My husband and I have just returned from a wonderful vacation to Italy. One reason for our trip was to visit the beautiful mountain town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio in the L’Aquila province, the town my father, Ettore Valsi, was born in and where generations of our family called home. Our family lineage on my grandfather’s side dates back to the mid 1700s and my grandmother’s family (the Ciccis and Iannarellis) dates back to the late 1600’s. My grandparents left Santo Stefano in 1921.
My grandfather Luigi was, like so many of his neighbours, a farmer. As work and money became less available in the early C20th, he left Santo Stefano on three to four occasions for an extended period of time to travel overseas to Canada where he worked for Canadian National Railroad, and then down in Pennsylvania’s coal mines. Money was sent home to my grandmother Michela and their first son…soon he would be the father to another son (my father).
I have often wondered how hard it must have been for him to leave this beautiful village, his family and friends. However, after visiting Santo Stefano and seeing the surnames of people who still live there, I realised he wasn’t alone when he decided to bring his family permanently to America. Walking through the town’s cemetery, I recognized so many names of those that my family used to visit that lived nearby. Even Santo Stefano’s newly elected mayor Antonio D’Aloisio was a name I instantly recognised from visiting a man with the same name and his family, while growing up Indiana.
My father has always colourfully talked about where his family was from; so for me, to actually go and stay there was really an amazing experience. With the help of Rita Visioni, the owner of the Villa Valsi, I was able to meet some of the locals and have the privilege of meeting and talking with the wonderful people who call Santo Stefano home today. It was especially exciting staying in a villa with my family’s surname and to meet Rita’s mother who is a “Valsi”. My father has done extensive research on our family tree and although there isn’t really blood relation there anymore if I were living in SS, I would still call Rita “my cugina”. Actually, I called her that anyway. Meeting her was wonderful. I felt like we were famiglia the moment I met her.
We ate at two Santo Stefano local restaurants, one near the lago, and Tra Le Braccia Di Morfeo in the town itself. Both were excellent and the staff extremely friendly, one in Tra Le Braccia even letting us use his cell phone. Each night we finished our evenings by choosing a different flavor of gelato to sit and enjoy al fresco in the piazza with, my husband choosing the different chocolate routes, me falling in love with the coffee flavors.
We shopped in a little store name Nonna Peppina. There we met Domenico Cardelli. He spoke very little English and, unfortunately, I had not learnt as much Italian as I had hoped for before arriving. Luckily, Italians don’t always have to speak to communicate. And, thanks to his patience, we did understand each other. I told him my father was born in SS and he told us he had relatives who had also left for Canada to work. I bought some saffron and a beautiful ceramic bowl in his shop. A canvas print of the village hanging high on the wall in the shop caught my eye, and I just had to buy it; it’s now hanging in my dad’s living room. Mr. Cardelli wrapped our purchases with great care; he knew we would be carrying them back on the airplane. Before we left, he reached behind the counter and poured a small shot of excellent Brunello, a lovely way to conclude business, if only all shops were the same!
My husband enjoyed sampling the amazing cheeses in another little store. I believe he could have made a day out of staying in this store and simply tasting them all as well as the cookies left on a table to tempt and try; we bought the nut and amaretto ones delicious, thoroughly recommend.
I was on a mission to buy lentils and saffron for my brother, who is the cook of our family. It was interesting to find out how the production of both have downsized in SS itself. The lentils I did buy are not the famous original lentils once produced in SS and it’s easy to see why production has changed. SS has many visitors coming for vacations, to spend the weekends there, or people buying property for summer homes. Farming is not what most people do for a living there anymore. I was told the people who recently renovated my father’s home are from Rome. When I visited SS in 2005, renovations were just beginning and I was able to walk inside. Oh, how I would love to see the inside of it now!!!
We loved walking through the town enjoying its sounds, smells and beauty. Even with the damage from the earthquake, (it was sad to see the torre gone), it remains stunning. Even though we took many walks we still could get lost in the cleverly designed maze of streets, arches stairs and passage ways. Just when we thought we were learning our way around we would discover we must have taken a wrong turn. I am sure one of the reasons my husband wants to return is to master the challenge of knowing exactly how to maneuver through this scenic village!
The surrounding areas and towns should not be missed. The exquisite view from the top of Rocca Calascio is so worth the hike and we were so glad we made time for it. Castelli was a nice drive and the ceramics were beautiful. However, the trip would not have been complete without going to L’Aquila. We made two trips to L’Aquila because you cannot help but be amazed by the beauty of this city and the amazing people who have shown such strength and determination to rebuild their city and their lives after the earthquake. And, without a doubt, they will.
This was my husband’s first trip to Italy and Europe. I’d warned him, some towns were not made to be driven in. He discovered I was right in Santo Stefano’s neighbor Barisciano. We found ourselves with a long reserve after we came to a dead end and with no way to turn around. Sometimes wives do know what we are talking about! We didn’t find driving the road leading to SS difficult. And, we actually found the roads leading there marked well and had no problems finding it.
One tip for anyone thinking of visiting SS, is that they should know there are no ATM or bank machines in the village. The nearest one is in Barisciano.
The one unexpected and most romantic of surprises that my husband arranged (with the help of Rita Visioni) was for us to have our marriage vows renewed in the town hall in Santo Stefano. Obviously, it is much easier to get the vows renewed than get married! I realised my grandparents were married here in 1911 (100 years ago), and now, my husband and I were exchanging vows in Santo Stefano. Our trip to Italy was fabulous, but our stay in Santo Stefano was, without a doubt, the part of our trip we were most in love with. I was hoping my husband would fall in love with Santo Stefano, and he did. We hope we will be fortunate and blessed to again visit this beautiful village my family once called home.
I was born in S Stefano di Sessanio. My grandmother was a Cicci. Have you done any genealogical research on the name? I would be most interested.
Thanks from Silvana in Calgary.
S Stefano di Sessanio is probably my most favorite town in Italy. I was so sad to hear that the tower fell but am glad to see that the town is thriving again. Congrats on renewing your vows!
Great story Jeanne. I felt as if I was right there with you an Jim sampling cheese and cookies or drinking a toast!
Jeanne, I loved your story and pics! To be able to visit SS and renew your vows–what a wonderful and memorable experience!! Thank you for sharing this!
My great Grandmother was Virginia Santo Stefano, she was from Castel di Sangro, perhaps my Santo Stefano family originated in Santo Stefano?
John, it could well be the case, there are 2 Santo Stefano's in Abruzzo but Santo Stefano di Sessanio is what one could call a small town. Surnames too were taken from a family being born on the Saint's Day or sometimes adopted from them being the patron saint of their trade masons and coffin makers…