By Karlie Marrazzo
The day that I had been impatiently waiting for since my first trip to Italy in 2008 had finally arrived; I was taking my dad to Piane Crati, a small town in the hills of Calabria outside of the city of Cosenza. This sleepy town is where my father and his father before him (my Nonno), were born, and which he hadn’t seen since the family left for Canada in 1958. Neighbouring Piane Crati is the even tinier village of Donnici Superiore, where my Nonna hails from. It is likely that I had really been waiting for this trip for my whole life; although I was born in Canada, the passion and soul of Italy has always coursed through my veins, and I’ve always felt a deep-rooted connection to the land of my ancestors.
To read the introductory post to this series, please click here! This trip took place in August and September 2016.
My eyes snapped open at 2 am, a combination of excitement, jet lag and heat waking me from my light slumber. Today was our first full day in Cosenza, in Italy! I opened the window to let any hint of a breeze flow through and cool down my high-ceiling bedroom at the B&B Paparelle. I heard my dad awake in the other room at the same time; nervousness and excitement likely coursing through his veins even more so than in my own. Eventually, we drifted back to sleep, waking up again at 8:45 am and having a slow breakfast of coffee, fruit and packaged pastries.
It was 10:30 am by the time we got into our compact rental car and headed for the hills. As we drove through the old streets of Cosenza, so narrow that you sometimes find yourself involuntarily holding your breath in hopes that you’ll be slim enough to make it through, my dad exclaimed how cool and beautiful everything was, the word “wow” escaping his lips multiple times. To see him be so in awe with his country of birth, after describing my awe to him for years, brought me so much joy, and still does to this day.
Our tiny car wound up the nameless hills of Calabria, leading us closer to our ancestral villages and further back in time. Donnici Superiore is the natural first stopping point on the highway. We pulled over and parked on the lone street in town, which runs north off of the highway, in front of the apartment building of old family friends that I had visited on previous trips. We hadn’t made any plans or contacted anyone ahead of the trip; we were just going to go with the flow. As soon as we stepped out of the car, my dad said ciao to an older gentleman who was standing in front of an apartment building. Holding a small bag in his weathered hands, he introduced himself as Marco. They continued a conversation in Cosentino, the language of Northern Calabria, discussing my family’s history from Piane Crati to Canada. Marco gave each of us a handful of hazelnuts before we parted ways.
On my first trip to Donnici in 2008, I met one of my Nonna’s old commare, Teresa a.k.a. Titina. They grew up in town together and were friends until my Nonna left in the late ‘50s, but had still managed to be in touch. The tiniest and most fiery lady I have ever met, Titina had welcomed me into her home, offering me coffee and food, while in the same breath yelling at me in frustration when I revealed that I didn’t speak Italian (a combination of my beginner Italian skills mixed with my extreme nervousness made it difficult for me to spit the words out on that first visit). That led to her guiding me down the street to Amelia, who had a great command of English and was able to show me around the village. This meant she was able to show me the house my Nonna grew up in, and I was now finally able to show the home to my dad.
The stars aligned for us that day, as a man was standing outside the house as we approached. I had seen him there before but never reached out to talk (due to the aforementioned nervousness). My dad, however, went right up to him and started to chat. His name was Franco, and he had been living in the house since he bought it after my Bisnonno (great-grandfather) died in 1977. It turns out that he was my Bisnonno’s apprentice and worked closely with him roofing, doing masonry and tending to the fields. He quickly invited us in for coffee and juice. I couldn’t believe it – here I was, with my dad, sitting in the house that my Nonna was born in, casually drinking juice at the kitchen table! His wife, Rita, was getting her hair cut and styled in the living room by a young lady around my age. One of the reasons we went to Italy at the end of August was to have our trip coincide with fig season. Figs are my dad’s favourite, and the idea of fresh Italian figs was the icing on the cake for him. Imagine our delight when Franco presented us with a plate of fresh figs, picked right off the tree. The genuine smile of pure joy on his face is something I will not soon forget. The conversation between my dad, Franco and Rita flowed freely over the next hour, my dad getting the sweet opportunity to communicate in his first language, the Cosentino dialect, with someone outside of my immediate family, in the country where he was born. We said our goodbyes, which were really see-you- laters, turned left onto the street and travelled only a few doors down.
