North of Naples, South of Rome

Overview

Since childhood, Paolo Tullio has returned each year to his hometown of Gallinaro, to the labyrinthine nest of his relations and the passionate, warmhearted people of his valley. In North of Naples, South of Rome, he describes a hilariously chaotic wine competition, samples the Italian cantina, instructs on market-day haggling and surreptitious truffle-hunting, and investigates the charms and scams of Naples. He looks with disbelief at a tortuous bureaucracy, shows how to win a local election, observes the ...

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Overview

Since childhood, Paolo Tullio has returned each year to his hometown of Gallinaro, to the labyrinthine nest of his relations and the passionate, warmhearted people of his valley. In North of Naples, South of Rome, he describes a hilariously chaotic wine competition, samples the Italian cantina, instructs on market-day haggling and surreptitious truffle-hunting, and investigates the charms and scams of Naples. He looks with disbelief at a tortuous bureaucracy, shows how to win a local election, observes the Catholic Church's role in daily life, and reflects upon a recent earthquake that saved the valley. With fascinating detours on local buildings, history, folklore, and fashion, the listener tours a carousel of picnics, feasts, and fireworks. This affectionate tour of a charming, intimate world is as enticing and as original as A Year in Provence.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Tullio's opinionated, convivial, sometimes irreverent guide to Italy and the Italians, the basis for a six-part PBS television series, takes us down byways rarely glimpsed by tourists. Though he grew up in England and lives in Ireland, he and his Irish wife visit Italy every year, especially his picturesque native village of Gallinaro, situated amid Apennine peaks southeast of Rome in the Comino Valley, the centerpiece of this leisurely travelogue. Tullio heedlessly peppers his narrative with brash generalizations, some commonplace, many questionable: "Italian men love to cook"; "Italians... are animated, extrovert and, above all, extreme"; "There is a deep vein of insecurity running through Italian life, a racial memory of a history of constant flux." His Italy is at once reassuringly familiar and surprisingly new. Hunting, we learn, is pervasive; over half of adult males have guns; and Italians eat songbirds. Furthermore, he asserts, "most Italians do not speak good Italian," which to them is a second language, the first being their regional dialect. A knowledgeable guide, Tullio savors the chaos of Naples; acts as a judge in a wine competition; serves up grass-roots gastronomical tips on how to make such staples as pasta, sausage and liqueur; and visits the cottage where his father, an Italian soldier, hid from the Germans for five months in 1943-1944, after Italy broke with the Axis powers. His weightier observations deal with the dominance of local politics over Rome, the current anticorruption campaign and the diminishing hold of the church on secular life. Evocative sketches by his wife, artist Susan Morley, neatly complement this serendipitous tour. (Oct.)
Library Journal
In his delightful memoir of life in the Comino Valley of Italy, Tullio, a native of Gallinaro, shares his most beloved memories of his time there as a young boy and his subsequent yearly summer visits. From his description of the festival of St. Gerard to a midnight picnic with a bonfire that burned three feet under melted snow, Tullio's amusing narrative of the people and countryside captures the quirks and nuances of small-town life. He also treats more serious moments in history--as when he describes his strong attachment to the cottage where his family hid from the Germans in World War II. Accompanied by pen-and-ink sketches by his wife, renowned watercolorist Susan Morley, these hilarious tales will leave readers longing for a journey to Italy. Recommended for public libraries.--Stephanie Papa, Baltimore Cty. Circuit Court Law Lib., Towson, MD
Kirkus Reviews
A light and engaging visit to an Italian mountain valley town. Often it is necessary to go away to see what one has left behind. Tullio was born in the town of Gallinaro, in a mountain valley somewhere (as the title suggests) between Rome and Naples. After an education in England, he married an Irish artist, Susan Morley (whose wonderful line drawings illustrate the book), and settled in Ireland. Like many transplanted Italians, Tullio returns to his birthplace every summer. And, like those who return, he sees things in a different perspective. Where the natives are apathetic and resigned to things such as pollution, political corruption, and petty (and not so petty) crime, Tullio, with a good British sense of right and wrong, is outraged. But to no avail; as he himself recognizes, the Italians are a very conservative lot and it takes quite a bit to stir them to revolution. The town and the valley serve as a prism for the rest of Italy ("it is tempting to assume that all of Italy works in much the same fashion as the valley does"), while the myriad daily activities are delightfully recounted; from buying bread and roasting a pig, to picnics and religious feasts, to a quest to find the perfect swimming hole. There are insightful passages on the character of Naples, the politics of judging a local wine competition, microhistory, caf‚ life, religion, sex, fashion, and even directions on how to prepare sausages, liqueurs, sauces, and polenta. The book is slightly dated (most of the events seem to have taken place in the early- to mid-1990s), and the occasional Anglicism might throw some readers off (although others will find them charming). The cast of characters has been seen before, whichgives the reader a sense of returning to old friends. A winsome visit to a part of Italy "off the beaten path."
From the Publisher
"A wonderful invitation to the piquant joys of Italian country living...As reviving as hot espresso." —The Sunday Times, London

