In 1966, at the age of twenty-four, I left Italy, my country of birth, and only sporadically returned to visit relatives and friends. Seldom in touch with Italian news, over the many years, I only recall the major events that the media chose to broadcast about my country.
If this detachment appears to be neglect for my place of birth, I would say that it is, in fact, the result of the realization that, once one has gone abroad, any nationalist identity is replaced by a global view of our world. Because of this, I am convinced that when I travel back to the Bel Paese I am able to better perceive what many take for granted.
During a recent trip back, I had the chance to act as a guide for a close friend who had never visited the old country. For the occasion, I took the time to design an itinerary that would present her with the world I had known for the first twenty-four years of my life. Along the way, our travels began to morph into a journey into a past that is slowly disappearing alongside the older generations.
Our journey began in Tuscany: Versillia, Pisa, Lucca, San Geminiano, Montalcino, Pienza, Siena, Arezzo and Firenze; then Parma and the Po River Valley and its Medieval towns rising over the rice fields. Here, as well as in Casale Monferrato and Vigevano, you will not cross paths with tourists – unless you meet old Italians retracing their past.
From Milan, my birthplace, we visited locations on the three major lakes of Northern Italy. From Lago Maggiore we went to Lago di Como and, after a stop at Val Malenco (where Italy and Switzerland meet), we continued on to Lago di Garda. From there, we turned south and then west through the Oltrepó Pavese, before continuing toward the French border and, finally, to the Nice Airport where our journey had begun. Two thousand, five hundred kilometers, more or less.
While I am not a traditionalist complaining about the old good days, some of the episodes that marked our journey speak to an Italy that is slowly losing the values that once defined its open spirit and refined sense of the good things in life.
This was, and still is in many respects, a country where visitors can hop from place to place at random, on the mere referral of a friend or relative. We managed to relive that experience to a large degree. Except for the first B & B in Marina di Pietrasanta, none of our stays were reserved ahead of time. We would simply book each subsequent accommodation by word of mouth.
Our second stop, the Agriturismo di Pomarance, is a place run by relatives of the folks in Pietrasanta. We arrived far ahead of schedule and, once settled, asked the lady of the house if it was possible to have a snack before returning for supper. Instead of a sandwich, we were invited to share an extra table with a young couple from Naples. Two bottles, one of white wine and one of red, were already on the table – but no menu. (It wasn’t necessary.) An array of unbelievable dishes was brought directly to the table.
We began with an appetizer of mixed fried veggies that we accompanied with the white wine, which was also produced by the house. Without a clue about what would come next, what the primo piatto and the secondo piatto were, we kept munching on the appetizers deposited one by one on the table. We were served all sorts of salami and hams, peeled roasted peppers, boar liver paté on volovants, sausages with stracchino cheese, fig bruschetta, cooked ham with sauce, homemade giardiniera, more bruschetta (this time with shrimp!), asparagus with cheese, home-made butter bread, seafood risotto, spinach agnolotti in tomato sauce, grilled meat slices (tagliata) with rucola, and giant grilled shrimp with salad. And, for anyone who was still hungry, at the end there was fruit salad, pie and, of course… coffee. As you can imagine, that day we skipped supper.
The following morning, we asked the lady of the house how she managed to serve the previously described menu to about forty guests with just one kitchen helper. Nadia, who was in her fifties, side-stepped the question by saying that two weeks earlier she had served a similar menu to over fifty people.
In Florence, we were standing outside the front window of a restaurant, commenting on a mahi-mahi on display. The chef came out and invited us in for a glass of Prosecco, which we accepted, and enjoyed with a magnificent view of Ponte Vecchio.
In Arezzo, a woman – a perfect stranger – took the trouble of helping us find a place to safely park our vehicle for the night.
In a restaurant in Parma, two ladies seated at the table next to us (with their dog, no less) – indicated to us the best hotel a short distance from the old city centre.
In Breme Lomellina, where the Sagra della Cipolla Rossa (the Red-Onion Festival) was taking place, we spent the stay at a B & B recommended by a friend of the owners. Here, we ate a superb meal (though served on plastic plates) that would have rivalled a five-star restaurant in Milan. We feasted on nervetti alla Milanese, polenta e asino, and polenta with Gorgonzola – all this while savouring a slightly bubbly dry Lambrusco and conversing among the nine hundred people dining under a huge tent!
In Mede Lomellina, as we were the only visitors at a Visconti castle, I began a conversation with two guards. They revealed the existence of a secret tunnel and invited us to see an entrance that opened onto a three-kilometer-long escape route that joined Mede to Breme – in case the fortress would ever come under attack!
In Casale Monferrato, we met a middle-aged woman walking her dog on the grounds of the Sforza Palace. We were not aware that on Mondays museums are typically closed. Without hesitation, the woman got on her phone to call a friend who is a curator at the Leonardo museum nearby. A few minutes later, we were walking in the museum, where scale models of Da Vinci’s hydraulic contraptions and war machines were on display, along with a replica of The Lady with the Ermine – a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani.
Following a suggestion by the owners of the B & B in Breme, we left our car at our next accommodation in Magenta and took the train to visit old friends in Milan – where traffic and parking posed an unnecessary challenge.
I recalled the Milan of my youth. Old friends extended countless invitations to their properties on Lake Maggiore – invitations that we gladly accepted! From Milan we moved on to Como to see other friends who resided on a mountain village far above the lake. During our meals we recalled the good old days. After a stop at Villa Carlotta, we moved on to Chiareggio.
Located a few kilometres from the Swiss border, Chiareggio is a village of a few homes at the end of Val Malenco. It was here, sixty years earlier, that my Boy Scout platoon had set up camp for two weeks. We found accommodations in a pensione. The next morning we woke up early and headed to the Muretto Pass on a long uphill trail that once upon a time was easy to conquer with the ardour of youth. The experience was quite different six decades later. Our struggle was only rewarded with the comfort of the majestic view of the Alps covered by the perennial snow.
Our legs recovered during the drive to Lago di Garda, where we reconnected with a cousin who retired with her husband in the small town of Sermerio. Here, we tasted the delights of their cantina: salami, fresh cheese, barrels of wine, and a tank full of grappa – a harmony of scents that was both wonderful and overwhelming.
The husband, 82 years old, sat next to my friend, which prompted his wife to ask: “Cosa fai seduto a fianco alla giovane fanciulla?” (What are you doing sitting next to the young woman?) His reply: “Si é seduta lí dopo di me!” (She sat here after I did!) That was the humour I was looking for. Nothing could better express the love for each other and love for life.
Back on the road, we were driving along the banks of the Po when I realized that Ganaghello was not too far from our path. Ganaghello is a tiny village where my mother and I found refuge during the bombing of Milan. I could not go through without stopping by the house where my great-grandmother had lived. It was a hot day and the streets were empty. We found the house, but I realized that it had been replaced by a new structure. I would not have recognized it, were it not for the water well across the street.
I needed to reconnect with the past – talk to someone older who might have some answers. A woman we met on the street directed us to a Mr. Bonvini, just down the street. I knocked on the door at Via dei Vigneti. A window opened, and I mentioned my great-grandmother’s name.
“Ahhh! Maria Maddalena Aguzzi? Certamente!” the man exclaimed. Our voyage had reached its apogee. We were soon seated at a table on a porch. Signora Maria brought a bottle of home-made wine and cake. Several years my senior, Artemio recounted the memories that marked his youth. He recounted the Italy I knew and have never forgotten. It is the Italy that persists despite the adversities.
Our last night was spent in the Tende Pass, just north of Nice, before flying out the next day. We had reached the end of a journey, a visit to a world I once knew and that I always dream about.