On September 7, 1968, we flew to Europe with Viola’s parents, Ralph and Erminia Nevy for a three-week vacation. He was 79 and she was 70. We were 47 years old. The day before we left, Ralph suddenly asked Erminia why they were packing. He probably had a small stroke. After an hour his confusion cleared.
We would go ahead with our trip. Inez visited with us while we waited for our evening departure from Kennedy Airport. A picture I took of Ralph suggests his bewilderment. When Ralph saw the sunrise from the plane window he asked if the pilot would let him go out onto the top of the plane to get a better view. He always enjoyed the view.
In mid afternoon, reeling from jet lag, we registered in a small family run hotel to sleep a few hours. The town was Altdorf (meaning high village), in Switzerland. There was a statue at the town fountain of a man with a crossbow. His son stood beside him holding an apple. It was William Tell’s hometown! It was still daylight, so we walked the path along the mountainside at the edge of the village, enjoying the clear air and looking at the high mountains all around us.
We entered Italy through St. Gotthard Pass, we were aware of the change from tranquil Switzerland to a loud raucous Italy. As we drove down the road past small villages, Ralph suddenly exclaimed: “Stop! That’s the village where Condido Barbieri lives!”
“Who is Condido?”
“You remember, he worked as a pastry chef in Cumberland. He went on family picnics with us and brought along beautifully decorated cakes. He returned to Italy when he couldn’t find enough pastry work in Cumberland.”
We hailed a young boy on a bicycle and asked if he knew where Condido Barbieri lived. The boy said, “Follow me.” He rode through the old gates, around sharp curves, then up a slight hill. He stopped, rested one leg on the ground and pointed to an old two story stone house with a large outside circular stairway.
Ralph got out and hollered to the old man leaning on the railing above watching this red car with Swiss license plates.
“Condido! Its me, Ralph?”
“Who? I don’t know you.” ”
“Yes you do. It’s Ralph Nevy, Cumberland Macaroni.”
He joyfully called to us to climb the wide circular iron stairway to meet his wife. He quickly explained that he was engaged to this beautiful irresistible young girl before coming to Cumberland. “How could a young man resist her charm? She was so beautiful. Then when I learned she was pregnant with my child I did a cowardly thing and took off for America. I didn’t know it, but she lost the baby. She was so beautiful that I was sure she would have married by now. But when I returned from Cumberland she was still single, so we married.” His aging wife smiled proudly as he explained.
We entered the simply furnished dining room lighted by a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling warming the happy flies that entered through the unscreened shuttered windows and buzzed around the light.
The espresso coffee pot was filled and dark bitter thick coffee was poured into small cups. Then sweetened with much sugar and flavored with grappa, a harsh brandy made by distilling wine. A few almond cookies added to the hospitality. Old friends talked while I took photographs of these timeworn faces as they relived experiences of half a century before.
Later, we drove out of the valley into the flat country of Po Valley. The river had been channeled for centuries to flood rice fields as far as the eye could see. Rice dishes, risotto, are as varied and famous in Northern Italy as pasta in the South. We have an Italian cookbook that lists over 100 ways to serve risotto.
Days later, the flat country of Po Valley was replaced by higher and higher mountains, the foothills of Mt. Blanc (Monte Bianco, in Italian). The air was clear and cool. Walled fortified castles high on stone outcroppings guarded narrow stretches of the valley.
It was getting late in the day. Up, up we drove on the winding narrow road without guardrails. Nonnie, in the back seat, shrieked at every turn. At last we arrived at a new buff colored inn, three stories high, with a breath taking view of the great wide valley below and snow-capped peaks all round. Oh yes, they had rooms, so we registered.
The wife cooked and the husband served us a marvelous dinner. The only other guests were three rustic men who were woodcutters in the woods above the inn. After dinner the owner brought out his accordion and sang a few Old Italian mountain songs. One of the woodcutters played too and sang more songs. We all joined in. Nonnie was in her glory. I then offered to play the accordion. They tapped their feet, as I played.
