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Traveling to Find My Roots in Southern Italy

Heather Dowd
Posted by Heather Dowd on Nov 3, 2017 5:22:40 PM
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I am very fortunate to be able to spend several months of the year living and traveling in Italy and this past summer of all the amazing places I went, the most memorable was to Gasperina, a small hilltop town in the lesser-known Italian region of Calabria. 

Like many Americans, I can trace my roots to other places. My grandmother, Marianna Castagna (née Anania), traveled from Gasperina in 1934 when she was just 14 years old to start a new life with the rest of her family in the United States. Though I grew up with many of the traditions and customs of my grandmother’s homeland, she never spoke to me about her village and she died when I was still quite young. I was very close to my Nonni, and even after she passed I felt a strong connection to Italy and to Gasperina. And now that I am married to an Italian and run an Italian tour company, it was time to travel to her homeland!

And, of course sample local delicacies:

Gasperina Food.jpg



Gasperina Amphitheatre.jpg                                 A view of Gasperina


It turns out that Gasperina is very close to the resort town of Soverato, so Beppe and I decided to take our vacation in July on the beach and explore Gasperina and the surrounding area while we were there. My grandmother has no living relatives left in the area, since her whole family emigrated to the USA long ago. I was able to contact distant relatives who knew her. They took us in and showed us around, including the house where she grew up.


Ship Manifest 1 (1).jpgThe ship manifest from the Vulcania, the ship on which my grandmother made the trip from Naples to Ellis Island. She's #26 on the manifest.


Soverato Beach.jpg                          Beach holiday in Soverato, known as the "Pearl of the Ionian" 


Calabria is region of Italy that is lesser-known to travelers, and it’s overshadowed even in southern Italy by cities such as Naples (in Campagna) and regions such as Puglia. It’s rugged, raw and very real. My Italian is choppy at best, so having Beppe to help translate and guide was invaluable.  

At Tourissimo, Beppe and our other guides are more than happy to help guests find their roots in unknown parts of Italy.  Below are stories from two former clients.


Local Shop Owner.jpg                                      Sampling km 0 products at a local shop in Serra San Bruno



Steve S.

They say a bike trip to Sicily is filled with unforgettable moments.  Mine happened far off the beaten path, in a small village in Calabria.

My dad wasn’t a big talker and never really said much about his family in Italy. All I knew was that his mom and her three sisters set sail from Calabria about 100 years ago for a better life in America. After he died I found his mother’s baptismal certificate and learned that she was from a small village called, Comune di Grotteria. Just by chance I had booked a bike trip to Sicily for that fall, and since Calabria is only a ferry ride from Messina, I decided to make a visit to the church.

I contacted Beppe Salerno who worked for the bike tour company I was traveling with. By coincidence, his father was from that very town and of course, knew the church. He also knew my family’s name, Malgiere.  He arranged for someone to meet me at the ferry and drive me. 

Mimo and his little Fiat were there waiting for me at the ferry dock as planned. My Italian was as bad as Mimo’s English, but we did our best during the long drive. As we headed up the mountains, I saw what looked like a picturesque resort village. To my surprise, this was my nonna’s home.

Grotteria town view.jpg

Instead of driving straight to the chapel, Mimo took me to his home where his beautiful wife and daughter were waiting to greet me as if I were a long lost relative. There was food and photographs and stories in a mix of Italian and English. Then they took me on a tour of the town.

We walked up and down the narrow, winding streets where they introduced me to everyone: the baker, the butcher, the mason, the schoolteacher and the church caretakers. The Italian they all spoke was too fast for me to follow. But I did make out two words, Malgeiere and America.  Everyone responded exactly the same way, with a knowing nod as they stared at my somewhat large, narrow head.

The tour ended in the town square, overlooking a beautiful valley. Mimo stepped back and motioned for me to look. “Guarda!” he prompted.  I looked and told him, bello. “No,” he implored, “guarda!” And then I saw the statue. It was of a man who looked oddly familiar.  At first I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then I realized his head was shaped like mine — a lot like mine. 

