For years, I have longed to visit Abruzzo.

It is the land of my dreams: the land of a thousand stories told by my grandparents, a magical place where grapes grow sweeter, green-as-grass olive oil runs between grinding stones, and generations of my father’s family toiled in the rock and soil and produced children as strong and sturdy as the landscape.

Just the name of the village where my grandparents were born in the 1880’s, “Rocca San Giovanni,” conjures up these visions and more.  I have been absorbing these tales from infancy; the stories of my grandparents and every family member who has made the big pilgrimage to this mystical place called Abruzzo. 

My grandfather, Camillo Romagnoli, left Italy around the turn of the last century.  He and his older brother, Giovanni, struck out for South America in search of adventure and new opportunities.  In 1902, they made their way north to Toronto, Canada, finding work in the burgeoning construction industry.  But my grandfather never forgot the beautiful Enrichetta Aimola, his childhood sweetheart, still living in their village near the Adriatic Coast of Central Italy.

By 1911, he had finally saved up enough money to send back to Italy, not only for Enrichetta’s passage to the New World, but also enough so that her uncle could accompany her as a chaperone for the boat journey to Ellis Island, New York and the subsequent train trip across the border to Canada.  They were married June 1, 1911 at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in the old St. Patrick’s Ward of Toronto.

Although they were determined to succeed in Canada and embrace the culture of their new country, my grandparents never forgot their roots and treasured their Italian heritage.  They kept that heritage alive in our family with stories and songs, with food and with wine, with skills passed down from generation to generation, and values instilled by word and by deed. 

Enrichetta Aimola, Helen's grandmother, with Helen when she was a young girl.

Enrichetta Aimola, Helen's grandmother, with Helen when she was a young girl.

When I lost my father in 2015, my desire to go to Abruzzo was re-awakened.  But there were obstacles in the way.  From what I read, language would be a real barrier.  I don’t speak any Italian and neither does my husband, Ed.  And transportation seemed to be a real concern as well.  We have used public transit all over Europe but mainly it has been in large cities.  Where I wanted to explore in Abruzzo was a small rural village.  How would I get to Abruzzo from Rome?  How would we get around once we were in the region?  Having witnessed first-hand the drivers in Rome, we didn’t feel comfortable renting a car and driving ourselves.  I needed to find a way to see Abruzzo which did not depend on our ability to drive ourselves or speak the language. 

I decided that if we were going to go, there were two goals I wanted to reach.  First, I wanted to attempt to make some family connection in Rocca San Giovanni.  Knowing I had distant relatives on my grandmother’s side still living there, I would be disappointed if we made the long trip but were not able to meet any of them.  I also knew that there would be a very small number of people living there who might know the house where my grandmother lived until she came to Canada in 1911.  None of us knew the actual street address and the directions I received from my older cousins who traveled there in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s were vague at best.  To make the pilgrimage to this little village but not see the specific places my grandmother spoke about would be heart-breaking. 

My second goal was to gain a good understanding of the geography, culture, and history of the region of Abruzzo.  I wanted to understand the country that formed my grandparents into the characters that we knew and loved.  I wanted to see for myself why my grandparents passed on such strong values to their children and grandchildren, values that are still strong 100 years later. 

But how was I possibly going to accomplish this?  I spent hours on the internet researching what options existed and it didn’t look good.  Then suddenly, one day in early 2016, my husband casually handed me a newspaper and said, “I think you better read this.”  There, in old-fashioned black and white, was an article about this couple from Ottawa who were opening a vacation villa and tour company in Abruzzo!  It sounded, well … it sounded amazing!  It sounded fascinating!  It also sounded like it wasn’t quite ready.  But I was so excited, I couldn’t resist checking out their website.  As soon as I contacted Jake and Lisa via email, I was convinced this was the route to go.  We booked our trip and waited with anticipation to see how it would turn out.

Helen and Ed enjoying their time in Abruzzo.

Helen and Ed enjoying their time in Abruzzo.

Immediately upon arriving in Rome, we had confirmation that we had made the right choice.  Jake was in contact with us via text message from the very moment we stepped off the plane.  We were greeted personally, picked up at the airport, and after connecting with a few other guests arriving the same day, we drove through the mountains to Abruzzo.  Stumbling out of the minivan exhausted from the overnight flight, we were still able to appreciate our first glimpse of the charming villa that would be “home” for the next week.  