"A delightful memoir...these hilarious tales will leave readers longing for a journey to Italy." —Library Journal

"His Italy is at once reassuringly familiar and surprisingly new." —Publishers Weekly

"A light and engaging visit to an Italian mountain valley town." —Kirkus Reviews

"A genuine warm breeze of Italy blows from these pages." —The Irish Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781470889074
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/1/2013
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 5.70 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Paolo Tullio was born in the Comino Valley, but educated in England. He lives in Ireland with his wife, Susan Morley, and their children.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

Picnics in the Snow
My valley is a monochrome,
it knows no half-measures.
Its people are always on fire
with either love, or hate:
it takes only a drop to make them boil over.
You can't trifle with these people --
just as you can't make light of their wines.
My valley has men like pirates,
who leave, only to return
laden with booty,
to give it villas and gardens
like offerings to a spoiled lover.
My valley has women soft and gentle,
who never forget,
who live in interminable mourning.
It has boys who act like men
and treat their mothers like wives.
From Cavallo di miniera, by Gerardo Vacana

The valley that I also call mine, the Comino Valley, is the shape of a lozenge aligned east-west with two easy entrances, one to the west, and one to the south. It lies some eighty miles to the south-east of Rome, forming a near-equilateral triangle with Naples. Its sides are the Apennines, snow-capped for half the year, and through it flows the river Melfa, which eventually irrigates the plains of Roccasecca. Eleven towns hug the valley sides, circling the town of Gallinaro, which saddles a hill almost in the centre.

    Of the twelve towns, Atina has the longest recorded history. One of the five legendary cities of Saturn, it pre-dates Rome by several centuries. It owes its historical power to its position, dominating the southern entrance to the valley which leads to theCassino plains. As mountain valleys go, the Comino Valley is large and fertile, supporting some 25,000 inhabitants. This fertility and its defensibility have led to a long list of invaders over the years: Greeks, Samnites, Romans, Saracens, Normans, Lombards, French, Spanish, Austrians, Germans and Popes have all stayed and left their mark.

    It was to this valley that my family came in the fourteenth century, to the hamlet of San Nazario in the comune of Casalattico. The land at San Nazario is good, sloping gently from the road to Casalattico down to the river Melfa. It was purchased from the Abbey of Montecassino in 1346 by Pasquale Fusco -- the deed of sale still forms part of the incunabula of the abbey's library.

    At that time the land included valley fields on both sides of the Melfa (which separates the comune of Casalattico from Casalvieri), the small mountain of Monte Cicuto, now in the comune of Atina, and the forest along the top of the Silara range which separates the Comino Valley from the plains of Cassino. Until the 1930s the farm produced corn, olives and grapes; the hillside slopes of Monte Cicuto supplied the olives that were pressed in the frantoio in the cellar.

    The house is a large one, built upon a convent that was part of the original sale, which in turn was built upon a pre-Roman Samnite temple. By the end of the last century it was already divided into two, a result of the Italian dislike of primogeniture and a predilection for partitioning land and buildings between all the offspring equally. My great-great-grandfather, the last man to own the house intact, had three sons; one became a priest and was later to work in the Ministry of Education in the last years of the Kingdom of Naples; the other two remained in the valley to divide the house and land between them. They both had seven children, who grew up in either half of the house. The partitioning of land and house has continued. The land was divided with every generation, not into useful parcels, but by splitting each field into strips. I have inherited fifteen of these strips, totalling about 3.5 hectares; the largest strip is about half a hectare, but long and very thin. Since no strip is of any use by itself, and the chances of getting forty or so cousins together to sort it out are nil, these pieces of land are valueless and have been abandoned. Until I made them over some years ago to an uncle, I was also the possessor of a quarter of a barn, one eighth of a bedroom and one sixteenth of a kitchen.