Grotteria Statue.jpg

The statue plaque read, Francesco Malgieri, Medico N.1871 M.1963. Mimo stood by grinning. “He is your great, great uncle,” Mimo said. Unbeknownst to me, Fancesco Malgieri was the esteemed doctor of the amazing town, so esteemed they erected a statue in his honor. Instinctively, I wanted to let my dad know about his uncle, and about this incredible town. But of course there was no way to do that. I wondered if he knew and just never thought to mention it. I’ll never know.

The last stop on my tour was the church where my grandmother was baptized. I lit a candle, kneeled, and said a prayer. It was at that moment, in this beautiful Medieval chapel, in this Calabrian hill town I never knew existed, when I felt like we were all there together; my dad, his mom and of course, Francesco.  And that’s the moment from my bike trip to Sicily that will always stay with me.



Jane M.

Our cycling tour of Puglia ended in the old city of Matera, Basilicata County.  From the time I was a little girl taking walks with my grandmother Giulia Vena Loffredo, I had heard about Pisticci: the town in Basilicata that she, her mother and some of her siblings left when she was 12 years old to join her father in America.  I was so close to the place I had heard about forever.  I had to see it.  My goal was to get a copy of her birth certificate and perhaps someday apply for Italian citizenship.  I could then travel more easily around Europe. Beppe and Jessica, our tour guides for the cycling trip, helped me put together some sentences in Italian so I could make the request to the town officials in Pisticci.

My husband Greg and I rented a car in Matera and began our journey towards the sea.  The road took us up through a mountain tunnel and deposited us on the top of a hill in the town of Pisticci. Pisticci is known for being the production site of Amaro Lucano, one of the most famous Italian liqueurs. On the last night of our cycling tour, one of our guides, Jessica, brought a bottle of it to our group dinner and we toasted our guides, Beppe and Jessica,  and one another with the digestive.   I was stunned to see my grandmother’s family “Vena & Figli” on the label!  

Arriving at City Hall, we walked into an open office where a small woman sat behind piles of papers and files.  She looked up when we walked into the room.  After exchanging cioas, I began in halting Italian: “My grandmother’s name was Guilia Vena, her mother’s name was Camilla Viggiano.  I would like to see my grandmother’s birth certificate.” She looked little puzzled - perhaps slightly amused -I said it again.  She replied “Sono Viggiano.” And pointed to herself.  She told us her name was Michellina Viggiani.  I felt a little volt of electricity, but she remained calm.  She did, however, spend the rest of the morning looking for the birth certificate of my grandmother, running in and out of the room, calling various people, pointing to me now and then and speaking more words I couldn’t understand.  My Italian classes proved to be useless. I did get the sense that she was trying and not having much luck. Greg left and came back with a box of pastries that we presented to her.  She distractedly put them on top of a shelf crowded with papers and files. It was time to close for Pausa.  She told us to come back  in 3 hours. We walked around a town that had been bustling when we arrived, but was now a ghost town. We found a place to sit and read and wait.  

When we returned at 3pm Michellina continued her search.  She had found a certificate stating my grandmother had been vaccinated on stated date, but no birth certificate.  There were birth records for her brothers and her for parents’ marriage, but only this vaccination document for her.  Luckily, there was an address on this document.  The address is not far from here, I think Michellina said, and she tried to explain to us how to get there with lots of pointing and gesturing out the door.

Meanwhile a man who seemed to be in charge invited us all into his big office. Some other officials passed by the door and he invited them to join.   He pulled down the shade on the door and passed out the pastries Greg had purchased that morning. We all attempted valiantly to converse. There was much smiling and nodding.  

Michellina asked her boss if she could take us to the address on the document where Giulia and her parents must have lived.  He assented and she locked up her office (pulled down the shade) and proceeded to guide us down the narrow cobblestone streets.  When we arrived at the address on the vaccination document, she pointed to the house and instructed Greg to take photos.

We left Pisticci later without my grandmother’s birth certificate, but lots of warm memories.

Thanks to Steve and Jane for sharing their stories!  


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Topics: Italy History & Culture, Guest Posts/In the News

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