By Jim Ferri
My wife and I were headed to Accettura, in search of my family in Italy.
In America, first my sister and then I, had long searched for our family in Italy, and just a few days earlier, my wife Marjorie and I met my cousin Nicola and his family in the town of Maratea.
Our search saga had begun several decades earlier when my sister Patricia started to search for our family roots in Ireland and Italy. She successfully tracked many in Ireland, my mother’s side of the family, but she encountered a roadblock with the Italian search.
It was due to a lack of records when my paternal grandfather’s family emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800s. After Patricia passed away, I continued her search and, using some online tools that weren’t available to her, I was able to make the connection.
Now, my wife Marjorie and I were driving south in Italy, headed for Accettura, a small town of 1,800 nestled in the mountains of Basilicata in the insole of Italy’s boot. I couldn’t help but think of Patricia, now deceased, and what this trip would have meant for her.
People know Accettura best for the Maggio di San Giuliano, the town’s festive “wedding between trees,” which dates back to the 7th century. During the Maggio, the largest oak tree in the forest (the male) and a holly (the female) are grafted in a pagan arboreal ritual that now celebrates St. Julian. It takes 56 pairs of oxen to drag the tree from the forest for the festival that begins on Pentecost Sunday and continues for three days.
Our “Search for Pasquale” and Our Family in Italy
For a long time, we had been calling this trip our “Search for Pasquale,” a reference to my grandfather, who emigrated to America as a child 130+ years ago. In past years we’ve traveled all over Italy, mostly to the top places in the country, but never to Basilicata.
It took us three hours to get there from Maratea, about half of the time spent on winding roads through forested mountains. Then, emerging from the woods around one turn, we looked across a little valley and saw Accettura. Like so many of these Italian hill towns, it was picturesquely perched on a hilltop, isolated from everything about it.
Accettura has only one main road, Via Roma, running through it with other streets branching off. It was a quiet place without a single traffic light, and you never heard a horn blaring, even though everyone walked in the street.
It was also a place where all day long you would see men obsessively playing cards from morning to night or just sitting about in groups along the road chatting. I began to wonder whether anyone worked here.
Off to St. Nicholas
Right after we arrived, we set off for the village church, hoping the parish priest could help us with information on our ancestral search. The church was Santo Nicola, St. Nicholas, and I found it ironic that many men in our family had been given the name Nicholas, including my father. It was also my middle name.
We found the church closed but did see two workers, one of whom spoke perfect English. It turned out he had spent several years working in Newcastle, England. We chatted for a few minutes, and he told us the best time to come back.
Wanting to make the best use of our time, I also asked him for directions to the cemetery, out on the edge of town. I reasoned that it would be an excellent spot to uncover some family history. But after spending an hour or so wandering about the graves and mausoleums, we came up empty-handed. Not a single Ferri tombstone in sight anywhere.
Disappointed with the cemetery results, we set off for the municipal offices in the center of town.
Meeting “The Professor”
In searching for my family in Italy, I had emailed the municipal offices earlier, requesting information on several ancestors. Since people told me they wouldn’t reply for months, I was astonished to receive a response in just a few days. Attached to their email were official affidavits of the birth certificates of four ancestors.
Now, with Marjorie speaking in Spanish — it was close enough to Italian that they could understand several words — we were able to get the woman to search back a bit further.
After another dead end, the woman suggested that she call “the professor.” He was someone, she told us, who knew the Ferri family’s local history.
“The professor” was Angelo Labbate, a local journalist. He explained that he was very, very distantly related to the Ferri family through marriage. For the next two days, as we talked with Angelo and others in town, I continued to hear many names from the past.
My father had mentioned those family names over the years, which I had also seen in registry books from family funerals, etc. I soon wondered if I wasn’t also very, very distantly related to just about everyone in town.
Hotel San Giuliano
Interestingly, Angelo lived directly across from the Hotel San Giuliano and from his small balcony had seen us arrive. He had thought I looked familiar, and he was right. It turned out that my newly found cousin Nicola, with whom I shared a family resemblance, was Angelo’s dentist.
