Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The ancestral home - Tovo di Sant'Agata in Valtellina

I really enjoyed the road trip today. The first part was a high-speed Autostrada affair from Padua to Brescia. We decided to take a break there and have a look around as I had never been there either and we thought we might find an internet cafe there as well. The only one we found turned out to be closed on Tuesdays - why Tuesday and not Sunday or Monday? We looked for another one, unsuccessfully, and found ourselves at the main train station. Brescia was obviously a more industrial and busy city than Padua and there seemed to be a larger percentage of immigrants (visible minorities using Canada-speak) from Asia, Africa & Middle East.

From Brescia we turned off the Autostrada and from here on the driving became much more interesting. We took quite a minor highway travelling north towards the mountains. We passed by Lago d'Iseo, a very picturesque lake not as well know as Lago di Como or Lago di Guarda, but just as beautiful and from there the climbing really started. At the top of the mountain range was the ski resort of Aprica. From there it is an extremely steep and winding goat track down into the valley on the other side where Tovo di Sant'Agata, our destination, is located. This valley lies between the range we had just crossed and the alpine range that forms the border with Switzerland. The valley stretches from Lake Como in the west to Bormio in the east and the region is called Valtellina and has its own dialect quite distinct from standard italian.

During the first half of the 20th century, many people from this area migrated to Australia, in particular to Western Australia and to North Queensland. Tovo is where my grandparents grew up and were married and had the first two of their four children before all migrating to Australia. My grandfather, Guiseppe Omodei, travelled to Australia first with one of his brothers to work and earn good money in the mines in west Australia in 1901. They both returned to Tovo, but my grandfather decided to take his wife Caterina Armanasco and two children Jane and Mary, to settle in Australia permanently, and my father Daniel and aunt Margaret were born in far north queensland where they settled.

My father visited his relatives in Tovo at least twice that I know of, the second time with my mother. My aunt Margaret also visited and maintained a correspondence with Olga Armanasco, a relative who I visited in 200 when I toured Italy with my daughter Daniella. Olga and her sisters Tullia and Iside remember my parents and Aunt Margaret quite well. The three sisters live in the same street, two of them next door to each other. I'd love to visit the three of them with my siblings all together one day. They are getting on though - in their seventies and eighties. Their grandfather, Giacomo, was a brother to my grandfather.

Legend has it that half the people in Tovo have the surname Armanasco and the other half Omodei. This is not strictly true but the proprietor of the hotel where we stayed is called Walter Armanasco and the big funeral that was held while we were in Tovo was for one Guilio Omodei. The population of Tovo is just over 500. It is one of many small villages set 2-3 km apart along the length of the valley, many of them perched precariously on the steep slopes of the mountain sides. You see them in the distance and wonder how anyone gets there as the roads are not visible through the trees. The main produce of the area is apples, grapes and dairy produce.

We arrived in Tovo in the early evening and unloaded our gear. I think the hotel proprietors were taking their annual leave before their main tourist season started so the hotel was empty but for us i think. I had booked quite a few months ago and they probably decided to close down their restaurant and take a bit of a break after accepting our booking. However, Franca, the proprietress, was there to welcome us that evening before setting off back to their holiday house near lake Como the next day. She was very chatty but spoke no English, so we struggled along getting confused but sorting things out. She rang Olga for us to let her know we were in town and showed us to her house which was only two blocks from the hotel. I had lost Olga's street address and the email address I had used previously to contact her trhough her son was no longer active so it was a surprise for her and Tullia and Iside. Tullia, the eldest, joined us for dinner at a restaurant in a nearby village before we dropped her home and called it a night.

The younger members of the family, Olga's children, grandchildren (and even a great-grandchild who was born recently) had gone for holidays to the lakeside and were coming back just after we were leaving unfortunately. They don't speak English either which is quite unusual and a bit of a surprise for me as her grandchildren are named Patrick and Denis - go figure !

My mother was not from an Italian background so unfortunately I did not learn to speak the language as a child. I studied it a bit as an adult in evening classes but I am still a beginner. I am not too bad at reading simple stuff and can manage filling out online forms alright and very basic conversation. I would love to be able to speak the language more fluently but I have decided to focus on improving my French for the next 12 months at least.

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