TEN DAYS OF TOURING ITALY 2011
BY TOM FRASCELLA MAY 2011
The San Felese Society’s 2011 trip to Italy has been successfully completed and a good time was experienced by all. Per our usual custom, this summary of the trip is meant to allow all those who were unable to be with us to share in our experiences and to help others possibly plan for a future trip.
We arrived in Italy as the country celebrated the 150th anniversary of Unification and on the eve of our own society’s 2012, 110th founding here in New Jersey. The early segment of the trip was designed to put us in direct contact with the people, customs and locations familiar to our ancestors and a part of our San Felese heritage.
We arrived at Napoli’s airport about 1:00 p.m. Italian time on Tuesday April 26, 2011. We were met at the airport by our ABC tours guide Domenico who greeted us warmly and directed us to our waiting bus for the ride to the hotel. Domenico would remain with us for our entire tour and proved to be a valuable, knowledgeable and helpful resource throughout.
From the airport we began our two and one half hour bus trip southeast to our hotel on the outskirts of the ancient Appian Mountain town of Melfi. We had prearranged our trip to include three nights at the hotel in Melfi, using that location as our home base for the early part of the trip. The trip to Melfi was accomplished by using major highways and from the beginning we began our learning experience. After a brief discussion, prompted by our guide we opted to stop about half way for a forty-five minute lunch break. This was recommended as our guide explained that dinner was not scheduled until 7:00 p.m. We learned on the bus ride that 7:00 p.m. and extending to about 9:00 p.m. is the traditional dinner time window at most restaurants in Italy.
Lunch was a modest affair, eaten at an auto stop on the highway, something like a rest stop on the turnpike here. Domenico instructed us on the particulars of ordering and paying and we experienced our first transactional exchange. The food was good and we worked out the register custom, going back to the bus with a sense of accomplishment.
Our bus route had us travel past the back side of Mt. Vesuvius and follow a road network that slowly ascended into the Appenine Mountain range, sometimes called the spine of Italy. As we travelled southeast Domenico was sure to point out the major landmarks, locations and specialties of food and wine that each area was known for. His narratives were very helpful and shortened the trip to Melfi for us.
We arrived at the hotel RELAIS LA FATTORIA about 4:30 in the afternoon. This is a four star hotel located on the outskirts of Melfi about five miles from the center of the old town square. The hotel itself I would describe as modern upscale mountain lodge in design. It had beautiful front lawns, which because it was rainy and overcast we couldn’t fully enjoy, and window views of the surrounding countryside which was covered in vineyards. Since 2003 Melfi has been the home of Italy’s largest fiat manufacturing plant. We were told by our guide that more cars are produced there than in any other plant in the country. As a result the hotel hosts sales conventions and many guests we met were sales people there on business from all over Europe.
Views from Hotel Window Melfi
After we checked in and freshened up we met Domenico and our bus driver, Gennerio, at 6:30 to head off to the center square in Melfi to explore a little and have dinner which was included in the package. Like many ancient mountain towns busses do not have full access. We were let off near the center of town and walked a few blocks to the area of the main Cathedral which originally dates to the 12th century Norman period. However, the façade and Church have been rebuilt since then due to earthquake damage over the centuries, including a complete collapse in the 15th century.
Main Cathedral Melfi
After exploring the main square for awhile,
it was time to head off to dinner at a local restaurant. The restaurant chosen was warm and cozy and we were treated to a great dinner with several local dishes which were delicious.
Group at the table at our first dinner in Italy.
This part of Italy is well off the tourist map. We found the people friendly and warm. As we were being served dinner the more we complemented the owners the genuinely happier they became and started bringing us items to try that were not even on our menu.
Below is a photograph of the owners, brothers, standing and our guide sitting at the table behind.
After dinner we were driven back to our hotel, where we all tried to rest and adjust to the six hours forward time difference.
DAY ONE OF TOURING: VENOSA AND MELFI
Day one began with a continental breakfast served at the hotel, included in package. Breakfast in the hotels is usually served between 7 & 10 a.m. We were usually the early birds as we were usually on a tight schedule. We left the hotel by bus about 8:30 for the 25 minute ride to Venosa;
Breakfast at hotel in Melfi
Venosa, during the Roman period Venosium gained in importance because of its strategic location. Venosa was located about halfway between the port of Bari on the south East coast of Italy and Rome near the central West coast. Rome had an extremely active trade with the Middle East and north Africa/Egypt with ships loading and unloading at Bari using the overland route through the Appenine Mountain passes as transport. The first major Roman road the Appian Way was built through Venosium for the purpose of furthering this trade. If you had business with Rome, especially if it originated from or to the East, your business more than likely brought you through this town which in the late Roman era had a population of about 30,000.
During the Roman era this region of Italy which today we call the northern part of the Italian State of Basilicata was known as Lucania. The mountains, today relatively
deforested, were then densely forested and wild. As we travelled from Melfi to Venosa our guide pointed out that the Roman statesman Cicero was born in this region, many noble Roman families owned hunting villas along the Appain route. He explained that a noble Roman pastime was the hunting of wild boar, stags etc. in the local forests. Venosium is also the birthplace of the Roman poet Horace whose family was native to the area and considered Doric Greek by ethnic background.
It should be explained that this area has a very long history of human habitation. In recorded history the first major ethnic group, to control the region, were Celtic clans known collectively as Samnites. These were a warrior people who clashed early and hard with the early Roman City State. The Samnites also very early on developed complex relationships with various regions of ancient Greece. Many ancient Greek settlements were established throughout southern Italy and Sicily. This particular area was greatly influenced by Doric Greek culture and settlers.
