By Karlie Marrazzo
My father and I had been in Italy together for two days so far. It was my fourth trip to Italy, but only his first since my family left Calabria for a better life in Canada 58 years earlier, in 1958. Although I was born in Canada, I always felt a special connection and pull to the land of my ancestors, and pleadingly tried to get my dad to go back to the Old Country with me. He had been adamant about being happy to stay in Canada, seeing no need to visit the country he hadn’t seen in so long, until one day, he changed his mind. Our trip began in the toe of Italy, in the region of Calabria. A dusty and hot land with villages perched atop hills for the people who lived there to better see and attempt to defend themselves from the waves of invaders who came century after century. I was finally showing my dad the places I already loved so much; the place where he came from.
To read the first posts in this series, click here! This trip took place in August and September 2016.
A sweet day awaited us on our third day in Calabria. It was time for a road trip! After having a small breakfast at B&B Paparelle, we strolled over to a fruit stand outside of Cattedrale di S. Maria Assunta, the main cathedral of the city. There we loaded up on freshly picked peaches, plums and pears for the day ahead. I wanted to revisit Paola, a seaside town that I had visited briefly on my first trip to Italy in 2008. My sepia-toned memories recalled the pebbly beach and crystal clear water, and it always stood out in my mind as an idyllic spot. My memories were not wrong and reality was even better.
Paola lies a mere 36km to the west of Cosenza; an easy 45-minute drive. After finding a spot to park on the crowded, narrow streets, we hiked down to the seashore and the beautiful beach. Longer and wider than I remembered, Paola’s beach was dotted with blue and white umbrellas, and a few bronzed sunbathers lounged like cats on the sand. The town rose behind it on the gently sloping hills. I hadn’t brought my bathing suit with me that day as we were going to be in and out of the car all day, a choice I regretted as soon as I saw that transparent blue-green water again. I don’t enjoy swimming as much as I used to when I was a kid, but the temptation to jump in the water fully clothed almost overtook me in that moment. Instead, we waded into the warm water and hung out there for a while, basking in the Mediterranean sun.
Culturally and historically speaking, Paola is an important pilgrimage site, the birthplace of San Francesco di Paola, one of Italy’s most admired saints. Although I have only spent a handful of hours in Paola, its memory has left an impression on me, and I know it is a place that will continue to call me back to further learn and explore.
28km south along the coast lies Amantea, a town I had only heard a little bit about, and that a book told me had the “nicest old town in Calabria.” I had to find out for myself if the rumours were true. We entered Amantea in the modern part of town, which was quite neat and orderly itself. In a scene all too typical of Southern Italy, it was nearly deserted. The scorching midday heat may have had something to do with that. Perched above town is the historic centre, even more deserted than the rest of town and absolutely gorgeous. I could have counted the number of people I saw there on two hands. I hate to compare one spectacular Italian town to another, as I think they’re all special and unique, but Amantea was just as stunning as the tourist magnet Capri, in the Bay of Naples, with none of the crowds. The city of Naples itself is still criminally under-visited, in my opinion, but Capri is easily accessible by boat from the other tourist magnet Sorrento. There is no doubt that proximity to big cities or other tourist attractions and towns plays a part in visits to smaller towns, but it will always continue to astonish me that Calabria, and Southern Italy as a whole, is rich with cultural and natural beauty that goes largely ignored for holidaymakers. It’s bittersweet, as I feel that I have my own little gorgeous slice of the world that not everybody knows about, knowing that increased tourism would bring a huge boost to the economy, but that big tourist numbers bring their own set of problems.
