Saturday, January 12, 2019

Take a family heritage trip to Italy for a meaningful, unforgettable experience


If your ancestors came from Italy, you should strongly consider taking a family heritage trip to explore your roots. In recent years, various touring organizations have sprung up to offer customized tours of the home villages of one’s ancestors, combined with genealogical research to expand one’s family tree. While I’ve managed to do this on my own by learning Italian, living in Italy part time and devoting many weeks to research, not everyone has the time and resources to do that. The next best thing is to pay someone in Italy to help you plan a customized trip, where you can visit your ancestral villages and possibly even meet living relatives.

Cassandra Santoro, the founder of Travel Italian Style, offers family heritage trips along with other travel planning services. Send her what you know about your Italian ancestors and she’ll partner with Italian genealogists and researchers to explore your family tree and then take you on a tour of your ancestors’ home city or village.

“From genealogy research to meeting relatives in your familys village in Italy, anything is possible with our team of experts,” Cassandra said. “There’s nothing better than a bilingual tour guide to walk you through the streets and discover the areas where your family lived and worked. We can even book you a cooking experience, so you can learn recipes from the local area that your family comes from.”

Elena, Paul and Andrea
If your ancestors come from the area of my roots, between Lucca and Montecatini, you can make no better choice than to put yourselves in the able hands of tour guide and interpreter Elena Benvenuti and researcher Andrea Mandroni. Elena knows the area’s history well—she’s Tripadvisor’s number one rated attraction in Montecarlo—and Andrea is the premier local genealogist. Andrea can search out your family tree, and Elena, who speaks English well, can show you the towns and churches where your ancestors came from. Born and raised in Lucca, Elena even offers cooking classes that feature her family’s local recipes.

Giuseppe Daniele Pantera, taken between
1860 and 1880.
I recently recommended Elena and Andrea to Paul Jurmo, a friend I met through the Internet. Following my advice, he and his wife and son wrote to Elena and Andrea and planned a trip to Montecatini. They met up in nearby Montecarlo to hear Andreagenealogy discoveries and to learn about the nearby town of San Gennaro, where Paul’s great grandfather Giuseppe Daniele Pantera and earlier ancestors had originated.

I was very grateful for the care Andrea took in making my family tree and providing documentation, and in how he clearly presented the information and patiently responded to my questions when we met,” Paul said. “Elena is a very knowledgeable, professional and personable tour guide, and she and Andrea were a great team, both informative and friendly. I highly recommend them.”

Paul discovered the names and dates and places of birth of about 35 ancestors and cousins that were previously unknown to him. He learned some history of San Gennaro, and, after leaving Andrea and Elena, he and his wife and son visited the town and its church to get a feel for the place where Giuseppe Pantera had been born and raised. Paul wrote a very complete report for his American relatives, and he also shared a copy with me.

These are some excerpts from his pilgrimage to San Gennaro, which took place on Christmas morning of 2018:

We drove along back roads for about 30 minutes from Montecatini Terme, passing through small nearby towns (including Collodi, where the author of the Pinocchio story spent time as a boy). After getting lost a few times on the winding roads, we made the turn onto the rural lane to San Gennaro. We drove slowly up a hill through pretty olive groves. As we rose higher on the hill, we stopped for beautiful vistas and looked out over the rolling hillsides and to distant mountains on the horizon. One could imagine life on that same road in those same orchards two hundred or more years ago.


The Pieve di San Gennaro, the church that the Pantera families attended in Italy. 
Old stone houses began appearing along the roadside. We drove the final stretch of the road and into a parking lot at the edge of the village main street, which serves as the backbone of the community and is lined with old three- and four-story residences painted in yellow and other eye-pleasing Italian-style colors. The village was quiet, with no cars on the narrow street and only a very few people walking along. It appeared that most people weren’t home, maybe visiting elsewhere on Christmas Day or at the village church. We walked to one end of the street and then back up the street in the direction of the church, whose tower could be seen poking its head up over the houses at the other end of the village. I wondered whether our ancestors had lived in one or more of these houses or perhaps in another house on the outskirts of the village.

As we made our way up the hill, we made a final turn that took us to a small cobblestone plaza in front of the church. Christmas Mass was underway. We didn’t want to intrude, so we waited outside, listening to the congregants singing and the priest praying. Then the church bells began ringing and the parishioners emerged from the front door. Not wanting to be intrusive, we didn’t get too close, though I secretly was hoping to catch a glimpse of someone who looked like one of the Pantera aunts or uncles I’d grown up with. Though I didn’t quite see anyone who fit that description, I did see a lot of nice-looking, friendly, well-dressed people greeting each other and looking like they were happy to be together on such a special day and beautiful morning.

After most of the congregants had walked or driven away, we went into the church, which we had read was built around the 13th century on the site of an even older church. The church was not one of the big cathedral-type churches that tourists tend to visit in places like Italy. We took photos of the interior and exterior from different angles, which showed the altar, the priest, his lay assistant, the pulpit, some of the paintings and other decorations, one of the holy water fountains, and the baptismal fountain. I thought that this was a place where many members of our family tree had spent a fair amount of time, being baptized, taking sacraments, attending masses, getting married and attending weddings, and attending funerals.

Paul met the priest, but they were only able to communicate on a very basic level because of language differences. However, Paul said he was greeted warmly and felt very welcome. His visit was too short to allow time to see the cemetery or seek out any possible living relatives in town, but that could be on the agenda for a future visit.

Paul’s visit shows that one doesn’t necessarily have to pay a high price and opt for complete travel arrangements. He made his reservations himself, and by paying Elena and Andrea directly, he saved a bundle over the fees needed for complete trip planning services. However, it takes time and even a bit of good fortune to find a top-notch guide who also partners with the area’s best researcher, so it could be safer to hire a complete travel service such as Travel Italian Style.

Having come to Italy myself to research my roots and see the places where my grandparents grew up, I can relate to the satisfaction that Paul felt. I’ve been fortunate enough to live in Montecarlo long enough to meet dozens of living relatives and other members of the local community—a source of great pleasure and fulfillment. Seeing the homes, streets, places of work and churches where my ancestors were born, baptized, married and gathered for worship evokes feelings that are difficult to describe and impossible to duplicate.


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