Once we settled in, we were delighted to find that the daily excursions were both interesting and educational.  Seated in the villa’s own comfortable mini-van, we saw places of historic importance and breathtaking scenery, sampled excellent wines and savoured delicious meals, had time to shop in a variety of unique locations, picnicked by a gorgeous little lake, visited national park after national park … it was simply incredible how much they fit into one week!  We were given the comprehensive overview of Abruzzo that we were looking for, along with many opportunities to interact with local people.

Did I mention food?  Because the food probably deserves an entire article devoted just to that subject!  The food at the inn is absolutely delicious and so representative of Abruzzese culture!  A highlight for me was the hands-on cooking class taught by the spectacular Cesidia, who is an exceptional chef and an endearing woman.  My grandmother died when I was quite young and I missed the opportunity to learn how to make homemade pasta.  It was such a rewarding experience to stand around the big counter in the villa’s kitchen with all the others guests, both children and adults, our hands sticky with eggs and flour and oil and big smiles on our faces as we learned together the art of making ravioli.

Of course, for me, the apex of our week was the day devoted to my personal pilgrimage to Rocca San Giovanni.  I was so overjoyed to discover that Jake and Lisa had arranged for their guide, Luca, to take my husband and me for the entire day on an exclusive tour to the hometown of my grandparents!  Luca is an excellent guide: a warm-hearted young man who patiently spent the day playing the various roles of chauffeur, detective, guide and translator.  It was an indescribable moment for me as we drove up to the outskirts of the village and saw the blue sign with the name of the village. It could not have been more magical if it had said, “You are now entering Narnia!” Finally, after years of longing, I was here entering the village of my ancestors! 

The interior of San Matteo the Apostolo Church in Rocca San Giovanni built in the 12th Century. Generations of Helen's family including her grandparents attended San Matteo.

The interior of San Matteo the Apostolo Church in Rocca San Giovanni built in the 12th Century. Generations of Helen's family including her grandparents attended San Matteo.

When we arrived in the town, we knew no one.  Luca quickly suggested we explore the centre of town and see if we could find anyone who might know my family.  He suggested we start at the church.  As we entered the beautiful church of St. Matteo, I was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion.  Within these sacred walls, generations of my family had been baptized, married, and buried, for centuries untold.  Because of the diligent hard work of my cousins, we have genealogical records going back as far as 1749, but who knows just how many years back my roots in this village extend!  For certain, in this very church, both of my grandparents were christened, had their first communion, and were confirmed.  My grandfather is remembered for singing the Latin mass every morning as he shaved.  No doubt it was within the walls of this church that he learned the notes, the words, and the meanings.  Standing within the embrace of the warm rock walls, I felt connected in a new way to my grandparents who are long gone from this world.

And sure enough, Luca’s recommendation was well-founded.  We met an elderly lady in the church who quickly explained to Luca in rapid dialect that she knew people who might be my relatives.  We headed out from the main square following her directions, fingers-crossed.  Imagine my joy when we knocked on the door of a picturesque, flower-covered home and found my cousins!  Picture my surprise when we discovered that the home they live in is immediately beside the one my grandmother lived in before she left for Canada in 1911!  Not only did these cousins know the stories of my grandmother, but they remembered so many of our family who had made the pilgrimage over the years, even my own father.  They pointed out the very space on my grandmother’s home where there used to a balcony – a balcony that has become a symbol in our family of true romance.  It is from this balcony that my grandmother first saw my grandfather, as he rode by the narrow cobblestone streets on his donkey, taking loads of olives to his family press outside the village.  To capture the attention of the beautiful Enrichetta, Camillo would stand on the back of the donkey and smile up at her in a flirtatious manner.  The sparks that flew between the young people must have been pretty intense, because they lasted a lifetime!  Seeing the window for myself and imagining the scene as I stood in that very spot was priceless!

Helen and Ed with her newfound cousins from her grandmothers side. They live right across from the house her grandmother lived in until 1911 when she came to Canada.

Helen and Ed with her newfound cousins from her grandmothers side. They live right across from the house her grandmother lived in until 1911 when she came to Canada.

We spent the afternoon visiting with my new-found cousins who prepared a delicious meal for us.  We shared food; we shared stories.  We laughed and shed a few tears.  We walked the streets of the village soaking up the atmosphere.  None of this would have been possible without Luca who spent the entire day playing translator with such patience and kindness.  We were thrilled beyond words that the combined efforts of Jake, Lisa, and Luca made our dream come true. 

Our vacation to Abruzzo was all that we had hoped for and more, a very special experience.  We came home with the highest regard for Amazing Abruzzo Tours.  As surely as we gained family members through our visit to Rocca San Giovanni, we also gained friends in the whole team at Amazing Abruzzo Tours.  Abruzzo is now the home of at least a part of my heart.