The Fulfillment of a Dream

by Marcia D. Iannizzi Melnyk

  © 2000 Marcia Iannizzi Melnyk



View approaching Grotteria, Reggio Calabria

photo © 2002 S. F. Allosso 

    This past November, my husband, Jim, and I realized our dream of visiting the Italian villages of our grandparents. Our heritage, while both ½ Italian, is very different. His ancestors emigrated from Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy, while mine were from Avellino and Calabria. Planning a trip that would encompass both of these very diverse areas would be a challenge. 

    Believe it or not, we did not even begin our planning until after October 1st . Until that time we did not think we could accomplish this dream in 1999. When we realized that we could get free first-class airline tickets (thanks to nearly 20 years of business traveling by my husband) we began to think we might be able to do it. We had two daughters in college that year, but it was also our 25th anniversary in September, and what better gift could we give each other than a trip to our ancestral land.

    Thanks to a great travel agent we were able to get all the arrangements made and we were off on our adventure on November 21, 1999. Our children would have to fend for themselves for Thanksgiving this year!    

    We decided to limit the number of hotels we would stay in. My idea of a vacation is not packing every few days and changing hotels but staying in one place for a while. Even though my husband was used to the “musical hotel” routine, he conceded that a vacation should be more relaxed.

    Our first problem was the lack of hotel listings in southern Italy. In spite of purchasing two different Italian guidebooks, and with the resources of the travel agent, we were unable to locate a hotel in Basilicata, our first choice for our southern excursions. We settled on a hotel in Cosenza, a town we knew little about. Upon our arrival we were surprised to find a bustling city with narrow, winding, one-way streets. The Royal Hotel was small, only 50 rooms, but had very elegant facilities and a wonderful staff. The language barrier presented little problem, although only one hotel staff member was fluent in English we never went hungry and received everything we needed.

    After a very good nights rest we ventured out into the country-side to locate my grandmother’s village of Torrioni, a small hill-town between Benevento and Avellino. We had obtained very detailed maps before leaving the US, and it seemed that the village would be easy to find. The main problem we ran into was that many roads were not on the map, had no road signs, and just because you can see a village in the hills, doesn’t mean you can find it. After several “wrong turns”, one of which led us to a very picturesque village of Santa Paolina, we managed to locate Torrioni. The village roads were so steep and winding, our little car complained quite often about our persistent efforts to climb to the top. This village increases elevation from one side to the other by 1000 feet! My grandmother’s family must have had a very healthy donkey to get around!

    The village was a lovely, quaint village with only about 500 inhabitants. None seemed to be home the day we visited. For the first hour we saw no one at all. No signs of life anywhere until a school bus arrived in the main square. This bus was no more than a van painted yellow and only about 10 children disembarked. Then the village came to life. We walked around, taking in the spectacular views – you could see for miles from that high up! Most of the homes were of the terra cotta stucco color with tiled roofs. They were very plain, with the only ornamentation being on the doorways. This was my first introduction to the wonderful doorways and archways of Italy. 

    We meandered up and down the hills, cameras slung over our shoulders. Strangers are very noticeable in these little towns, and suddenly everyone was sweeping their front stoop. The residents were subtle, quiet, and very shy about making eye contact with us. After taking many pictures we ventured off to find the cemetery and then the nearby village of Petruro Irpina, another hill-town with spectacular views of the entire valley. 

    We headed back to Cosenza, and a hot meal, excited at all that we had seen. The next day we drove to Calabria and the village of Mammola. We discovered another village clinging to the hillside, much larger than Torrioni, but just as quaint. We spent an hour or so meandering the narrow streets and alleys, enjoying the wonderful doorways and flowers that were everywhere. The sky looked a bit threatening, so we began our descent toward our car. We had looked inside the church in the main square, hoping to take some pictures, but encountering a casket just sitting in the main aisle and one lone woman, dressed all in black, inhabited one pew. We decided to return later. As we descended the hill, hopping up on the curb every time a car passed, it began to rain. As I stood on the curb, hugging the wall I noticed an older woman standing in a doorway across the narrow street. She motioned for us to come over so we did. She began talking at a pace that neither Jim nor I could follow with our limited Italian. I told her, in Italian, that we spoke very little of her language and she asked me what my surname was. When I said “Iannizzi” her face lit up. She grabbed my hand and took it in her own, patting it lovingly. There were tears in her eyes and she was again talking too fast to comprehend.. I managed to tell her that my grandfather was born in Grotteria, but lived in Mammola most of his life. She gave me a kiss on the cheek and excitedly started talking to someone inside the house. 

