True Beginning of My Fascination with Calascio

Joyce B. introduced me to the book, Italian Hilltowns by Norman F. Carver. Carver’s beautifully evocative black and white photos of hilltowns across Italy included several photos of Calascio including one of  the Rocca Calascio castle. The mystery of the photos worked on my imagination and my wallet. I bought copies for several relatives. Carver, who is also an architect, wrote about the history of the architecture and the urban design of the towns. Small diagrams showed the organic town structures.

Archway in Calascio

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I met Joyce B. when I lived in Seattle in the early 80’s. She worked in a weaving store and I was a weaver. Joyce had just returned from living in Italy for a year. She visited Calascio where she still had relatives. For a brief time we thought we might be related. Then my Aunt Ida explained that she and Joyce’s mother were good friends. So Joyce and I are Calascini cogine, but not technically related.

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Exploring Calascio

View of Calascio and Rocca Calascio from the cemetery

View of Calascio and Rocca Calascio from the cemetery

June 27, 2011

After treating my dehydrated body to a coke, I walked to the castle. I was alone at the castle for a while. First it felt scary to walk alone along the massive walls. As I relaxed it became magical. Then other tourists arrived to break the spell. Most were Italian, but some were English, Scottish or  German. Later I tried to beg a ride down to the town of Calascio from Paolo, the hotel owner. He gave me the phone numbers of the three Americans in Calascio. Paolo said I should buy a house here and learn Italian with the other Americani. He had his children direct me to the path. The path is much quicker than the road. It crosses the road 3 or 4 times.

I walked through the town and found churches, buildings that were empty, buildings with large cracks, a building with workers, and many buildings with flowers in front and lace in the windows. One of the first streets I found was Via di Mezzo la Terra or middle Earth Street. I felt suddenly transported to a Tolkien novel.

Via di Mezzo La Terra

At 4 pm I found a computer in Vittoria’s Bar on the lowest or main street where I had a gelato. The girl behind the counter said I could use the computer “quando vuole”. Vuole, “you want,” is a word I studied very much, but it took me a minute to register that she was actually offering me free access to a computer.

The step-bridge that Vittoria crosses to get from her house to the road.

The step-bridge that Vittoria crosses to get from her house to the road.

After writing home, I headed back up the hill to return to my room. On the top street, I began to look for the start of the path. I knew I was close. I watched a woman walk over a stepped metal bridge that connected the door to her house to the road and then I asked her where the path was using my best Italian. She didn’t understand me, so she shouted down the hill to a man. When she said I was Americani, he quickly found several other people. Suddenly there were people asking me where I was from in English. “Wisconsin”. “Where in Wisconsin?” “Eau Claire.” “NO! We’re from Ettrick!” Thus I met Marissa and Fred who have a house in Calascio and a farm about one hour from my house in Eau Claire. In no time I was sitting at their dining room table discussing our ancestors and Windber, Pennsylvania. I heard their story: how Fred came to Calascio to find his roots and met Marissa. They have been married for 42 years. Marissa said, “We are all Calascini, we are all cousins.”

It felt like I was back in Windber in a relative’s kitchen. Everyone knows about Windber. When Calascini emmigrated in the late 1800’s, either they went to Windber, Pennsylvania or to Riverton or Toluca, Illinois. Everyone was racking their brains for my family connections.

Marissa

Hiking to the Summit

Count the sheep as they jump over the water trough.

The third day of hiking was much like the the first in length and intensity. We started at Agriturismo Valle Scannese da Gregorio where many stayed for the night. Gregorio’s farm is close to Scanno and features a restaurant, retail shop, and rooms.

We ended the day at 1666 m. (5,466 ft.) at  Stazzo Casone Chiarono. Literally this translates as the big sheepfold house of Chiarano. The shepherds will stay at this large shepherd hut with the sheep until the August transhumanza. Mountains and rocky outcroppings ring this high green plain. Brown ski slopes of Monte Pratello crisscross one mountain to the east.