We walked out onto the wide balcony. The sky was clear, the air was fresh. There was a slim crescent of a moon among the millions of stars. And a delightful sweet odor coming from the newly mowed hay and the cow barn nearby. All up and down the mountains across from us we saw lights coming on in the many farmhouses scattered in this bucolic setting.
The next morning, back on the main road we headed for Aosta. Dad told me that around the next bend I should slow down because there would be a series of spectacular waterfalls on our left. He had been there as a soldier in 1916, over 50 years ago. And there it was! It was a pleasant place to stop for a picnic lunch. After eating Nonnie held her breath while this agile 79-year-old man stepped gingerly from rock to rock beside the waterfalls, wanting to once more relive his youth.
Aosta was an important Roman outpost on the trip across the Alps. It has well preserved stonewalls from 2,000 years ago. I had studied the Michelin Guide in detail and knew I could find the ancient amphitheatre. After several wrong turns Dad finally asked if he could direct me. After all, he had been an Alpine soldier stationed here to guard the city gate. A turn left, a right, and we were there!
Finishing our tour of the 2,000-year-old stone structures, we headed up the road once more. A few miles before reaching Courmayeur, Dad now directed me to turn left on the road to Petit St. Bernard Pass to “La Thuile,” a gathering of several old buildings where he had been stationed as an Italian soldier in training before being sent to North Africa. We stopped at the large, square three story stone building that had been his barracks.
We entered the walled courtyard. Here were perhaps 30 pairs of children’s alpine boots, lined up in neat rows, airing in the sunshine. A dignified lady with her gray hair in a net and in a white smock with an emblem embroidered on the pocket patch answered the door. She listened to Dad’s story of his experiences there. She explained it was now a summer camp allowing poor children from the cities to spend a week or so in a mountain setting. She offered to let him see his old room. He decided it was too much trouble for her. I took his picture pointing to the window of his room. And a picture of him pointing to the mountain where he had once recklessly climbed to pick edelweiss blossoms.
We continued up the road to the top of the pass at 7,111 feet, the border between Italy and France. Large concrete anti-tank barriers on either side of the road extended up the mountainside blocking any way to go around the fortified guard station. There were countless bullet holes on all sides of the cement barriers. A marble memorial had been erected in 1950, written in French:
Here 28 French were assassinated by the Germans in August 1944
We drove back to Courmayeur, the last village before the massive Mt. Blanc, tallest mountain in Europe, 4807 meters, 15,869 feet above sea level. The vehicular tunnel to France had been opened in 1965, just three years before.
We settled into a pleasant inn near the center of Courmayeur for dinner and bed. The next day we boarded a series of three chair lifts to reach the broad snow fields from where we could see the Po Valley and across into France. It was fall in Courmayeur and there were fields of blue crocus blooming in the green hay fields, yet skiers were boarding the lifts. There was still plenty of snow high on the mountain in the saddle below the peak. Had we wished, we could have continued taking lifts down the other side, to French Chamonix, where the tunnel ended.
At the top of the third lift Ralph and Erminia posed for a photograph in front of a stone monument of Christ on a cross with mountain climbing gear draped round. Carved in French on one side and Italian on the other it said:
If all the people of the world would extend a hand…
The next night we stayed in Sestri Levante at “Vis a Vis,” a lovely hotel perched on a rock high above this charming seaport town. We parked below and reached the hotel through a long walkway carved in the solid rock, then took an elevator to the lobby.
The wind was now whipping salt spray off the sea. The sky was dark. But we were excited. Tomorrow we would drive across the mountains to Bergotto, where Ralph was born and left when he was 15. He last visited in 1930. What can we expect thirty-eight years later? Who would be still living there?
He did not need a map. He knew the way. We finally stopped at a small stone building with only a door, no windows. It was here that his father received supplies from merchants who would go no further with their wares. His father built this as a storehouse while transporting the merchandise on the back of his donkey to the small town above.
