Wednesday 31 December 2014

A long time ago in Grosio...

Grosio? Ever heard of it?
Probably not.
It is a small town 130 kilometres north-east of Milan in the Valtellina region just a few kilometres from the Swiss border.  Grosio is one of the many small towns that people pass through when driving from Sondrio to Bormio, as thousands do during the ski season.
Grosio in the Valtellina region of Northern Italy. Image from HERE
I've stayed in Grosio twice, but not because of the castle ruins perched on the hillside above the road leading into the town.  The ruins of Castello di San Faustino built in 1000AD, and the connected smaller fortress of Castello NuovoVisconteo, built in the 1350 to protect an outpost of the Visconti kingdom, are the main tourist attractions in Grosio.  
Near the castle ruins are prehistoric rock engravings known as the Rupe Magna of Grosio, the largest engraved rock in the Alps.  But, fascinating though they were, I was more interested in Grosio's recent history. 
I came to this very northern part of Italy to trace the history of my mother's family - the Cecini and Sertorio families.  
My great-grandfather's grave.  
My great-grandparents, Giuseppe Sertorio and Maddalena Cecini, immigrated to Australia from Grosio in the late 19th century.  So in August 2013, and again in October 2014, I spent a couple of days staying in the fabulous Hotel Sassella to learn what I could about my family's Italian heritage. 

During my first visit, Stefano and I made a few inquiries about the Sertorio and Cecini families through the receptionist at the hotel front desk.  She quickly introduced me to Anne S, a delightful Australian woman whose father immigrated from Grosio to Proserpine, Queensland in the mid 1950s.  Anne reversed the long history of immigration from the Valtellina region to northern Queensland, when she met her husband-to-be while visiting her father's family in Grosio.  She has lived in Grosio since the late 1980s and met many Australians, who like me, have come to the Valtellina to trace their family history.  

In Australia we know that many Italian immigrants left their homeland, particularly southern Italy, after World War II.  But long before that, shortly after the unification of Italy in 1861, there was a great exodus of Italians, mostly to America, but some travelled even further to Argentina and Australia.  Many from this first wave of Italian immigrants bound for Australia came from the north of Italy, particularly from the regions of Veneto, Piedmont and Lombardy, in particular, the Valtellina.
Anne has become a local authority on the history of migration from Grosio to several towns in north-eastern Australia.  This period of chain migration began during the mid to late 1800s, when many of the young men left the towns of the Valtellina to escape the terrible poverty that had resulted from an agricultural crisis of repeated crop failures, particularly the grape harvest which had failed for 14 consecutive years from 1860.  
It was during this time that my great-grandmother left Italy.  Anne was able to tell us a great deal about my great-grandmother's family.  Maddelena Cecini and her parents, Pietro and Nora, left Grosio sometime around 1880, when Maddelena was 12 years old.  Anne explained that in Grosio there are six family names which originate from the town, but there are many branches of these six families, so they are known by 'nicknames - sopranome'.  She was able to tell us that I was from the 'Scoben' branch of the Cecini family.  When Stefano and I wandered through the cemetery in Grosio, it was apparent that Cecini was indeed a common name in the town.  
I returned to Grosio a couple of months ago with my sister, Felicity.  Once again I contacted Anne and she very generously met us and took us on a walking tour of Grosio, as she had done with Stefano and I in the previous year.  
Anne showed us the old house where our great-grandmother, Maddalena Cecini would have lived. She explained that the family would have been very poor and would have probably lived in just one, or two rooms, of this old multi-storey house, along with their extended family.  From our conversation it seems that there are still 'Scoben' Cecini living in this same house.  It was amazing to walk along the narrow lanes lined with old houses, some restored, others crumbling, and to see the old wells still in use today, knowing that over 120 years ago my great-grandmother would have walked these same streets to fetch water for her family.  
Then Anne offered to take us for a drive into the mountains where many Grosio families still have "summer houses".  As it was the middle of autumn, these mountain houses were being closed for the winter, so there was a special celebration over the weekend to mark the end of the summer. 
Traditionally they were small huts used by the farmers and shepherds during the spring and summer, when they took their animals up to the high pastures to graze.  These days, very few people still keep animals, although we saw several small trucks bringing down goats and sheep, as we drove up the steep winding road.  Now the houses are like 'weekenders' for the families who live down in the valley.  Interestingly, the community decided not to connect to the electricity grid, nor to commercialise the area.  It remains as it has always been, a summer refuge in the mountains.
At the local refugio Anne introduced us to many of the locals.  It seemed that almost everyone was either named Cecini, or married to a Cecini!  Felicity and I thoroughly enjoyed the warm welcome we received, even being told that we looked like Cecini.  
Anne didn't know if our ancestors would have used these mountain huts, but she thought it was possible as the Cecini would probably have been 'contadini'- farm workers.  