    Thankfully my father's uncle, Don Ferdinando, the arch-priest of Gallinaro, left his house there to my father and it has since come to me. From the terrace of this house I can see Monte Cicuto and La Silara, so the ancestral holdings are still in view, if nothing else.

    My mother told me that as a child, growing up in Casalattico, she had a mental picture of the Creation. At the end of six days' labour creating the earth, God found he had nothing but rocks left over, and, throwing these away, he unwittingly created the Comino Valley. Even by Italian standards, it is high -- the valley floor is more than 300 metres above sea-level and four of its towns stand at more than 600 metres. So much of Italy is mountainous, apart from the Po valley plain, which forms a triangle stretching from Turin in the west to Trieste and Rimini in the east, the rest of the peninsula is mountain, and the average width of the coastal plain is only 10 kilometres.

    Topography has had its effects on the Comino Valley. Because the only two easy exits are to the west towards Rome and to the south towards Naples, the valley has always been under the influence of one or the other. Trading patterns, too, have developed along the path of least resistance westwards to Sora and Rome. Until ten years ago the road from Atina south to Cassino was a series of hairpin bends winding down from Atina, up to Belmonte, and down again to Cassino -- by car a tortuous journey of about an hour. The road to Sora took about twenty-five minutes, so produce for the market was sent there instead. Contact beyond the valley has always tended to stretch westwards: Rome drew the valley's inhabitants with its jobs, hospitals and university, even though the valley had been for centuries a part of the Kingdom of Naples. Even our local dialect is closer to Roman than to Neapolitan.

    All this is changing because of a new road. The superstrada from Atina runs south to Cassino, through a tunnel and then on stilts, in a gradual descent to the plains, so now the trip takes a little under fifteen minutes. Increasingly, produce is going to Cassino, as are the young people since the opening of the university there.

    From early Roman times roads have been an important feature of the national psyche. They represent trade, progress and technological prowess. Because Italy is so mountainous, road-building requires great skill and Italian road-builders are justifiably respected for their expertise around the world. Italy spends a lot of money on roads -- for the most part this is a commercial investment, allowing goods to be moved from remote areas to the market centres. It is also a part of the grander scheme of things, part of the homogenizing of all the remote pockets into a unified state. Since our valley typifies a remote region, at least topographically, we have seen at first hand the results of this strategy.

    Responsibility for road-building is devolved to the four tiers of government: the national government is concerned with the building of autostrade and superstrade linking national centres; regional government builds the roads that link lesser regional centres; provincial government looks after county roads; and local government is concerned that all houses within the comune have access to the town's facilities. By the nature of the landscape these roads are expensive and vast sums of money are set aside for their construction. This money is distributed to the various authorities, so there is ample scope for corruption at each and every level.

    Since my only viewpoint is provincial, the examples I furnish are local. However, a quick scan of the national press confirms that the local experience is universal. At my southern end of the province of Frosinone there are three centres of commerce that are important to the valley -- Cassino to the south, Sora and Frosinone town to the west. For as long as anyone can remember the road from Sora to Frosinone has been horrendous. Narrow, hilly and winding, almost constantly choked with light and heavy goods vehicles, it was a perfectly formed bottle-neck. A road linking the two towns was proposed before the war, plans were laid, money set aside. By the 1980s work had begun. The section nearest to Sora was completed fairly quickly and then suddenly all activity came to a standstill.

    The new road stopped where it was to span the old on a viaduct. Exactly where the viaduct was to be, the reinforced concrete skeleton of a four-storey building materialized. Years passed. It seemed that this building, obviously built without planning permission, could not be demolished perfunctorily: a long legal process had to be undergone to establish its illegality and thence to obtain an order for its destruction. The viaduct was built, the road moved on inexorably, but at a snail's pace, towards Frosinone. By 1990 another section had opened, the road a magnificent example of Italian engineering. The final section, which connects with the ring road around Frosinone, is still to be completed.