On either side of the entrance to the church was white marble plaques engraved with the names of soldiers from the village that died in the Great War of 1918 and World War II just 20 years before. Many names were the same as his relatives in Cumberland: Spagnoli, Avalli, Grassi.
The Germans had stolen the bells during the war to make shell casings. After the war the Nevy brothers in Cumberland paid for new bells. I remembered a family photograph of the presentation of the new bells for the church.
I started up the stairs to take a picture of the bells. Pigeon manure and leaves cluttered the steps. The steps ended, replaced by a rickety ladder. At the next level this was replaced by a poorly constructed crude ladder of poles with light twigs for rungs. I was almost to the bells. I looked up. I looked down. What if I were to fall? Then I cautiously backed down into the dark church.
I went outside and found Viola with her mother and father looking sadly at the empty village fountain where for years the cattle gathered at one side to drink, while, on the other side the women visited while they beat their laundry on the slanted stone washboards. No one was there to care.
I asked Ralph where his home was? Where was he born? He lifted his head, turned toward the mountains rising behind the few houses, and waving his hand above his head: “Oh, it was up there in the hills, up there. We can’t go there anymore. Let’s get out of here.”
We got back in the car and headed down the hill. No one said much.
We started down out of the hills on the road to Parma at the edge of the Apennine Mountains to head across Po Valley to Lake Garda. A road sign pointed to Borgo Val di Taro. Here Italina, wife of Ralph’s brother Louie, had been born. Her real name was Natelina. It was siesta time on a quiet Sunday afternoon. We spoke to a few ladies standing about talking. “Yes, Italina had visited here years ago. Her sister now lives with her son and family over the mushroom factory nearby. And wasn’t it a shame that Italina wanted to come back here but her mean sons in America put her in a nursing home.”
One of the ladies walked with us down to the factory. An unlighted neon sign above the factory door stated: L. Bruschi, Fungi (Mushrooms). The family was home; Italina’s old sister, her son and wife, and young daughter. We visited for an hour or so. We said we were heading for Parma, birthplace of Arturo Toscanini.
We made one more stop before reaching Parma that day. The Nevy brothers and Cumberland Macaroni once owned a villa at Fornovo. “Lets take a look.” It was occupied by a religious order of priests. German officers had used it as a barracks during their occupation. The once magnificent gardens were overgrown. The priest at the door was kind, but what was there to see?
In Parma the next morning we toured the ancient cathedral and large baptistery near our hotel. The large buildings were of rose-colored marble and built in 1196. We put coins into a switch box to light the 13th century frescoes for a few minutes at a time.
Now it was time to visit Erminia’s relatives across Po Valley, 15 miles north of Verona. We stopped in Garda, the village on the southern tip of Lake Garda. As we walked along the lake mother remarked: “It was here my mother died. We were staying in a small boarding house nearby. I wonder if they still have the picture of her we left when she died.”
Then she stopped walking. She just stood there. “I don’t want to see San Giorgio. After what we saw in Bergotto, I want to remember it as it was. I haven’t heard from those relatives in years. I don’t even know if they are still alive.”
“O.K.” I said, “We are only a few miles from there. I want to see where you lived as a child. You wait here while I run up there for a look.”
“Well, in that case, I may as well go too.”
We four got back into the car and started up the hill, through well-tended vineyards that yield the wonderful, robust full-bodied Valpolicella wines.
We rounded the last turn and entered this clean, neat, well-ordered village perched atop a gentle hilltop. “There, there is my grandmother’s house. I wonder who lives there now.”
I stopped and let her get out of the car. Hesitatingly, she walked to the open door of the house where she spent many years of her childhood. I noticed there was a small grocery store next to the house. The two ladies in the store were most pleasant.
Then mother came rushing back from the house: “Come, come. My cousin Antonio and his wife Christina live here now. And my other cousin Riccardo lives next door. In fact, his wife runs this little store. Both men work in the marble factory we just passed coming up the hill.”
Her family greeted us warmly. Then Erminia said: “Well, we must be going.”