She explained that she knew less about my great-grandfather, Guiseppe Sertorio, because he was not from Grosio.  Sertorio is not a Grosio name.  Anne had done some previous research and learned that my great-grandfather had come from Bianzone, an even smaller town further down the valley, south of Tirano.  He immigrated to Australia in his early twenties, following others from the Valtellina to Ravenswood in northern Queensland.  It was there that Maddelena and Giuseppe were married. 

Apparently they became publicans in Charters Towers running a hotel called the St George.  They must have been reasonably successful because in 1905 Guiseppe and Maddellena returned to Grosio with their three young children, Mary, Ellen (my grandmother) and Joseph.  Their reason for returning to Grosio is unclear, perhaps they returned for a holiday, or perhaps like many immigrants of those times, they returned home with money to buy land and the intention to stay.  

We will probably never know.  Anne went on to describe that at the time my great-grandparents visited Grosio in 1904-05 there was an outbreak of tuberculosis.  Sadly my great-grandfather died in Grosio on the 15th February, 1905.  There is a record of his death in the Bianzone parish records which Anne had kindly photocopied, but his grave no longer exists.  In this part of Italy, graves are only kept for 20 years and then the remains are either interned in a smaller box and placed in a family tomb, or added to the cemetery ossuary.   My great-grandmother, a widow at only 27 years of age, returned to Australia with her three young children and settled in Hughenden, Queensland, where she became the publican of the Great Western Hotel.  
As we left Grosio, Felicity mentioned how much she had loved visiting this beautiful area of northern Italy.  I agreed.  I'm sure we will return again as Grosio has captured our hearts.  Perhaps it's in the blood?   
Where we stayed:
This is a really lovely hotel with a fabulous restaurant and wonderful "Wellness Centre".  If you ever pass through Grosio it is worth a stop.  Reviews of Hotel Sassella CLICK HERE 
Where we ate:
Rifugio Eita
For more information about having lunch or trekking from the refugio CLICK HERE

Questo post è dedicato a mia madre. Grazie mille Pam per le storie.  Spero che ti piace questo camminare a Grosio.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

The Cinque Terre, beautiful but...

More than six months ago we visited the Cinque Terre.
We joined our friends Bruce and Therese, who were staying in Manarola, one of the five fishing villages that make up the Cinque Terre which has become one of Italy's most popular tourist destinations.  Early June was a great time to visit. The sunshine was full of spring warmth, perfect weather for walking.
Many people visit these little villages throughout the year.  Some catch the train from town to town, alighting to stroll through the quaint towns perched along the ragged cliffs, while others come to hike along the coastal track between the five villages.
Map of walking tracks on the Cinque Terre from this link.
Unfortunately when we were there, the only open section of the blue coastal track, shown on the map, was from Monterrosso to Vernazza.  It wasn't possible to complete the entire coastal walk as many of the lower paths remained closed, a consequence of the terrible floods and mudslides of October 2011.  Although the towns of Vernazza and Monterosso, which were almost destroyed by the terrible rivers of mud, have been rebuilt, a subsequent rock fall in September 2012 on the path between Manarola and Riomaggiore resulted in further delays to the re-opening of the coastal track.
The scar from one of the landslides blocking the track is still visible from Manarola.
We started our coastal walk by catching the ferry from Manarola to Monterosso.  It was a short, but lovely ferry ride.  The views of the clifftop towns from the ferry gave a different perspective of this stunning coast.  