It should also be noted early on Venosium was home to a small but very prosperous Jewish Trading settlement. This in fact is one of several reasons why Venosa was on our must see list. One of the exports from the Middle East in the first century A.D. was a small Jewish religious sect which professed and taught a religious message of a Messiah by the name of Jesus. Initially the Apostles and early disciples preached to Jews and non Jews who if converted had to convert to Judaism. These early missionaries would have sought out Jewish communities along the various trade routes and would have preached and stayed within those communities. This means that among the earliest “Christians”, as they would eventually be called, in Italy, were people who lived in areas like Venosa. In fact Venosa probably hosted the earliest of these Apostles and disciples if they were heading to or from Rome.
After the Romans crushed the Jewish Revolt in the first century they brought back several thousand Jewish captives as slaves to Rome. Many of these would eventually be bought out of slavery by the Jewish community of Venosa and resettled there. As a result the community was greatly enlarged.
Venosa is important to San Fele history in that this large town is historically the largest population center in the immediate geographic area surrounding San Fele. Much of the surrounding country side in ancient times until around 900 A.D. was either under populated, with just a few scattered small villages, or complete wilderness and uninhabited. San Fele falls into the later category in that there is no archeological evidence of habitation in that valley area until the year 966 A.D. San Felesi contend this date is the start date of the community.
As our history states 966 A.D. is the year that the German King Otto the Great at the urging of the then Pope established a number of regional defensive fortresses to guard mountain passes from Byzantine and Muslim incursions toward Rome. This is the year that “Otto’s Fortress” was constructed atop Monte Castello in what is now San Fele.. As there was no local population in residence, Otto’s troops conscripted labor from Venosa for the construction of this and other fortresses in the area. Otto’s troops only occupied the fortress for three years and then abandoned the area.
The immediate area around what would become San Fele did not attract a resident population until the arrival of Norman troops to Otto’s Fortress. These troops were assigned to the previously abandoned fortress to guard a group of political prisoners from Milan starting in 1034 A.D. In 1036 the Norman troops were sent to fight in Sicily with the Byzantines and the prisoners were released choosing to remain near the fortress. It is recorded that they married local women and began the initial settlement of the town. Some of the women probably came from Venosa.
So it is to Venosa that we look for the earliest connection of San Felese to the region and it is to Venosa that our tour first stopped. From Melfi it took our bus about a half hour to reach Venosa approaching up a steep roadway which was part of the Appian Way of old.
Approach to Venosa
This route took us past the remnants of the ancient necropolis which includes the “Jewish Catacombs”. I had hoped to stop there as the catacombs which were in active use until about 900A.D. are said to be the largest ancient Jewish burial site outside of Israel. However our guide informed us that the passages had experienced a cave-in about a year and a half ago and closed to visitors.
We were taken to the site of the Church of the Trinity.
Outside of Church of the Trinity
Although this Church has been built, rebuilt, earthquakes, and expanded many times its original construction dates back to the fourth century A.D. It is therefore a Church that goes back to the time of Emperor Constantine when the Church became the official religion of the Empire. In the year 1042 Venosa and the surrounding area was given to the Duke of Salerno to the Norman Captain William “Iron Arm” Hauteville for his successes against the Byzantines. William was one of 12 brothers, 8 of whom would travel to southern Italy as knights. Although Venosa was the population center William built his fortress on the heights of nearby Melfi. William divided his land grant among his twelve chief advisors “ Barons” creating a Norman County with William as the first Count of Melfi. One of the twelve Baronies was positioned at Otto’s Fortress at Monte Castello.
Four of the Hauteville brothers, William, Drogo, Umford, and most importantly Robert known as the “Guiscard” are buried in a common crypt within this Church. This family would give rise to the first Norman King of Southern Italy, Roger Hauteville in 1139.
Crypt of the Hauteville brothers
Also buried at this Church is Robert’s first wife.
Crypt of Robert’s first wife
The Normans intended to greatly expand this Church into a full Cathedral. Construction on the expansion began in the 1100’s but was never completed. The unfinished section of the Church is known as the “Unfinished Cathedral”. Building stones for the structure was mined from the ruins of ancient Roman villas as well as Roman and Jewish crypts and many of the original markings indicating the stones source are visible. In addition near the unfinished Cathedral the remains of an ancient Roman period bath have also been found.
Excavation of Roman bath with rear of the Church of the Trinity in the background left and the Unfinshed Cathedral portion right.
Floor of the Roman Bath
Chancel of the unfinished Cathedral
Building stone with four figures dating back to Roman period
Pictures show some of many stones bearing Jewish symbols originally engraved between 900- 1100 A.D.
From Venosa in the morning we drove back to the Melfi town center for lunch and the second part of the first day’s tour, the Norman Fortress at Melfi and the museum that it now houses.
As previously noted Melfi came to importance as the County seat of power during the Norman period starting in 1042. Melfi’s status as a world power center rose and fell with the fortunes of the Normans. However, it consistently remained the local political power center for the area up to the present. The construction of the Fiat manufacturing center there in 2003, again has confirmed Melfi as the economic center of the region.
After lunch in Melfi, we walked through the town toward the fortress at its height.
Walking in Melfi
Bell tower with one of the four towers of the fortress to the left in the distance
Melfi as seen from window of the fortress
Approach to fortress
Close up of one of the sides of the Fortress with tower
Lower courtyard of the fortress from within
Upper balcony outside of Fortress living/museum quarters
Wall hanging in what was the main bedroom of the Prince of Melfi, Admiral Doria, 16th century, showing a map of his holdings throughout Italy including san Fele.
Bedroom with Prince of Melfi's bed chamber
Ancient Greek and Samnite treasures unearthed in tombs in the surrounding countryside. Shown aresome of the displays. The museum has about a dozen rooms of such displays as well as a number of Roman pieces as well.
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