The comforting early morning warmth greeted me as I left St. Anthony Guesthouse where I roomed during my stay in Assisi. The Sisters of Atonement, an American Franciscan order, had prepared some fruit to take along on my travel south. When I booked (in Italian) I thought I was dealing with an Italian run convent. It would have been nice to compare with the convent I initially stayed had in my village. Nevertheless, it was a great place. The rooms followed the simplicity of St. Francis yet were comfortable and clean.
With a last glance at Assisi I made my way to the secondary highway direction Caposele, province of Avellino, Campania region. My first road stop for lunch, off the highway, quickly revealed that my pocket-book wouldn’t suffer. Prices were considerably lower than in the Umbria region I had left. I was
surrounded by breathtaking scenery, lush mountain ranges whose green hues would deepen or become resplendent by the sun depending on the time of day. At one point I noticed a large Basilica, with what looked like a convent complex, right in the middle of the valley (see close-up below). Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to take a side trip to explore further.
Nearing my destination, I navigated narrow mountainous roads in various states of disrepair. Main cities were still indicated but unless one knew all the numerous surrounding villages, one didn’t have a clue which way to go (you’re right, I don’t have GPS, preferring the old-fashioned way). I had to stop quite a few times and ask for directions and people did their best to be helpful. Still, a few rabbit trails later, and with no idea whether I was getting closer to my goal, I saw a woman at the side of the road; it looked like she was finishing up work on her. When she heard where I was heading, she said to follow her. She was heading home to a small town about 30 Kms from Caposele. I was glad for her offer, there was no way I would have found it on my own. Duly honking at every curve, we travelled at 40 kilometers/hour The road was so narrow to allow for 1 1/2 cars. With no visibility when nearing a curve it was prudent to let any oncoming speed demon know we shared the road. Around 4: pm I arrived at Casa di Mimma, the B & B where I would be spending a week.
Mimma welcomed me warmly and showed me the attic room I’d be using. The bathroom was shared but to accommodate me she said she wasn’t going to rent out the room across the hall, so that I could have my own private space, which was really nice of her. She also made the internet connection available and told me I could make use of the kitchen. The entire week brought delightful surprises, and I was soon part of the family. Mimma and I had numerous intensely interesting and lively conversations about life, faith and God. Quite unexpectedly Mimma arranged for a guide to take me through the mountain areas only
known to locals. It was a real treat; the fact that the guide adores trekking in the mountain made his fee super light on the purse… it basically covered the cost of petrol; tales and anecdotes included. He said he’d be very happy to show any of my family and friends around.
I left early for dinner in the village nearby, I decided to study the lay of the land in order not to waste time the next day. The B & B is located near Materdomini, about 5 Kms outside town, technically in the communal district of Caposele, Mater Domini is latin for Mother of God. Interesting name for a village. Initially the name had been given to a small chapel in the 1500s as dedication to Mary. Brother Gerardo Majella was buried there at the age of 29. He was canonized in 1904, after which a large Basilica was built in honor of this Saint. The Basilica is considered the most important pilgrim stop in the Campania region. Majella had performed numerous miracles, such as multiplying bread among the poor farmers and blessing their small harvest, which would then last until the next harvest.
Materdomini was abuzz with people, mostly pilgrims. I scoped out the place and asked around for a good restaurant. Because of the many visitors, Materdomini doesn’t lack restaurants and hotels. I settled on Il Spigolo and was not disappointed. There was a bit of a wait but well worth it considering a delicious three-course meal with wine, all for less than $20. The portions were generous and I was thrown back to my parental home. The aromas wafting from the kitchen made me think of my Mom’s superb cuisine. Ah, I was home, at least where food was concerned… I made it my home away from home a few times that week but honestly, even in the smallest village off the beaten track, you’d be hard pressed to find food that isn’t succulent. Truly.
Morning called me with the fragrance of fresh-baked pastry and espresso coffee. The breakfast table was beautifully laid out with tasteful decorations and lots of homemade jams: fig, peach, cherry, berry as well golden honey from their own bees. Milk, fresh from the cow, was being boiled for those who wished cappuccino or a latte. Although I couldn’t partake of the pastry, I let my eyes feast and inhaled deeply of all the wonderful aromas.
On the second day I headed down to Caposele’s town hall to find out about my mom. I could feel my heart slowly pounding and was surprised at the emotions that roiled within. The old books were opened and the data were there plain to see in old-fashioned script. Now I had an additional piece of the puzzle as I found out that my maternal grandfather was a sea-captain. The last name had been altered – a double-barreled name was not understood so from Romano Taibbi it became Romano. This was an additional deletion the name suffered from its original triple last name.