We are treated to traditional shepherd’s steak (bread topped with cheese and mint and baked with milk) and a stew mixture made of a dandelion-like wild greens served over dry bread. After staying to watch the Romanian cheesemaker make fresh ricotta, we pile into his car for the ride back to Anversa. With loud Romanian folk music blasting, we drove down to the National park entrance, through valley towns and back to the restaurant for one more meal as a group.

View from 1666 m. (5,466 ft.).

We made it!

Fresh ricotta ready after twenty minutes.

Fresh ricotta ready after twenty minutes.

Transhumanza History Resources

While at the Shanti Centre, I found a trove of books on Abruzzo travel and some history books. I started to read Abruzzo Along the Shepherds’ Tracks and took some notes. Stephanie graciously offered the book to me since it was my history. I am especially grateful now that I cannot find it new, only used. A search online this morning turned up this abbreviated version online: http://www.abruzzomoliseheritagesociety.org/TRATTURIeTRANSUMANZA.pdf

The publisher of the book does have ABRUZZO. Guida Storico-Artista and advertises it as the guide selected by George Clooney for the film “The American”. I found an English version: Abruzzo. History and Art Guide.

Walking through Scanno

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Scanno and its people have been favorite subjects for photographers, such as Henry Cartier-Bresson, Pietro di Rienzo and Mario Giacomelli.  After leaving the lake area, we walked the sheep through the crooked and stepped streets of this charming medieval hilltown. Here we became the subject of many photographs by both tourists and towns people . Leaving … Continue reading

Shepherds, Abruzzo Mountain Life and the Transhumanza Tradition

Two shepherds and participant

From pre-Roman times until the late 1900’s all aspects of  life in an Abruzzo hilltown were shaped by sheep-rearing and the wool industry. Because the pastures for large flocks were outside of the towns, villages became tightly knit houses and fortresses clinging to steep hillsides. Those who profited from the sheep, built beautiful homes in the villages and gave generously to the local churches. The majority of men lived away from the village for most of the year. The transhumanza was traditionally a way to feed the sheep during the long, harsh Abruzzo winters. Snow covered the ground all winter. So in September, the shepherds took the sheep south all the way to warmer Puglia where the grass flourished in the winter, but dried out in the summer.  They returned along the same legislated trails or tratturi in May to take advantage of the lush pastures in the mountains. There were four major tratturi in the region. The shepherds from Anversa, Scanno, and Sulmona would take one of the inland routes. The shepherds from Calascio would head toward the  Adriatic coast walking almost 250 kilometers on their way to Foggia, Puglia.

When the shepherds returned in May, they took the sheep to the higher pastures in the mountains of the region. The shepherds were given two days off of work every fifteen days during the summer. The shepherds were slaves. They may have owned five sheep of their own, but worked for the wealthy families. The wave of emmigration to the United States in the late 1800’s gave them a chance for freedom and broke the economic system of the wealthy families. The transhumanza was in jeopardy at the time as new laws in Puglia encouraged crop growing.  Grazing land began to disappear as social and economic changes dismantled the system of sheep-rearing and craft production that sustained the region for many centuries. There are few to no Italian shepherds anymore. The shepherds on our transhumanza were Romanian.

The shepherds on our trek used a combination of whistles, sticks, dogs, and a mule to guide the sheep. The sheep seemed to follow the mule. The shepherds whistled signals to the mule, dogs, or sheep. I am not sure which. If a sheep started to stray or became lazy, the shepherd beat the ground near the slowpoke with his bastone. I would hear, “vai, vai, vai” and chants almost like football cheers, “Hey, hey”. Once in a while I understood a word like “pigra”, lazy. One older sheep gave up and a shepherd tied it to a horse for part of the trip. The white Abruzzo sheep dogs were gentle and circled around the edges of the herd when they were stopped to graze. They mingled easily with people in between working stints. Once in a while all the dogs would take off in one direction barking and running into the woods. Wolves are present in the Abruzzo parks and have taken a few of Nunzio’s sheep in recent weeks. I never found out, however, what the dogs were after on one of these escapades. They may have just been chasing something tasty to eat. There were about 20 dogs all told, some the white mastiffs and some black and white.

Sheep dogs hard at work!!

Sheep dogs

Shepherd's Chapel