I knocked on the front door of Amelia’s house a few times, to no avail. A couple of men across the street looked at us with inquiring eyes, asking “Amelia?”, and when I said sì, they pointed to the side door around the corner. “Uno momento!,” she called out from somewhere inside the house. She opened the door to find visitors she obviously wasn’t expecting. With a look of surprise, she recognized me and welcomed us inside. Her classic 70s orange Mini Minor was parked in the garage; she had just returned from a shopping trip to Cosenza. We settled into her small living room and began to chat as she buzzed around the kitchen, making tea and asking questions. Amelia herself can’t stand much higher than 5 feet tall (but still taller than Titina!), yet shortly after we arrived, another astonishingly tiny lady named Vincenza arrived, plates of food in hand. She insisted we mangiano, and we happily obliged. The pasta dish with potatoes and zucchini in a tomato sauce tasted eerily like my Nonna’s. When I asked Amelia if she were going to have any, she hilariously commented no, her friend’s cooking was too salty. After half an hour of chatting, we made our exit and walked further down the street towards the church and the fields on the edge of town, which held an abundance of grapes, olives, tomatoes and figs.
On our way back out of town, we stopped in to see Franco. I wanted to get a picture of us all together, but he insisted that it not be before he had the chance to change his shirt. He showed us a storage room of sorts on the side of the house, full of veggies, bunches of greens hanging from the ceiling, and jars of sauce. Pointing out a charred wooden beam above the door, he told us the story about a fire that occurred there, killing the donkey that my Bisnonno kept inside.
Four kilometers down the road from Donnici Superiore is Piane Crati, the smallest town in Calabria with a population of about 1400 people. It was in this town that my Nonno, my dad, aunt and uncle were born in, not to mention handfuls of their aunts, uncles and cousins. We took a quick drive through that day, but had grown tired from all of the excitement of the morning and decided to go back later.
Back in Cosenza, we fuelled ourselves with a quick pizza lunch in the modern part of town, followed by a rest at the B&B, before a walk through the Centro Storico (old town). At the end of Corso Telesio is the Piazza XV Marco, notably studded with the beautiful neoclassical Teatro Rendano, the Palazzo della Provincia, and the 16th-century Academia Cosentina, with the Monumento a Telesio proudly at its centre. Directly beside the Piazza lies the Villa Vecchia, Cosenza’s beating green heart. Dating back to the 1600s and originally a garden, the space became a park in the 1800s.
The park features several varieties of towering trees that provide not only shade but a peaceful, serene escape from daily life. The last time I was there in 2011, I stumbled across a rock band playing in the small amphitheatre, food sellers lining the illuminated pathways, and people everywhere enjoying the evening. This time around, the amphitheatre was empty except for the water that flooded it, covering half of its seats.
A 15-minute walk, or 5-minute drive, further up the road is the Castello Normanno-Svevo. The castle was built by the Saracens in the 11th century. Perched atop the Pancrazio hill, it offers a perfect vantage point over Cosenza and has been used over the centuries as a military fortress and royal residence in historical times. On my previous visits to Cosenza, the castle lay half in ruins, open to the public but with not much to see. I always wondered back then if I would ever see it returned to some of its former glory. We soon discovered that the castle was closed on Mondays, but that it had finally been restored! For now, we leisurely strolled back towards the centre of town, stopping only to pull a few fresh figs from a tree.
Dinner that night was at Calabria Bella, a small restaurant nestled in beside the base of the Cattedrale di S. Maria Assunta, the main Catholic cathedral in Cosenza. The antipasto plate we ordered was overflowing with prosciutto crudo, schiacciata picante, n’duja, capicolo, bocconcino, olives, mushrooms, grilled eggplant, polpette, and more. We were craving a pizza but were told the pizza guy was off that night. After settling the bill, we hit the streets in search of a slice. Pizza guys must have Monday nights off, because we were told the pizza guy had the night off at the next place we tried, too. After a full day of exploring and getting in touch with our roots, we let the pizza go for another day and went to bed.
La Sila National Park is the lush, green centre of Calabria, full of sparkling blue lakes, dense forests atop and around mountain ranges, and abundant wildlife. Not only is it a beautiful place to visit in the interior of Southern Italy, but it holds a family connection for me as well. As a teenager and into his early 20s, my Nonno worked at La Sila as a lumberjack, as well as burning the felled logs to turn into briquettes, or carbone. Again, I was excited to show this piece of our family history to my dad, a place that I had been fortunate to first visit in 2008.