    The sky was now VERY black and we picked up our pace. We did not, however, make it to the car before the skies opened up – not with rain, but with pea-size hail! The only open doorway in our path was the church, so in we ducked only to encounter a full church of mourners, all looking at us. We could not go back outside in the hail, could not go inside the church so we tried to become transparent and remained as quiet and inconspicuous as possible. There we remained for about 10 minutes, when the hail stopped as suddenly as it began. We proceeded to our car and headed for the cemetery. From the cemetery, looking back across the little valley toward the town, we viewed the most beautiful rainbow I have seen in years. It was a picture perfect setting to end a very exciting day of adventures. 

    We would have to return to Mammola another day to visit the Stato Civile, which is only open in the mornings, to obtain birth records. We proceeded on to Grotteria, a village on the other side of the mountain. Had I known that we would have to ask the car to climb hills with roads so narrow that two cars cannot pass each other, with no guardrails and crumbling pavement I might have thought twice. But ignorance is bliss, at least in this case. I had no interest in driving in Italy, but being a passenger isn’t always relaxing either! 

    We approached a sign indicating that we were in Grotteria, but could see no town in front of us. We continued on the winding road and suddenly the town appeared. What a sight! Layer upon layer of houses clinging to the mountainside, appearing to be stacked one upon the other all the way up the hill. It was breathtaking to say the least. From our vantage point there did not appear to be any roads in the village, but of course that was not the case. A maze of roads wound up, down, and around the village, seemingly taking us in circles. The only indication that we were making progress was the altitude that we were attaining. We were now looking down on the village rather than up at it, and what a view! 

    As we stood in the upper churchyard, looking over the seemingly abandoned village, the only sound we could hear was a flute. Someone was playing Christmas carols on one of the balconies below. It was as if the angels were playing for us. We stayed there, not moving, until the music stopped, thrilled at our good luck. 

Sicily,Calabaria 190

    We located the Municipio so we could return the next day and obtain my grandfather’s birth certificate and proceeded further up the mountain. There appeared to be some ruins on the highest point, where no road went, so we decided to investigate. We found a place to park the car below a set of ancient steps that seemed to climb the hill. We proceeded cautiously and after 15 minutes had arrived at the top. What a sight! Ancient ruins, a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the village below. You could see all the way into the valley on both sides of the mountain and all the way to the ocean ahead. No wonder they built the castle up here. 

    The downward climb was a little more difficult as the grass was wet and the stairs were not as apparent as they were on our ascent. We were tired, cold and excited by our day’s discoveries and headed back to Cosenza (and a hot shower). 

    We returned the next day to accomplish our research and obtain the birth certificates in both Mammola and Grotteria. We found that in both Municipio’s no one spoke any English. Using my Italian research book, I wrote out, in Italian, what I was looking for. The clerk understood, left the counter and returned with a filled in certificate and a big smile. We asked what the cost was and they answered by waving us off. This happened in both Municipios that we visited. The staff seemed thrilled to help us, and would not accept payment for our certificates. 

    After four days in Cosenza, and daily field trips to the villages we departed for Perugia, the town where my grandfather served in the military in 1898. The hotel in Cosenza had arranged for a hotel for us, since this was not in our original plans, and we were very surprised to learn that the hotel manager had told the Perugian hotel that it was our 25th anniversary. When we arrived we were escorted to the honeymoon suite. It was a large, beautiful room with 18 foot ceilings, a leather sofa, beautiful paintings and antiques all around. A little hall ran down to the bathroom, painted with arches and ivy the entire length. What a delightful surprise. 

    We decided to venture out to the Perugia center, which was right outside the hotel’s front door. It was all lit up and so romantic. People were strolling arm in arm, along the Piazza and the night was crisp and starry. We found a small restaurant, in the cellar of one of the ancient buildings, and had a spectacular meal. Today was Thanksgiving, and we enjoyed it Italian style with Tagliatelli Bolognese, Crème Caramel, and a bottle of wine. 

    The following day we toured the walled city of Perugia, enjoying the narrow, arched alleys, museums, fountains, and shops. We retrieved our car and luggage and were on our way to Bologna. 

    We actually stayed in a city outside of Bologna, called Imola. My husband, being a car and avid motorcycle-racing fan, knew that one of Italy’s largest racetracks was nearby. The hotel reflected the racing theme with paintings of antique cars on the walls, tables in the bar made out of engine parts, etc. The staff was welcoming and spoke fluent English. 