We stopped for lunch at a tiny little place on the main street of Amantea’s centro storico. Outside of the restaurant stood barrels for tables with a few tall stools around each one. We ordered a simple meal of an antipasto plate and bruschetta. I will never forget this meal for as long as I live. The bruschetta consisted of thick slices of a huge tomato with chunks of fresh mozzarella and olives on top, drizzled with olive oil and fresh oregano. The bread was flaky and crisp on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside; the meats and olives on the antipasto plate were so fresh and bursting with pure flavour. I was nearly out of breath by the time I finished eating everything, it was so wildly delicious. Such is the beauty of Italian food – simple, fresh ingredients, straight from the land, lovingly tended and prepared, make the best meals.
Somehow, we still had room for dessert after all of that. Back in the newer part of town, we pulled into a gelato shop where my dad ordered his first ice cream of the trip; his first true Italian gelato! I had one scoop of pistachio, my favourite, and one scoop of chocolate – a truly classic combo. It was so hot outside that our ice cream started melting in our hands before we had a chance to start eating it. My dad was talking about how great and unbelievable things were in Italy; the food, the beauty, the people. How he thought he would be too nervous to talk to anyone, but how that had become his favourite part of the experience.
Full of our favourite Italian foods, we waddled down to Amantea’s beach, another gorgeous Calabrian beach that was just as deserted as the town. The sand was more powdery than that at Paola, and the umbrellas dotting the beach were striped blue and white, yellow and green. We lazed there for a while, miraculously not even having to pay for the lounge chairs and umbrellas we used. It was a perfect way to end a perfect visit to the little town, absorbing the heat, smelling the sea breeze, and hearing the beautiful sounds of Italian being spoken around me. La dolce vita, indeed.
That evening back in Cosenza, we took part in la passeggiata, a classic and important part of the Italian way of life. La passeggiata is simply a leisurely stroll, usually through the main part of town, the central piazza, or down the main promenade. You will often see Italians young and old strolling arm in arm, no faster than a turtle’s pace, meandering through town with smiles on their faces, stopping to chat with old friends or for a cono gelato. Corso Mazzini is the main pedestrian street in the modern part of Cosenza, bustling with people day and night. That evening was pleasant and the weather was calm; people were out in droves. All down the centre of the street are sculptures and artworks by artists local, Italian and international, in an open-air art museum dubbed the Museo all’Aperto Bilotti. Named after art collector and donor Carlo Bilotti, the museum features artworks from artists such as Amedeo Modigliani, Giorgio De Chirico, a notable interpretation of the Riace Bronzes by Sasha Sosno, and perhaps most famously, Salvador Dalí, “Saint George and the Dragon” by Salvador Dalí.
Dinner was at a tiny restaurant we stumbled upon at the mouth of the old town, near the river and the base of a bridge. There were two tables outside, and one of them was occupied by the owner, Mr. Caputo, working on his paperwork. We took a seat at the other small table, and he presented us with the menu of the evening – two items written on a piece of paper. He and my dad got to talking, my dad telling him the story of where we were from of why we were there. We discovered that the elder Mr. Caputo was a schoolteacher in Piane Crati in the 1950s, who likely taught my aunt when she was a young girl. Another beautiful and unexpected moment that makes travelling worth it. We dined on homemade pasta and a delicious antipasto plate before turning in for the night.
Our final day in Cosenza began abruptly at 4am with the loudest clap of thunder I have ever heard. So loud that, in my half-sleep haze, I thought there was an earthquake happening. It felt like the thunder was directly above us, shaking me to the bones, but there was no lightning or rain to accompany it.
After another basic breakfast of fruit, pastries and juice, we left Cosenza for the last time of the trip. Sadness approached as we drove away from Cosenza’s centro storico; I was enjoying so much spending time with my dad there, and spending more time in that part of town than I ever had before. Saudade (a Portuguese expression for a feeling of longing, melancholy, desire, and nostalgia) swept over me before we even left the city limits. The sky was partially cloudy that morning, dark yet high contrast, adding more to the nostalgia I was already feeling for a place I had barely departed. It’s strange to move on from a place that feels so familiar, a place that you have visited enough times to know your way around, have favourite restaurants, but not know enough so that you want to go back again and again, to really get to know the heart and soul of it. To leave a place that feels like home, in a way, and move on to the next town where you are simply another tourist.
