The Road to Naples – Driving Through Basilicata & Campania: Searching for Family History

To the south, the Ionian Sea sparkled in the distance as we left Alberobello behind and headed west along the E90.  Our destination in three days’ time – Naples. There was some family history to investigate before that, though, and we set the GPS course to Sassano on a journey to explore the ancestral village of Donna’s maternal grandmother. On the far side of Basilicata, the small hilltop village sits just inside the border of the Campania region.  This would be the culmination of a trip planned years ago, that was originally going to be shared with her mother, before her passing.  Nearer to Naples, we also planned to visit Volturara Irpina, the birthplace of her paternal grandfather. 

Our road trips rarely involved a direct route between destinations and this held true as we turned away from the coast and followed the E847 through the Basento River Valley into the rugged mountains of Basilicata.  Ancient hilltop villages crowned the ridges on either side of the roadway, each looking worthy of future investigation. The Basilicata region has been referred to as “Italy’s best-kept secret” by the New York Times, but it was once the realm of roving bands of brigands. Highwaymen of legend made traveling in the region notoriously unsafe after the unification of Italy in the 1870s.

Under the Royal House of Bourbon, southern Italy fought against unification.  After the war the residents were disenfranchised by unfulfilled promises; with support from Bourbons in exile and the church, which had much of its lands seized, many in opposition to the new government headed to the hills.  These brigands were informally comprised of people with different motives. Former soldiers, some nobles, criminals, peasants, and farmers filled their ranks. The most famous one, Carmine Crocco, aka Donatello, led a band of two thousand men. Your criminal is my guerilla-fighter hero. I guess it depends on which folksongs you listen to.  The region was remote, and severely poverty stricken. During the fascist era of the 1930’s and 40’s, the Basilicata region was used as an open-air prison, where political dissidents were sentenced to exile in remote villages – Italy’s Siberia.

With mountains deforested of wood for fuel, poor soil conditions for farming, an illiteracy rate of seventy percent, bleak employment opportunities in other industries and a central government dominated by northerners that ignored the region, four million Italians chose prospects for a better future and emigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1924.  Others headed to Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Australia and South Africa.  It wasn’t unusual for emigrants from the same village to head to the same new cities overseas where they continued the tradition of campanilismo, the spirit of “loyalty to those who live within the sound of your village’s church bells.” Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York all drew huge concentrations of new immigrants eager to prosper, and societies like the Italian Welfare League helped folks adapt to a new home in a foreign country.

Castelmezzano, castle in the middle, between Albano di Lucania and Pietrapertosa, was our first stop. Descendants of 6th century Greek settlers in the Basento Valley fled to safety in the jaws of the Lucanian Dolomites when Saracen invaders from North Africa forced the local populace from the river valley into the mountains. The smooth sides of the tall, steep tooth-shaped outcroppings that protected the villages of Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa were perfect for villagers to roll boulders down onto their attackers. 

The same mountains offered safe haven to the brigands of the late 1800’s.  Today the area, only two and a half hours from Naples, is part of the 67,000 acre Parco Regionale di Gallipoli Cognato, a mountainous park with wolves, foxes, porcupines, and wild boar that is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy camping, hiking, biking and rock climbing. 

The area is stunningly beautiful with its unique rock formations, lush forests, olive groves, vineyards, and pastures. During the spring and summer, the small villages of the region host colorful Marriage of the Trees Festivals that combine ancient pagan rites with Catholicism to celebrate fertility and hope. Mid-week in the middle of November the area was nearly deserted, and unfortunately there were not any cafes open. Hopefully, it would be different on the weekends. 

Back on the highway we speculated how interesting a future trip would be, zigzagging back and forth across the valley to explore every hilltop village, large and small. There were so many of them!  We still regret not stopping in Brienza to walk through the historic district at the foot of its 7th century castle, after its profile suddenly burst forth and filled the windscreen as we rounded a curve.

The sun was just setting as we pushed the button on the driveway gate to Affittacamere – Nonno Domenico, located in the valley below Sassano.  Check-in was smooth, but establishing our internet connection required first the involvement of the innkeeper’s teenage son and then his older sister. In the off-season, prospects for dinner were extremely limited. Though Google Maps showed many restaurants in the area, they were closed for the season. After driving around searching, we ended up having a delicious, no-frills dinner at the local pizza parlor. 

