The Road To Castelvetere

28 08 2008

Ah, Italy.  Rich in history, art, and natural beauty, Italy is one of those places I hope to some day visit.  Of course since I can’t manage a trip to the next state over, odds are I’ll have to wait until I retire before I can make the trip across the globe to Italy.

There is a tiny little town in the province of Avellino called Castelvetere sul Calore (Castle of the Heat).  You’d really have to squint to find it on any map of the country:

Looking a little closer it becomes apparent why it would be so hard to find this little town:

Yep, that’s the entire town!  With a population teetering on two thousand, this is certainly not a touristy part of Italy.  It rises approximately 2,400 feet above sea level, and from these hills one can see several other countries on a clear day.  Castelvetere sul Calore is in a prime location to grow various types of wine grapes, as well as olive oil, chestnuts, pears, and apples.  Some historians believe the origins of the town of Castlevetere sul Calore can be traced back to 991AD, when it was supposedly settled by the monastery of Saint Benedict from Salermo.

I also found this beautiful slide show of images of Castelvetere sul Calore.  It only furthers my desire to go there some day…

On top of that, it was the home of my grandmothers’ paternal ancestry, the Gradone’s.  I have fItaliound several generations of the Gradone family living in Castelvetere sul Calore, unfortunately I can’t fill in all the details until I teach myself to read Italian.  From what I have been told, mt great-grandfather Michelangelo Benedetto Gradone was the last generation to live in Castelvetere sul Calore.  Apparently his father, Salvatore Benedetto Gradone, born approximately 1848 died sometime before 1910 while still in Castelvetere sul Calore.  Salvatore’s wife, Maria Grazia Nargi (born about 1855) decided to give her children the opportunity that so many others were taking; they’re coming to America!  So Maria packed up five of her seven children and moved to the United States.  One daughter, Irene Maria Teresa Gradone, had married Michelangelo Nazzaro in Castelvetere sul Calore on December 12, 1895 and would immigrate to America seperately.  Her oldest son, Raffaele, stayed behind in Castelvetere sul Calore to become the parish priest.  The rest of the family boarded the ship San Giorgio in Naples and endured an eighteen day trip, finally arriving at Ellis Island on January 24, 1910.

Anyway, skip ahead a generation or two.  In the summer of 1983 Michelangelo Benedetto Gradone’s son, along with his wife took a vacation to Italy.  This vacation included a stop in Castelvetere sul Calore, the home of his father and several generations before.  Once they returned from their trip, Michelangelo’s son wrote a letter to his siblings about the trip to Castelvetere sul Calore and the experiences they had.  I have a copy of this letter and thought it was a great story, so I am going to share it with you as well.

July 20, 1983

Pat and I have just returned from a wonderful 16-day trip to Italy.  We spent a week in Rome and approximately a week in beautiful Sorrento.  I don’t want to bore you with a detailed account of our entire trip, but I do feel that you may be interested in the highlight of the sixteen days — out visit to Pa’s home town of Castelvetere.

We all remember how often and glowingly Pa would talk about Castlevetere, and how he had hoped to go back to visit his relatives.  Of course, he never made it.  Over the years I have often thought of going to Castlevetere in his place, but the idea seemed impractical for several reasons.  But thanks to Pat’s encouragement and insistence, we decided to give it a try — and we were able to accomplish what I had long hoped to do.

Two weeks before we left for Italy, I wrote a letter in Italia to the priest (il parroco) of the church in Castelvetere, telling him who I was, why I was coming and the approximate date of our arrival.  He recognized the name Gradone, and brought the letter to Ines Nargi, who has a mass said every year for Rafaele Gradone.  Ines, whose father Guiseppe was Pa’s cousin, was now aware that we were coming and she was awaiting our arrival.

On Tuesday, July 12, we rented a Fiat in Sorrento and began to drive to Castelvetere.  We drove from Sorrento to Castellamare to Salerno to Avellino, and then eastward toward Castelvetere.  Castelvetere is not on many maps, and most Italians didn’t seem to have heard of it.  But we knew approximately where it was, and we drove high up into the mountains — a scary drive with hairpin turns and no guard rails.  It wasn’t until we were almost there that we saw our first Castelvetere sign, which we immediately photographed.  From a distance, Castelvetere is almost a picture postcard (Pat calls it an Italian Shangri-La).  We drove through what seemed to be the only street in town, and we stopped in a sort of open square next to a church.  The first person we saw was an elderly man (Generoso), and I told him in my broken Italian who I was and that my father was born in the town.  He didn’t seem to recognize Michele Gradone, but said he knew a Rafaele Gradone, who was formerly a priest in the town.  Then we knew we were in the right place.