Besides revealing my mom’s day of birth, the entry also showed that the official residence was still in Palermo, Sicily. It looked like the family had only passed through Caposele on their way to Genova (Genua) – and I do remember visiting my grandfather when I was maybe 5 years old. There were no documents providing a departure date from the village; the family might have been there a few months or a year before heading north. In a way it was anticlimactic after the build up of emotions I had experienced, and I left with mixed feelings.
The next few days I met with many locals, especially the elderly, to find possible connections to my mom. The name Romano was foreign to the village and its surroundings. During further research I did however ascertain that the name was originally from the Campania-Basilicata region, and In Sicily, prevalent in Palermo and Syracuse. Since the family had still had its legal residence in Sicily it’s now back to the drawing board. I will have to contact both the Palermo and Genua communities to see whether I can discover more details of those elusive roots. It’s a pity considering my aunt – my mom’s sister – had obtained official documents of our ancestry, seals and all, going back a few centuries. At the time she showed these documents I was a seventeen-year old with absolutely no interest in her “boring” stories! Ah, my loss…
Strolling through Caposele, I could see people lining up the streets on chairs and benches watching the world go by, exchanging local gossip, and every move observed and commented on. The tableau could have been of another era; it was as if time hadn’t touched the village. From the stories villagers told me, Caposele used to be a thriving town thanks to its waters. Capo = head (of the water) , Sele = the river that runs through the region. Several waterfalls crash down with great force and provide water to the outlying areas.
Caposele lost many of its artisans and businesses when the water was
diverted in order to reach further parts of both the east and the west coast. Today the Sele delivers water to about 5.1 million people. The Acquadotto Pugliese, channels the water to the Puglia region in the eastern part, up to Brindisi – for a length of about 250 Kms, and to Naples district to the West.
The week spent in the Campania region was marvelous. Endowed with a rich history and still unspoilt nature there was much to admire. Were it not that the south is considered the poor cousin, there would probably be more efforts made to financially support the preservation of the many historic and medieval castles and villages. As it is, with Italy still suffering from the economic crisis, the few renovations funded by the European Union, have come to a complete halt. The picture gallery will give you a taste of what a radius of 50 Kms holds. From a castle belonging to the Maltese Knights and the Marquis of Valva, to ancient abbeys built over Roman foundations, to medieval villages, to a natural sanctuary, I was regaled with remarkable jewels hidden in remote mountainous areas, and vast forests.
Everyday Italians do have a poetic streak. While I was at a beauty salon in Materdomini, I had to smile as one of the patrons stated: “Summer wears me out (due to the work tourists and pilgrims generate) but in winter I don’t do a thing. All I do is lie in the arms of Orpheus and let him take care of me”. I never heard it quite put that way.
Italians’ love affair with food was evident everywhere I went, and they love to eat well! Most restaurant tables hold six to ten people or more for families and extended families. Eating out is quite affordable so it’s no wonder that restaurants do brisk business. First, seconds and thirds are normal and wine as natural as water. Pasta is never served as accompaniment to a meat dish – that would be sacrilege! This is exactly how my mom did it and I thought she was exaggerating when serving three to four-course meals as a daily routine.
It is the flourish with which people eat that one has to admire. How they tuck into their food demonstrates the full relish each bite brings. It’s a ritual all by itself. Plates of salumi and various antipasti with grissini or panini (rolls) are followed by home-made tagliatelle, ravioli or some other specialty of the house, covered in a variety of delectable sauces; seafood, mushrooms, artichokes, and so on. Once thoroughly savored, the main course is served – and don’t think the children aren’t participating in this lengthy ceremony…! I was quite mesmerized by it all. Looking at the intensely focused faces, eating is undeniably a sensual experience and a communal event. It is not something one rushes through. At one point I noticed that there was no background music – no need!; the cacophony of voices and laughter drown out everything else!
I was amused by the surreptitious glances thrown my way – the lone eater – what a strange phenomenon. In a region still quite steeped in traditional views and mores, a single female traveller is out of the ordinary, and for villagers, incomprehensible. Although, a couple who had watched me writing away while waiting for each course, stopped by on their way out. The husband started reciting a poem he composed and the couple related how one grandson started writing at 13 and how he is a poet also. Their short visit was a nice and enchanting interlude in my day.
As to the final results of the quest for my maternal roots, maybe I’ll be able to report back some conclusive facts in the next year. I don’t anticipate locating the origins of the family and the path they took before then. For now I’ll have to be happy with having discovered and visited my mom’s birth place situated in an idyllic natural setting. It was worth the trip.
I returned home visiting the town of Urbino – which requires a post all by itself – skirting the Adriatic coast and then inland via Modena and Verona, where I made a quick stop for a family visit and wound my way home to Baden Württenberg.
Trusting that my Canadian family and friends enjoyed Thanksgiving, I wish all of you a colorful autumn!
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