little disappointed but was so happy to have visited the church, drive the narrow streets of the village, see children out at school, a wedding in the town hall, the enjoyment of delicious Italian cookies from nana and nonno’s village and just to see the everyday culture (no supermarkets, no malls). I left the Archives a token of thanks and a stamped self- addressed envelope with my ancestor chart. Six weeks later, much to my surprise, I received a wealth of information all typed out on one sheet of paper going back to 1789.
We had some time left before returning to the hotel so we asked Ross to trace down a Puliatti name I knew of in Naxos. As we walked down the street, Ross said that number should be right about where that man is standing. Well indeed it was and it was Mr. Nunzio Puliatti standing in front of his pottery shop. He was 86 years old. Ross explained to him that I was from America looking for Italian ancestors. He said his father and grandfather always talked to him a lot but never mentioned relatives in Villarosa. He suggested we try Messina. We browsed his shop a bit. It was an old, cold cement building. There was an old woman in the back of the shop sitting very close to a pot of hot ashes to keep her warm.
Our day was most gratifying. Aunt Jane and I returned to the hotel to join the group for a pizza party at a restaurant. We did not like the pizza. It was much different than ours. We returned to our room and both agreed that "the first two days have been so wonderful, if the rest was down hill it wouldn’t matter".
April 1st was the day to tour the second largest city - Catania. We walked through the huge open- air markets where the natives go daily for their fresh fish, cold cuts, cheese, fruits and produce. There was such an abundance of fresh fish, squid, shrimp, snails, shark, hanging carcasses, meats, and cheeses. Artichokes, lemons and many more fruits and produce were piled high. It was a definite site to see. We enjoyed eggplant at an outside Café then on to visit to St. Agatha Cathedral, the University, sight of the Bellini Sculptor, the elephant in the piazza made from Mt. Etna lava rock eruption of 1800 and the flea markets for bargains fulfilled Catania.
We then traveled to Piazza Amerina, via Enna to see the Roman Casale built in the 3rd century as a luxurious hunting lodge with magnificent mosaics. Traveling along the mountain sides (Vulguenara), we saw Shepherds and their flock. En route we also saw the sulphur mines near Caltanisetta. Since my grandfather’s occupation was a zolfatoro (sulphur miner), this was quite exciting to see. You could see the holes in the mines where they went in. Giacommo explained they entered upright but hunched over as you worked further in and eventually would be crawling around. The miners used a chisel tool to remove the rock and bring it out and then the sulphur was removed. Many family members also worked outside the mines removing the sulphur. Traveling back along the Ionian Riviera, we saw the "Playa", the "Riviera dei Ciclopi" with its very famous isolated big crags in the middle of the sea.
This evening a friend, Eric Baker, a US Navy helicopter pilot stationed in Sicily, joined our group for dinner at Noemi Restaurant, in Gallodora, at the top of the mountain. The 6000-foot ride up the mountain was indeed scary. An array of appetizers gave us the chance to taste more home- made Italian cooking (with lots of olive oil) along with local vino (no sulphates/no headaches). A night cap at the hotel with Eric followed.
April 2nd we departed for Agrigento passing thousands of acres of orange groves, olive and lemon trees and grape vines. We would see the unbelievable Greek ruins - Valley of the Temples (ancient Greece’s most opulent cities) now with freestanding columns; an old Greek City – 5th century BC it rivaled Athens. It took six generations to build the largest temple. The stone came from a quarry eight miles away. An earthquake destroyed it before it was finished in 250 BC. The temple cannot be rebuilt – too big. The Temple of Hercules dates to 6th century BC and the Temple of Juno dates 450 BC. Overnight tonight at the Hotel Crystal in Trapani, a more modern contemporary hotel on a larger scale than Taormina.
April 3rd we traveled to Trapani to see the salt mines and how sea salt is produced using many windmills in the process to dry the salt while caged on top of the sea. Sea salt, also used as table salt, holds moisture in fish and is not salty. Then on to Marsala at Cantine Montalto for a wine tasting and Italian sing along. This evening we had dinner at a lovely farmhouse. The meal of couscous and crayfish was not a hit.
April 4th was a full day excursion to the island of Favignana. We had to wait on the ferry as a truck carrying olive and palm trees had to load first. Branches of the olive trees were too high and they had to saw branches off in order to load. Fishermen were on the pier sewing their nets, selling octopus or the catch of the day. We saw Frioli Palace, King of the tuna industry, took a bus ride around the island. Only a few shops here. Local natives are very friendly and congenial to Americans.
We then took a hydrofoil to Levanzo Island. Some of us hiked the edge of the mountain and others remained on the dock enjoying the beautiful view and chatting. A storm blew in quickly and Giaccomo spent much time on his cell phone speaking Italian. He was nervous about us being stranded but did not let on. He mentioned once he was stranded with a group, bought 24 toothbrushes and had to find a home to put everyone up. The hydrofoil returned in very choppy waters. It was very difficult to board. The hydrofoil staff was reaching out and grabbing us, lifting us over a 2-3 foot span from the dock. We all embraced for a 45 min. rocky ride back to the mainland.
That evening we taxied to Palermo to purchase a Ducati (motorcycle) shirt for my son – a must! Our Italian driver was eager to accommodate but spoke not a word of English. My aunt’s Italian, somewhat improved since arrival, managed to get us to our destination and back. Back to the Crystal Hotel for a relaxing dinner.
April 5th was our trip to Erice, a quaint ancient village on the top of a mountain with more great views of Trapani and Africa en route. We were literally in the clouds, strolling the medieval cobblestone streets and pausing to visit the bakery of Maria Grammatico, a Sicilian cookbook author. We then had a tour through Segesta and overnight at San Paolo Palace in Palermo.
April 6th was the day to tour Palermo, the capital of Sicily. The Cathedral of Palermo was absolutely magnificent, then on to the Palatine Chapel 1132 – another magnificent work of art, within the Norman Palace and the Monreale Cathedral (largest in Italy). The Monreale is a magnificent Cathedral built in 1174 w/gilded bronze, marble, mosaics, and gold background. It is the most important example of Norman architecture in Sicily. The scenes in the Cathedral illustrate episodes from the Old and New Testament – all so beautiful – never to be seen anywhere. On the return, we stopped at the Crypt of the Capuchin Monastery – consisting of numerous underground tunnels in which over 8,000 cadavers of rich Palermo residents who died between the 17th century and the end of the 19th century are lined, prone, sitting or standing. Some have been mummified, but most are reduced to pure skeletons. 40,000 preserved bodies from 1820-1920.
April 7th was a full day excursion along the coast to Bagheria, Termini Imerese and Cefalu. Cefalu has a scenic fishing harbor and quaint shops. We did not follow the reposa custom (sleeping from 1-4 in the afternoon/ all stores closed). We managed to dodge our shopping around those times. Today we tried some gelato. Farewell dinner tonight at Restaurant Delizie Di Cagliostro in Palermo.
Every night we reminisced of our day – each day being wonderful and fulfilling. We had seen so much; we couldn’t believe it. We were so excited; we worried about being able to fall sleep. The trip was more than we ever expected. We returned home with olive oil, capers, sea salt, recipes, jewelry, gifts, wonderful photographs and other mementos. But, most of all we returned with cherished memories that will last a lifetime.
Needless to say, we have a strong desire to return "one more time".
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