“Good,” said Christina, “See you in another 30 years. But if you stay tonight, we’ll have your uncle over, and all your other relatives.” She ticked off their names. “You can stay here with us.”
There was a small hotel in the village and I walked the short distance to find a room for Viola and me. A convention of marble workers had ended that day and the handsome, earthy, blonde blue-eyed young manager was busy cleaning rooms. She showed me a room with two beds. She winked at me. “We can push the beds together for you and your wife.” (This is all in Italian)
Realizing her sense of humor I said “How do you know I’m not too old?” She looked at my white hair and youthful features and said: “Nevi sulla testa, un fuoco interno.” “With snow on the roof, there has to be a fire in the furnace.”
By the time I got back to the house they had arranged for Viola and me to also stay there with them. They sent young Guiseppe, Antonio’s son, down to cancel my hotel reservation.
Christina, Antonio’s wife, was short, somewhat chubby, and full of smiles. “Well, Americano, what would you like to have for dinner?” Christina asked. My stomach pains were now gone.
“I’ve heard Northern Italians eat a lot of polenta. I’d like polenta.”
“Done,” she said, “I’ve got some in the house. But that is peasant food. We’ll cook braciole (pork chops) too. They go well together. And a salad from our garden.”
Guiseppe, 12 years old, went about the village telling relatives Erminia was here. We met the rest of the family as they dropped in on their way home from work. Ricardo and Antonio greeted us before showering in preparation for dinner.
Christina poked the fire in the ancient large raised marble hearth fireplace, using a German bayonet left in a nearby field by retreating Germans 20 years ago. The child’s chair where mother used to sit by the fire on this large slab was still in place.
Christina began cooking. With a large wooden spoon she stirred and stirred the corn meal mush in the copper pot hanging from a hook over the fire. When she was satisfied it was done she poured the rich golden liquid onto a round breadboard. It flowed toward the edge, stopping just short of the lip. A steaming golden loaf of cooked polenta! She let it cool while she cooked the pork and prepared the green fresh salad her 14-year-old Donatella just picked in the neat garden below the house. How many generations over the centuries have gardened there?
Antonio had showered and was in fresh clothes when he went around the outside of the house to the cool cellar, cut out of bed rock underneath the centuries old home. He brought up a bottle of Recioto della Valpolicella he had made a few years before. This famous wine is produced by withering the grape before pressing. The grapes are dried on racks in the attic to increase the sugar content before pressing.
Ernest Hemingway described Recioto wine as “Light, dry, red, and as cordial as the home of a brother with whom you get on very well.” Long centuries before that it was praised by Virgil and Pliny the Elder.
When the meal was ready, Christina took a long thin string and, holding it at both ends, slid the string under the cooling polenta, then, lifting it upward in a sawing motion she cut serving slices which she placed on our plates and slathered it with fresh butter and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. She placed the cooked pork next to it. And the wine flowed.
When dinner was over and the others relaxed, I walked out of the yard into the narrow street that overlooked the broad valley. I could see acres of well-tended vineyards. The lights of Verona were being turned on in the distance. Several men, standing there chatting, greeted me. In my halting Italian I explained who I was, and my wife and I had brought my Italian in-laws to their homes one last time. Two of the men had been to America! They had been taken prisoner by the American Army in North Africa when fighting alongside the German Army for Mussolini. They sat out the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp in Indiana and had fond memories of the kindness they received.
As evening came on, Erminia’s relatives began arriving, each bearing a bottle of their best wine. The chattering and laughing was going to last a long time.
I discovered something wonderful about those wines, besides the fact that one tasted better than the last. I discovered with each glass of Italian wine my command of the language improved. When they finally were leaving around midnight I was fluent. Or was I?
Mother and Dad slept in the bed of her grandparents. We were in a comfortable old bed in Riccardo’s house next door.
In the morning we opened the shutters set in stonewalls perhaps four feet thick and looked across the valley, past miles of vineyards below.