We scored big time the next morning for breakfast with our discovery of Pasticceria Tropiano Peccati di Gola & Dintorni. This bakery and café is run by two brothers, Cono and Franco, who are devoted to guiding their customers through the “consumption of sinful delicacies and coffees.”  They offer baked goods of a quality you would expect to find in Naples or Florence, not in the remote area surrounding Sassano. 

The village of Sassano rose sharply from the flat, flood plain of the Tanagro River in the Vallo di Diano, the lower slope of Monte Cervati checkered with the stacked profiles of dwellings built of stone and capped with red tile roofs. 

At the foot of the hill, the spring-fed communal laundry looked newly renovated, with updated washbasins and scrub racks.  Empty laundry detergent bottles indicated recent use.  Outside we refilled our water bottles from an ever-flowing fountain built into the terraced wall.  Basilian monks have been credited with the first construction of a fountain on this site in the 10th century when the village was founded. It’s difficult to believe in this day and age that such facilities are needed and still used. But it reflects the past poverty of the region and the plight of the elderly who still use it.  Just imagine the task of carrying a basket of wet laundry uphill, back to your home to dry.

The lane into the village rose slowly to the small central plaza, Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini, where most of the buildings looked permanently shuttered.  We parked in front of a long-closed butcher’s shop which stood yards from a war memorial that listed the village’s men that did not return from two world wars.  The only sign of life emanated from a tiny bar across the cobbled square, where the barista made small talk with an elderly pensioner sipping prosecco, while warming himself at a sunny table.  We ordered café and planned our morning. Could we find Donna’s grandmother’s home here? 

There are only steep, narrow streets called “carrare,” meaning only as wide as a cart, here. In the early 1900s they would have been filled with farm carts, donkeys, chickens, and a milk cow if you were well off.  Somewhere in the family archive, a photo exists of a young woman returning from the forest with a huge bundle of foraged wood tied to her back.  Water was gathered from the village well and carried home. Extremely hard work and no way to avoid it.

Via San Biagio was a short distance away from the plaza and as steep as expected; it curved its way uphill to a small neighborhood church bearing the same name.  Time has not been kind to the homes on the street. Many showed sign of neglect, with broken stairs and windows along with cobwebbed locks on doors that that looked like they had not been opened in decades. Donna had notes written by her mother, who had passed away only the year before our trip. The familiar clear handwriting stated that Christina D’Alessio DeGondea had lived at Number 10 San Biagio. But Number 10 didn’t exist, only Numbers 9 and 11. A mystery. Perhaps Grandma’s birthplace had been destroyed. 

With a copy of her grandmother’s baptismal certificate in hand, we backtracked past the café to the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista. The 16th century church that stands today was built atop the ruins of an earlier 11th century church destroyed by fire.  Unfortunately, the church and its office were closed during the midweek, the population of the village today only supporting Sunday services, and we missed the opportunity to view its preserved baroque frescoes.  We did catch a glimpse of its notable wooden crucifix by peering through the church’s keyhole. 

Only two hours from Naples and just one hour from the Mediterranean, parts of Sassano are showing signs of renewal with gentrification of some of the architecturally unique homes and those with views of the valley.

Walking along we came to a street named Hoboken, a city in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty only a short ferry ride away from Ellis Island and the promise of new life in America. At a small square we found a mural dedicated to those that emigrated from the village; we sat for a while and wondered about life here in the past. 

For a small village there was an amazing number of churches, but that is true of most towns in Italy. One of our favorites was the Chiesa San Michele. Located on a ridge across from the village, it had a panoramic view of Sassano and was a perfect spot for our picnic lunch. 

Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park, the mountainous area around Sassano, is also known for its variety of wild orchids, containing 54 of the 120 varieties found in Italy. Earning the village’s second name “paese delle orchidee” – village of the orchids. It sounds so pretty, and it’s the perfect excuse to return when they are in bloom. Afterwards a caretaker at the town’s cemetery helped us search for family headstones.