The subject of La Sila came up when we were talking to Franco the previous day, and he told us about Camigliatello, a mountain resort town in the park. 20 minutes after leaving Cosenza, we wound around the bends in the highway and met the edge of the forest. Around one of those bends, we were surprised to find a lively farmers market along the side of the road. How could we drive by without stopping? Impossible. The crisp forest air was fragrant with the scent of pine and was still slightly cool. There were about a dozen tables set up, each piled high with a gorgeous variety of bread, meats, cheeses, olives, antipasto, fruits and vegetables and yes, wine. Every vendor was chatty and gregarious, insisting that we sample the best of what they had to offer. Laden with thinly sliced meats, my favourite childhood snack taralli, olives and a sip of wine, I thought this must have been what heaven felt like. If only I lived in Cosenza or a small mountain town, and this could be my weekly grocery shopping stop. As I posed for a picture with my 10 am plastic cup of wine, one of the vendors hung a heavy metal horseshoe with a cornetto (Italian good luck charm) around my neck. I felt he must’ve bestowed a true blessing on me in that beautiful moment.
Half an hour later, we arrived in Camigliatello. A picture-perfect alpine town, it would fit in perfectly in the Canadian Rocky Mountains that I’ve visited so frequently and am so fortunate to live so near to. The main road is dotted with hotels that look like ski chalets from the 1970s, and souvenir shops abound. We popped into a few stores and strolled around, but didn’t stay in town for long. On previous trips to Italy, I had heard rumours and myths about a mountain in La Sila where you can apparently see both the Tyrrhenian and Ioanian coasts from the top, but I had never been able to nail down the name of it or any facts. I managed to find out from a lady at one of the shops that there is a mountain called Monte Botte Donato that might fit the bill. The highest mountain in the La Sila mountain range, she whispered there was even a gondola that could take us to the top, and even a “new road” that would take us there. Perfect! The mystery I had been trying to solve since 2008 was about to be solved! Or so I thought. Nearly an hour later, driving on a windy mountain road that was certainly not “new,” we made it to the top of Monte Botte Donato. On the way there we passed fields full of sublime, skinny cows with bells dangling around their necks, the gentle clanging the only sound carried on the mountain breeze. Of course, it would have made more sense for us to drive to the bottom of the mountain, presumably where the gondola starts.
There were no signs for a gondola anywhere, and when we did eventually find it, it wasn’t running anyways. Alas, the glorious vision of seeing the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas from the top of a mountain escaped me once again (if it’s even possible to begin with). We took a short snack break at Lago Arvo, at the base of the mountain, before returning to Cosenza.
Back in the Centro Storico, I committed the cardinal sin of indulging in a cappuccino after 10 am. We sipped our drinks outside of the lovely Cafe Telesio, located in an even lovelier location. Bernardino Telesio, an Italian philosopher and scientist who lived in the 16th century, was born and died in Cosenza, hence the many things around town that are named after him. A further two-minute walk from the cafe is one of my favourite parts of Cosenza; the Area Archeologica di Piazzetta Toscana. This archaeological area features Roman ruins that are semi-protected by glass and steel, giving a cool modern-on-ancient visual. I love seeing the ancient ruins, covered with the modern glass and surrounded by buildings and homes from various periods. Whenever I’ve been there, I’ve rarely seen anyone else hanging out, but there is, unfortunately, evidence of human mischief, including garbage and minor graffiti. While we were there, a stylish Italian man in his 50s came out of the nearby National Library of Cosenza. My dad started a conversation with him, which made me smile again. He had been so apprehensive about speaking Cosentino with people, but he was really coming out of his shell. I always find it hilarious when I tell people I’m Canadian when I’m travelling. They inevitably tell me about their Canadian relative that I certainly must know, and this time was no different. The man told us that he had relatives “near Edmonton” (my hometown), but we weren’t able to come to a consensus on where they were exactly.
The golden hour was nearly upon us, and the castle atop the hill was calling us back. It was a little surreal for me to walk through the Castello Normanno-Svevo after it had been restored. Signs had been up on my last visit in 2011, but things don’t always get done in a timely manner in Italy, to put it lightly, so I wasn’t sure I’d ever see the day when the work was finished. Windows and lighting were placed artfully in the perfect spots, and there was even a small cafe. The last time I was there it was only so much grass and a pile of rocks. We climbed the steps to the roof of the castle for a magnificent view over Cosenza, bathed in heavenly golden light. It was the perfect end to the perfect day in Cosenza, to be topped off with a meter-long pizza at a restaurant that straddled both sides of a bridge over the river Crati.