Once again, we drove up the mountain to Donnici Superiore to drop off a gift with Frank and Rita. Then, finally, I took my dad back to Piane Crati, the place of his birth, to see if we could find the house where he was born. His cousin back home had also asked us to drop something off with her cousin in Piane Crati. We pulled up to a house that fit the description exactly. A few people were sitting outside, giving us that look that people give when they know you’re not from their parts. A man came up to the car window and we asked for directions, a lady following shortly behind him. Their names were Gina and Frank. Naturally, we got to talking, with them asking us where we were from and who our relatives were. As we talked, we found out they used to live in Sault Ste. Marie, a city in Ontario where plenty of Italians have settled over the years, including most of my Nonna’s side of the family. Once this discovery was made, we got out of the car and accepted their invitation inside. Gina called “the oldest lady in town” to see if she could find out where the old house was, or any other info we might be interested in. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to visit her in person as she was busy that day. I couldn’t help but smile, wondering what the oldest lady in town might be busy with that day. If I know anything about old Italians, she couldn’t have been any younger than 90.
Frank was happy to walk us through town to help us find the house, telling us stories about people in town and life in Italy. He first took us to the Chiesa di Santa Barbara to see Pepino, the caretaker, in the hopes that he could unlock the door and let us see inside. Pepino was a sweet and friendly old man who was in his 70s or 80s. He amazingly remembered everybody that my dad mentioned from my Nonno’s generation; the 1930s, 40s and 50s. He unlocked the door and let us inside the church, which was quite big for such a small town. As my dad, Frank and Pepino talked, I hung back and took everything in visually, in awe that I was standing in the very church where my infant father was baptized. Pepino was so happy that we visited, making us promise that we would say hi to everybody back home. The house that my dad was born and lived in was just down the block and across the street. I don’t know that we can still be 100% certain that it was the right house, but I’ll hold it in my heart to be true. The owners were newer, and the house had been redone inside and out. We didn’t knock on the door that day, content to take a picture outside and with the fact that we were able to track it down. My dad recalled a photo of himself at about three years old, holding a melon and standing in front of a “tall wall.” There was a stone wall about waist height, tall to a child, just down the road. It must have been the same one.
It had already been a full and emotional day, and there was still one more big moment ahead of us. My maternal bisnonno (great-grandfather) had remained in Italy after his children emigrated to Canada, and passed away there in the 1970s. On my two previous trips to Piane Crati, I had searched the cemetery high and low to find his grave, to be able to pay my respects and lay a flower down for him, on behalf of myself and my family. It always drove my crazy, not understanding why I couldn’t find his resting place after looking at every headstone in the modest cemetery. During conversation with Gina, she mentioned that there is also a cemetery for the town of Donnici Superiore, which I found surprising for two reasons; one, it’s much, much smaller than Piane Crati and two, the two towns are less than 5km apart. We found it between the two towns without any problems. It surprised me again in that it was at least four times the size of the Piane Crati graveyard, housing several graves low to the ground, tombs and mausoleums, and the ubiquitous, multi-level concrete graves high above the ground. We scoured each and every nameplate there, a sombre exercise that produced more than a few Marrazzos, alongside other surnames of cousins and family friends. As each minute passed my anxiety built, heart racing, knowing we were only getting closer to the moment when we would find what we were looking for. Deep in my heart, I wanted to be the one to spot it first, but we approached the row at the same time and I didn’t see him first. There he was, at the very top of a column at least 10 feet tall. Tall, rolling ladders were in each row of graves, to allow visitors to leave flowers in small vases attached to the face of each gravestone. My dad wheeled the ladder over to his grandfathers stone, placing a single rose in the vase. We took a moment to pause, reflect, and commune with our ancestors, before saying so long to our ancestral village, hearts full with what we had accomplished on our first trip there together.
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