The next day we drove to the neighboring town of Monte San Giacomo to explore the village of Donna’s maternal grandfather, Nunzio DeGondea. Larger, the village looked significantly more prosperous, with several small cafés and an open restaurant, Dei Tigli Di Totaro Domenico.

Without much to go on we worked our way to the town cemetery near the Santuario Di Sant’Anna on the outskirt of town to search for his family name.  As cemeteries go it was gracefully beautiful and very tranquil, though family history eluded us.  At the Sant’Anna, Donna held me by the belt as I leaned as far as I could over a low wall to pick plump ripe figs from a wild tree.

Later we searched for a large statue of Christ that we had spotted from a lower road as we drove into town earlier.  It was a good excuse for a leisurely drive around, exploring. Eventually, down a dead-end near the Chiesa Madonna di Loreto, we found it.

Not much is known about the origins of Quaglietta Castle, but it is thought to be a Norman feudal fort from the 11th century. And as intriguing as it looked from the road, I had to fight the impulse to follow the exit ramp. Next time!

Our desire to reach Naples before sunset required an early start to leave enough time to visit Volturara Irpina, roughly translated as “valley of vultures,” due to a large population of the birds that once inhabited the area until the 1900’s. The village of Donna’s paternal grandfather, or as I referred to it, DiMeo-ville. Farmacia DiMeo, Avvocato DiMeo, Clinica Medica DiMeo were all businesses lining the main boulevard and plaza around town hall. We had found her people! Folks were cordial, and since we were obviously foreigners, a few stopped to chat with us. When Donna introduced herself to one gentleman, he smiled. Making a sweeping gesture with his arm, he proclaimed, “Multo DiMeo!” Closer to Naples, the town had the feel of a relatively affluent commuter suburb. In the town park a monument paid tribute to the men of the village who died in the world wars, and the September 23, 1943, allied bombing, due to Nazis troops in the area, which caused sixty civilian deaths.  Many DiMeos were among those lost that day.

Once again, we tried to locate the home where Grandpa DiMeo lived before emigrating. We visited the town hall, but our lack of an extensive Italian vocabulary prompted the receptionist at town hall to call for assistance.  In a hopeful frame of mind, we followed a kind woman, slightly older than us, back to the archives where she opened a safe-like door and leafed through the century old, dry and torn pages of several thick volumes of town records, taking notes as she went.  We were still having difficulty communicating, though the gist of it was “your grandfather came from a neighborhood on that side of town,” as she pointed the way.  “The streets are still there; however, the names were changed decades ago.”  With several “mille grazie,” a thousand thank yous, followed by hugs all around (after all, this is Italy) we headed to of all places – Via Alessandro DiMeo. Of course! It was a long, quiet residential street with modest, well-kept older homes on the edge of town. Only a few homes looked like they had been forgotten.  What was confusing though was that off the main road there was a parallel lane and several dead-end spurs that all went by the name Via Alessandro DiMeo.  Walking the street, we stopped to take a photo of some just-harvested walnuts which an elderly man had placed in the sun to dry.  Asking of our interest in the area, he led us further down the road pointing to where the grocer and tailor shops used to be, though he did not know any DiMeos still in residence there. Parting, he insisted we take some walnuts with us. 

Slowing to find a parking space near the McMany Scottish Pub & Pizzeria I suddenly yelled “I just saw your Dad!” “What do you mean?” Donna responded in surprise. “That man could have been his twin – same hair, same nose. He even wore the same glasses. We have to ask him if he’s related.” Parking was not easy, so we circled the block, only to have lost him. The search began and fortunately two blocks on the gentleman had stopped to speak to a friend.  We quickly double-parked and introduced ourselves the best we could as he was saying goodbye to a younger man. “Ciao, il mio cognome è DiMeo,” Hello, my last name is DiMeo. His friend had stayed when he saw us approaching and interpreted our tale for him as best he could. 

Unfortunately, he had been born in a different region and there were not any DiMeos in his family tree, which was difficult to believe. He kindly posed with Donna for a photo, so we could show the folks back home. For those of you who knew Donna’s father, do you see the resemblance to the gentleman in the above right photo? The old photo on the left is Donna’s paternal grandparents, Domenico and Filomina DiMeo.

Till next time, Craig & Donna