Generoso then disappeared and came back in a few minutes with a young girl who spoke fluent American — why shouldn’t she, since she lives in Stamford, Connecticut!  Her mother, Antonette D’Agostino, was born in Castelvetere, and the family returns to that town for a month or two each summer.  Marina is 17 years old and a high school senior — a delightful girl who was our interpreter throughout our stay in Castelvetere.  Within minutes, a crowd began to gather around us in the town square.  My letter had obviously alerted the townspeople, and they were on the lookout for us.  We went to the D’Agostino home for lunch, and it was there that Ines Nargi joined us.

Pat and I were tremendously impressed with Ines.  She is a very warm, affectionate, happy person, with a great deal of affection for the Gradone family.  She, of course, is our second cousin.  Ines gave me a letter which Pa wrote in April, 1950, to Guiseppe Nargi, in which Pa explained that his sister Ollie was going to Castelvetere that June.  He also stated that he would like to be going, too, but his daughter Norma was being married in July and consequently he was not able to leave the family.  It was an odd feeling for me as I looked at the letter, recognizing the handwriting which I had known for so many years.  Ines said I could keep that letter.

After lunch, we went to the local cemetery to try to find the remains of Rafaele.  We were told that important people of the town, such as priests, doctors, and other town officials are buried in a small mortuary.  (“Ordinary” people are buried in a cemetery plot for ten years, then their bones are placed in a small box-like container and placed in the side of a wall, with name and picture on the outside.  This frees up the space so badly needed in the cemetery.)  The mortuary was ordinarily locked, but an attendant opened it for us (for a few lire).  The building was badly damaged by the earthquake three years ago, and Italian efficiency has not yet begun to clean up the mess.  It was incredible to see boxes of bones and skulls all over the floor (I would have snitched an elbow or ankle bone if I were sure it was Rafaele’s, but there was no way to be certain.)  No other Gradones were visible to us.

It was now afternoon, and Pat and I were hot and exhausted.  They all wanted us to stay overnight, saying the all had spare bedrooms.  But we were not prepared to stay – no change of clothing, etc – so we promised to return the next day, even though it disrupted our schedule.

We drove back the next morning, arriving before eleven o’clock.  This day, coincidentally, was July 13, the anniversary of Pa’s death, which they were well aware of.  In fact, Auntie Ollie was in Ines’ home when the call cam (from Peg, I believe) notifying Ines of Pa’s death.  She did not tell Aunt Ollie, so as not to spoil her trip.  We went to the hoe of Irene Saggese, Ines’ sister for a 7-course meal.  We sat down for two hours to a wonderful meal, beginning with fusilli, and continuing with zucchini, potato dumplings, veal, salad, struvoli, gelati, fresh fruit – and, of course, the superb home-made wine which all families make for themselves.

It was time to say good-bye, since we didn’t want to drive home in the dark on those mountain roads.  The farewells lasted quite a long time, as they all tried to get us to stay over once again.  We have rolls of film of all of us strolling down the main street, arm in arm, as the rest of the town looked on.  Ines, her husband Luigi, Irene, her husband Carissimo, the D’Agostinos, Generoso, Jenny and Antonio, (who run the small store where I bought 42 Castelvetere postcards), Ines’ brother and assorted townspeople all waved a final farewell as we drove away.  It was a moving experience for all of us.  They made us promise to return some day, and we might just do that!

This is a rather disjointed letter, and I’m sure that I’ve omitted some interesting items.  For example, Ines showed us the house where Pa lived, and we took pictures of it.  Another thing I should mention is the positive and affectionate feelings everyone in Castelvetere had toward Rafaele.  They feel that it wasn’t easy for him when his entire family left to go to America, leaving him without family and support.  He is remembered most fondly by all who knew him.

In conclusion, I must tell you of my feelings of Castelvetere and the people whom we met there.  Castelvetere is a beautiful town — not beautiful in the way we would judge a town in America — but it has a simpleness, and unspoiled beauty that is difficult to put into words.  The same may be said for the people; they are simple, loving, affectionate.  There is a purity to the entire scene that makes me want to go back some day soon.  Pat feels as strongly about this as I do.  I should say that Pat was great with the relatives there.  Despite her limited Italian, she communicated beautifully with them, and they loved her openness and enthusiasm.

I shall send you all some photographs when they are ready — hopefully they will come out well, even though we used a new camera.  As for the four rolls of movie film, we shall pack our projector and screen and hit the road with them.  We’ll call it the Road to Castelvetere.

Great letter, eh?  I sure wish I could see those pictures and videos too, but this letter is pretty awesome in itself.

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