It was my last full day in Italy, June 7, 2012, and I planned to make the most of it. Before checking out of my hotel in Assisi, I stepped across the street to an olive oil shop I’d noticed, to buy some of the good stuff to take home, since the best quality Italian olive oil is not exported. As it turned out, the shop owner, Francesco, spoke excellent English, and has a grown daughter in Springfield and another in Fairfax, both within minutes of my house. We talked for some time, and he even broke out his private stock of grappa and shared a drink with me. And, of course, I ordered some olive oil. When he saw my name on the order slip, Francesco told me that the hotel across the street used to be owned by the Petrini family, but that the family had sold it two years earlier. He said they still lived in town, but now owned a restaurant instead.
I was staying at that hotel, but this was the first I’d heard of a family connection to it — despite the fact that my husband had stayed at the same hotel fourteen years earlier, without ever knowing it was owned by my relatives.
When I checked out at the front desk a few minutes earlier, I told the desk clerk what Francesco had told me, and she said, “Oh, yes. We noticed your name as soon as you made the reservation!” My paternal grandfather’s family was from Assisi, though they were dirt poor at the time and would not have had the money to stay at a hotel, let along own one. Still, I am certainly related to the Petrini family that is still in town. If I’d known, I probably could have gotten my room with its glorious view of the valley without having to pay extra for the view! But it was worth it.
Unfortunately, I had to get on the road in my rental car, and did not have time to seek out the restaurant Francesco had mentioned. Also, I don’t speak Italian, so communication might have been difficult. Many people in Assisi do not speak English.
My next quest took me into the neighboring state of Marche, to seek out the town of Serravalle di Chienti, the ancestral home of my paternal grandmother’s family. It was not easy to find. Italian roads tend to be poorly marked, or not marked at all. And that’s especially true in a rural part of the country, set back in the mountains where tourists don’t usually venture.
The landscape was gorgeous; I drove through a winding valley with green mountains to both sides and brilliant red poppies growing along the road. But it took me a lot longer to find the village than I’d expected, and when I finally arrived, I was short on time. I had to make it back to Florence that night to turn in my rental car, spend the night in a nondescript international style hotel near the airport, and fly out first thing in the morning. But that wouldn’t stop me from looking around Serravalle first and taking some photos.
I arrived in the village during the afternoon riposo (better known to Americans as the Spanish siesta). So businesses were closed, and no residents were out on the streets, though I did notice some black-robed signore peering out at me through their heavily draped windows, no doubt wondering why some stranger was taking photos of perfectly ordinary buildings in their sleepy mountain village.
The village was rustic, but lovely, and the natural setting was impressive. I knew the church would have been the place to check for records of my great grandparents, but it was closed for repairs. And I didn’t have the time to poke around and see what else I could find. But I was thrilled to be there, walking the same streets as my great grandparents and generations before them. (In some cases, instead of streets there were actually stone staircases, because the hills were so steep.) Next time I visit Italy, I plan to know some Italian, and to schedule more time in the village.