We stayed at the Hotel San Giuliano, a small non-descript place on a little street in the middle of town. Although it took no credit cards, I had chosen it after seeing it mentioned in a book I had just read about Basilicata and Accettura.
Unfortunately, I had learned of the book only two days before we had left the U.S. More unfortunately, the rush shipping from Amazon cost twice as much as the book itself. On the other hand, I thought San Giuliano may well be the only hotel in town.
Angelo spoke only Italian but introduced us to his son Andrea, a teacher who spoke perfect English. With Andrea translating, we learned that my great-grandfather’s brother Luigi had gone to America with the family. This was the connection to my newly found cousin Nicola. Luigi returned and bought two buildings here. One of them was the bar/café where we would meet with Angelo for espresso and conversation each day.
Thank You, Napoleon, and Father Filardi
Civil records in Italy date back only to the mid-1700s. That was when Napoleon forced the Italians to begin registering births, deaths, and marriages.
To help us delve deeper into our search for family, Angelo introduced us to the village priest, Giuseppe Filardi. In childhood he had gone to school with Angelo’s wife, Domenica.
The next day we met Father Filardi in his parish office. We were in awe when we saw the dozen or so old leather-bound books in his bookcase.
They turned out to be the mother lode of local history…church records written on parchment with a quill pen. There was line after line after line of baptismal and marriage records going back to the 14th century,.
Marjorie, who’s not even Catholic, fell in love with Father Filardi, who she thought was wonderful…wise, warm, and aware of everything happening in the town. Determined to help us, he feverishly ran his finger down through pages of records, searching for the right names.
At first, he couldn’t find any, but then stumbled upon one. He also guessed that each parent would be about 21 years old when the first child was born. He then leap-frogged back through the years to look for another. Every time he came to one of our relative’s names, he yelled “a-ha!” and slammed his hand down on the table.
But everything came to an end after about an hour when we discovered that our oldest relative, Nicolai, had moved here from a town about 50 miles away that was even smaller than Accettura. Although we had been able to track the family back another 100+ years, we knew our search in Accettura was now complete.
A Wonderful Dinner
That night we took Angelo and Domenica, Father Filardi, and Andrea and his fiancée Antonella, out to dinner. We decided on Ristorante Pezzolla di Isabella Romano in the middle of town, which Angelo had suggested. There we had a delicious dinner of regional dishes prepared by the 80+-year-old Isabella. It turned out to be another one of those memorable experiences you unearth every so often so far from home.
After dinner, we took la passeggiata, the evening walk so much a part of life in Italy. As we walked along with the priest in the middle of the road, it was evident that he knew everyone in town. People continually waved to him and every so often he would wander off to say hello to someone.
As we walked I began feeling a part of the town very much, doing what my ancestors had likely done on this same road more than a century earlier. It was an incredible and surreal feeling I had never felt anywhere else.
But at the end of it all, there was only one wrinkle in our “Search for Pasquale.” We never found Pasquale.
Although we had found the others in our family in Italy, whom I still see during my travels, Pasquale’s family had likely moved to another town, where Pasquale was born, before they left for America.
Such is life…
How to Get to Accettura:
The easiest and fastest way to reach Accettura is by car. From Rome the drive is approximately 4 hours; from Naples approximately 2½ hours.
There is no train service to Accettura, although you can travel via train and bus from Rome ($40-117 / 6 ½ hours via Potenza). There is, however, only one scheduled bus per day between Potenza and Accettura. The bus from Rome ($16-22) takes approximately 8 hours.
If You Go to Accettura:
Via Roma, 21
75011 Accettura MT, Italy
Tel: +39 0835 675008
Hotel San Giuliano
Piazza Peppino Cartoscelli, 7,
75011 Accettura MT, Italy
Tel: +39 0835 675747
If You Are Searching for Ancestors from Accettura:
Accettura City Hall
75011 Accettura – ITALY
Tel: (+39) 0835-675005
Fax: (+39) 0835-675942
Santo Nicola Church
Via Convento, 6
75011 Accettura MT, Italy