Christina stirred up the fire again with her German bayonet, and toasted some of the left- over polenta, serving it with fig preserves made from the tree in their yard and a piece of local cheese. We downed several cups of caffe latte, coffee half-and-half with warm milk. Then we toured the ancient church built on the ruins of a pagan temple. Human settlement on this limestone hilltop has been documented to the first millennium B.C. Then the Romans arrived in the second and first century before Christ. Human settlement has been well documented here continually for over 3,000 years. Gradually pagan cults were replaced with the adoption of Christianity. The stone altar in the church still bears the grooves that allowed sacrificial animal blood to drain away.
At the time of our visit in 1968 the Catholic priest assigned there carefully excavated and documented artifacts he found. He proudly showed us the progress he was making. Much work lay ahead and he knew it.
Our visit to San Giorgio was over. These kind people were still recovering from the ravages of the World War. We insisted they allow us to leave some money.
Our promise to return these two once more to their hometowns was fulfilled. We headed back through our beloved Austrian Alps. We all enjoyed visiting Cortina, Innsbruck, Zell am Zee, Saltzburg and even Munich for an evening at the Octoberfest.
Then it was time to return the car in Zurich and home.
Soujourn 1997 (a return visit)
In May 1997, myself and my wife, Viola, again visited Bergotto and San Giorgio. This time with our daughter Barbara and her 21-year-old daughter Kristin.
With us too were our dear friends Larry and Jan Gaydos.
The Italian government had completed an engineering marvel in an Autostrada to connect La Spezia to Parma across the formidable barrier of the spine of the Apennine Mountains. This road passes within a few miles of Bergotto.
The post war economy in Italy has enabled Italians to reclaim old farmhouses and make them into comfortable summer and weekend homes.
The Spagnoli family of Bergotto saw this opportunity and built a restaurant renowned for its cuisine. Their specialty is wild boar served with several native mushroom dishes. Michelin’s Redbook gives it four stars. Houses in the area have been upgraded and have a central water supply. But the village fountain is still dry! That will be fixed soon.
The church, now restored, was locked except for services so I couldn’t climb up to photograph the Nevy bells. The cemetery is once again well tended.
We joined the Spagnoli family for an unforgettable Sunday gourmet dinner. Arnerio and Alfio Spagnoli then took us in their two four-wheel drive vehicles up the barely passable road to walk in the fields where Viola’s father tended sheep as a child, and to walk into the now abandoned house where he was born.
Barbara picked up a stone from the house, then, at the Nevy family reunion in Cumberland that summer, placed it on Ralph’s grave.
The visit to San Giorgio a week later was no less delightful. We had written we were coming. The Fiorato family sent us an answer by fax that they would be delighted to see us again.
Sadly, Christina had just buried her husband Antonio ten days before, however she didn’t want us to cancel our visit.
Guiseppe, now a grown man, introduced us to his 12-year-old son. They had arranged for us to stay in the hotel that had been upgraded to meet the demand for wedding parties who want to start their married lives in the church that had endured for over 2000 years. Ricco, a Down’s Syndrome child who we met when he was three, now safely walks about this gentle village where he is treated with only kindness.
The family accepted our invitation to join us for dinner at the hotel that evening and we were later joined by the other relatives we had met on our visit 30 years ago. The extensive menu included pony and donkey meat.
The priest/archeologist had died, but the excavations and conservation of San Giorgio he started has continued. There was a fine modern museum displaying the artifacts and the history. We knelt in the church and remembered Viola’s mother who had so many happy memories here, as a child and on our visit 29 years before.
As we were leaving, Riccardo led me down and around the side of the old house to the cellar carved in the bedrock. He climbed up to a shelf and selected two bottles of his best Recioto della Valpolicella to carry on our trip. A few days later, sitting in our room in San Moritz, Switzerland, our trip about over, we opened the wine and toasted our good fortune and the wonderful memories of our visits to Bergotto and San Giorgio.
Ernest Hemingway, Virgil and Pliny the Elder knew what they were talking about.
William H. Orsinger, M.D.
September 1, 1998