    From this home base, where we stayed for the next ten nights, we ventured out to Bologna, San Giovanni in Persiceto, and Cento, the towns of Jim’s ancestors. They were very different from the villages of the south. The entire area is very flat, with houses and trees placed in a very formal way. All of the trees were lined up in nice neat rows, everything was adorned with arches, and there were great expanses of open land around the houses, something we never saw in the south. 

    We first visited San Giovanni in Persiceto and located the Municipio and the Stato Civile offices. We were greeted by Allesandra, who spoke English very well. She escorted us into her office and looked at my prepared pedigree charts, and determined what records we wanted. She asked to make copies of all of my forms for their records and asked us to return on Friday to pick up the prepared documents. We left and moved on to the town of Cento, and adjoining town but over the line into the Ferrara Province. We received the same reception at the Municipio but were asked to pay for the documents and they would be mailed to us. We left and began the sightseeing phase of the trip. 

    The town square, or main piazza, is a busy, bustling place in the afternoon. Many older men on bicycles congregate in the piazza, and animated conversations are taking place everywhere. There must be 50 or 60 people, all talking at once, hands waving, voices raised in a chorus of heated Italian. We stayed and just watched for quite a while before moving on. 

    We meandered the streets, visited the churches, cemeteries, and back roads of several neighboring villages over the next couple of days. It is a good thing that my husband has an incredible sense of direction and is fearless when driving in foreign countries or we surely would have become hopelessly lost. He always managed to get us where we wanted to go and back to the hotel every night. 

    Friday seemed a long way off, but we occupied ourselves with a visit to Bologna, Florence, Lucca and Pisa. The walled city of Lucca was a pleasant surprise. I had often heard Jonathan Galli, our IGSA founder, talk of his ancestral city, but never imagined I would visit it. We spent a lovely day exploring the many sights of Lucca and then approached Pisa just before sunset. We watched the sun set on the Duomo and enjoyed a fabulous dinner within sight of the tower. Florence was so incredible we decided to go back a second day and forego a visit to Venice until our next trip. 

    In Florence we had dinner at a lovely little restaurant overlooking the Piazza, within sight of Michelangelo’s statue of David. A group of college students, obviously American, were seated at the next two tables. We struck up a conversation with them and discovered that one of the men was a friend of my older daughter’s college roommate. What a small world! 

    Our second day in Florence we decided to climb the 463 stairs to the top of the famous Brunelleschi dome atop the Duomo. When we finally made it to the top we found ourselves outside and on top of the dome overlooking the entire city of Florence. Breathtaking views in every direction - and the sun was just beginning to set. We sat and enjoyed the view, and the rest, for quite a while before proceeding down the 463 steps. Part way down we found ourselves on a catwalk that was on the inside of the dome looking down into the church. We were so close to the frescos painted inside the dome you could almost touch them. We could see all the intricate mosaic floors from that height and it was completely silent within the Duomo. 

    We returned to San Giovanni in Persiceto on Friday to collect our certificates. We were greeted by Allesandra, who also introduced us to Mr. Fava, the Provincial Historian, who wanted to meet us. We had an extensive conversation about emigration from northern Italy before 1900 with Mr. Fava providing us with several graphs showing where the Persicetians emigrated to, how many were living abroad, and in what countries, as of 1999 and another showing how many of the 1870-1970 emigrants returned to San Giovanni. Allesandra then gave us not only the documents we had requested, but copies of the family pages from the Anagrafe Office, showing all members of the family (four generation to be exact) and stamped every year listing the address at which the family lived. This was more than we had ever hoped for. After explaining the documents, she asked us if we would provide information about the families after they emigrated to the US, and handed us all of the copies and typed documents. She then asked if we would have time to meet with the Sindaco (Mayor), as she wanted to meet us. 

    We were escorted to the Sindaco’s office and introduced to Paola Mirani, the current Mayor of San Giovanni. She asked many questions about how many Americans were interested in their Italian ancestry and was excited to learn that there was an Italian-American genealogical society. We were invited back, next year, for a town holiday and reunion of all of the families who had relatives who immigrated to the US. I was given an email address and we will exchange information regarding the families that settled in New England so that I can look at our records to determine what became of them. 

    Now we were approaching our last weekend in Italy and decided to investigate the city of Imola. We found a castle, a ceramics museum, and wonderful restaurants to enjoy. 

    We will definitely be returning to Italy, again and again I’m sure. When the Church Vicar handed my husband the baptismal record for his great great grandmother (from 1851) I knew I had hooked him on genealogy, as he said “Now I know why you do this.” 

    We boarded our plane in Milan on Monday afternoon, December 6th for our return to the United States with many wonderful memories, new friends, and adventures to look forward to.

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