From Monterosso, the largest of the five towns, we enjoyed walking along the coastal track to the little port of Vernazza, where we stopped for lunch.  Although the rocky path was busy with other walkers, which was a little scary as it was very narrow in parts, it was an easy and most rewarding walk as the views were constantly spectacular.
Like so many of our adventures in Northern Italy, it was difficult to take ten steps without stopping for a photo.

But the downside of these spectacular views and picturesque villages are the crowds.  
Although it wasn't summer, all the towns thronged with large tour groups throughout the day.   The popularity of the villages, and the ease of access by train, or boat, has meant that some of the charm of these once isolated fishing villages has gone.
While we enjoyed the coastal walk despite the constant flow of walkers, some of the higher paths  were more pleasant as they were quieter, although the walking was much more strenuous.  
In the evenings many of the large tour groups depart on jam-packed trains, leaving the Cinque Terre towns more pleasantly tranquil.

However, in our opinion the Cinque Terre is a little overrated.  Yes, the views are stunning but other parts of Liguria are also very beautiful.  The crowds, even during late spring, could be overwhelming. And the accommodation was expensive compared to other parts of Italy.  Our recommendation would be to stay a night or two in either Manarola or Vernazza. Enjoy whatever parts of the coastal walk are open, try one or two of the higher walks, and then explore other parts of the equally beautiful Ligurian coast around Rapallo using the excellent ferry system.  For more information about the Ligurian Coast CLICK HERE.

Where we stayed...
Before booking accommodation closely read the negative and positive reviews on sites such as Trip Advisor or  It is best to book early.  We didn't.  

Where we ate...
We enjoyed some delicious seafood meals which were reasonably priced, although none of the restaurants were outstanding.  For some specific suggestions about where to eat in and around Manarola, particularly if you have coeliac disease, read this excellent blogpost by our friend Therese CLICK HERE.

Prossima volta, Natale in nord Italia.  

Saturday 6 December 2014

Treviso: A little like Venice

Stephen's sister Monica, her husband Paul, and their son Xavier, visited us a couple of weeks ago.  Last year we caught a train together for a weekend in Verona, but this time they hired a car so they could see more of the countryside.  Although we couldn't join them for a whole week, we wanted to catch up for a long weekend.  Stefano asked his colleague, Elisabetta, for a recommendation.

"Treviso.  You must visit Treviso.  It's a bit like Venice as it is built along canals.  The town is small, and quiet, but very pretty," exclaimed Elisabetta.

After a three and a half hour train trip from Milan, we wheeled our bags over the small canal bridges and through the main square, which hosts the flagship store of the Benetton chain.  Weaving our way through the crowds of locals on their way to lunch we quickly agreed with Elisabetta's recommendation.  Treviso is lovely.
It is situated in the Veneto region which provided plenty of options for beautiful country drives through vineyards where they grow the famous prosecco grapes.
And, Padua was less than an hour's drive from our base in Treviso, so we also spent a day there.  
Paul guided us on a walking tour following his trusty Steinbecker guidebook.  From every angle, the famous basilica of Sant Antonio was magnificent. 
After wandering the streets we had to stop for a refreshing gelato before we drove back to Treviso.
In the evening there was no shortage of bars in Treviso where we joined the locals enjoying a glass of sparkling prosecco before dinner.
So while the neighbouring city of Venice is always in the headlines with movie star weddings, cruise ship controversies and most recently, the rumour of a new law that will ban tourists from pulling 'noisy' wheelie bags across the canal bridges, we enjoyed our weekend in a very different canal city.   Treviso is charming in its own way, but without the crowds, movie stars or strange laws.
Ci vediamo prossima volta. Forse andremo a Venezia in Gennaio.

We recommend:
Avogari BnB
A renovated BnB, close to the centre of Treviso and an easy walk from the train station.
We enjoyed the spacious, beautifully decorated renovated rooms and were made feel very welcome by the kind owners.  The home cooked fresh apple torta deserves a special mention.
Excellent value at 90 Euro per room.