From the palm lined Piazza Roma in Giulianova, in Abruzzo, you feel as though you can see nearly across the Adriatic Sea to Croatia. The Piazza and its view were among my grandmother’s fondest memories of the birthplace she left at 21 for a more promising life in America.
Giulianova sits on the edge of a bluff where the Apennine mountains fall into the Adriatic. Its ancient center is perched on the last of those hills and its Lido beach and busy fishing dock lie at the water’s edge below. Anchoring the Piazza is the imposing bronze statue of Victor Emmanuel II, the king who unified Italy. His hand raised in salute, he gazes stalwartly out to sea.
When people think of Abruzzo, they usually picture the Gran Sasso mountain and the region’s remote mountain villages, but Giulianova is one of those overlooked places along the coast where the mountains collide with the sea.
My grandparents and their families were farmers there, living above the stables and surrounded by crops in the fields. They were entirely dependent on their animals and what they could raise. Finally, in the face of World War I and no longer able to sustain themselves, my grandparents left this place. They never returned.
Ultimately I came to Giulianova a few years ago, compelled to see the places my grandmother had so longingly described.
Relaxing under the shade of the Piazza Roma’s palms I admired the view of the Adriatic she had appreciated so many times. Victor Emmanuel was just as magnificent as she recalled.
I descended the winding narrow streets searching for other places that were part of my grandmother’s life. Working my way down the hill I found the church she walked to every day for mass. Since then the Sanctuary of Madonna dello Splendore has been built up into a shrine including a grotto carved into the hillside. According to tradition, during the 1500’s the Virgin Mary appeared to a local farmer named Bertolino in the exact spot where the shrine now rises, and every April there is a magnificent procession in honor of the miracle.
Turning a corner, I found the house itself. I had imagined the farm to be remote but, surprisingly, it was located just on the outskirts of town. Its weathered stucco’d exterior looked unchanged from my grandmother’s description, and a family was still living there. No stable beneath anymore.
During my visit, the open-hearted hospitality of my cousins bridged the language gap between us. Cousin Silvia urged me to come to lunch. She greeted me with warm hugs and we sat close beside each other admiring pictures of her grandchildren.
She apologized that she was only going to make “fast food”. We moved into her tiny kitchen where she fired up her two-burner gas range to sauté onions in olive oil. Then she threw in frozen peas with a little water and watched judiciously as they cooked. She opened a container of mascarpone and stirred it into the mix along with a healthy portion of grated parmesan cheese. Finally she cooked fresh tortellini from the market and tossed everything together. She pointed to a crusty loaf of bread and asked me to cut slices. From a bowl on the counter, she pulled oranges and grapes. Then she poured white wine into tumblers in the Italian style and pronounced that we were ready to eat. Fast food? I don’t think so.
Finally it was time to leave. She said she was sorry she didn’t have a souvenir for me but that she would keep me in her heart. There was much hugging, and as I walked to the car she waved goodbye from the doorway. Quite an afternoon. I had come to walk in the steps of my grandmother but I had found so much more.
Giulianova at dusk from the old city (Photo Courtesy of Lorena Branciaroli)