    And it is at this point that, like most things in Italy, everything becomes unclear. Conspiracy theories abound and rumours are rife. You can choose which explanation to believe. Sora politicians were fighting a rearguard action, and had been for years, to stop the road. They feared a huge loss of trade if access to Frosinone became easier. On the surface a more plausible explanation was that funds had simply run out, the line followed by the local press. Another theory said, yes, funds had run out, or more precisely had been run away with. Another, which also seems likely, has it that when a road is finished and is handed over to ANAS -- the national road authority -- ANAS becomes responsible for its maintenance and upkeep. It appears that ANAS believes the standard to be under par and will not accept responsibility. Take your pick -- all or none may be true. The fact is that the Comino Valley area is full of road projects initiated but never finished. Even the road to Cassino from Atina stops short of its intended finishing-point, and does not currently allow access to the motorway without having to pass through Cassino itself.

    The local roads have been much more of a success. In my lifetime a new road has opened up a huge hinterland of natural beauty. On the north side of the valley the town of San Donato is now the starting-point for a road which winds high up into the Apennines, over the pass of Forca d'Acero and into the Abruzzi National Park. This is a vast, unspoiled area, traditionally the preserve of shepherds, and although close geographically, was until recently as remote as Sicily. There had always been contact, of course, but only for those who had no objection to a ten-hour journey on foot, leading a mule. I know people who did the trip, trading the valley's wine for the mountain cheeses, but the contacts were sporadic and seasonal.

    The effect of this road has been dramatic. Since it is now possible to drive from Cassino to San Donato in about thirty minutes, the Abruzzi National Park is a two-hour journey from Rome or Naples. In the winter the once serene, silent mountain valleys are now host to thousands of Italians on skis. Where once a few lone cross-country skiers ventured, there are bars, deck-chairs for hire, mountain rangers to supervise, police, parking problems and all that goes with an influx of humanity to a place where until recently nature was undisturbed.

    The National Park was established to preserve the flora and fauna of the Apennines: here the last of Italy's brown bears, the Marsican bear, still roam free. Two packs of grey wolves live here; Apennine chamois, porcupines, martens and golden eagles are some of the wildlife that, despite the encroachment of man, survives and flourishes within the confines of the park. It is a huge reserve, straddling the boundaries of three of Italy's regions: Lazio, Molise and Abruzzo. Some of the most beautiful villages of the Abruzzi lie within the park, surrounded by heavily wooded peaks whose summits are up to 2,400 metres high.

    Pescasseroli, the capital of the park, is the centre for the downhill skiers. It has a cable-car to the summit of Monte Vitelle, some 2,000 metres high, and 25 kilometres of piste. It's an enchanting village, whose older male inhabitants still carry a staff and wear the black beret and cape typical of the Abruzzi. In contrast the weekend fashion parade of Romans and Neapolitans sporting their latest ski-wear is a wonder to behold. I used to find their sartorial splendour intimidating, until I understood that in many cases the dressing-up was as close to skiing as many of them ever got. Mothers and fathers fuss and coddle small versions of their tailored selves, encouraging and cajoling -- `E su, Marco' -- until Marco finally stands upright on his tiny Rossignols. Fretting Italian mothers are torn between two conventional truths: mountain air is good for you, and children shouldn't get cold. You can see lots of tiny, red-faced Italians sweltering in portable saunas called ski-suits, while their mothers refuse to let them undo so much as a zip.

    The fondisti, or cross-country skiers, are a hardier breed. Cross-country skiing has become a huge growth industry. Ten years ago it was a crank pastime, something Finns did in the winter. It was accepted wisdom that unless you were capable of running a two-and-a-half-hour marathon, fondismo was not for you. This was an image fostered by television coverage of cross-country skiing as an event at the Olympics, with lanky Scandiwegians covering 80-kilometre courses on their skis. This is not a sight readily found among the masses on a weekend in the Abruzzi mountains. Perhaps 95 per cent of those who engage in this sport neither physically resemble these champions, nor aspire to their technique of skiing. They are young and old, fat and thin -- the entire gamut of human form is there, not so much for exercise as for fun.

    At the pass of Forca d'Acero there is a beech-lined forestry road which slopes gently downhill to a huge natural amphitheatre called La Macchiarvana. This is where most of the cross-country skiers gather, where the road joins the open plain. If you're feeling adventurous, from here you can set out for the wilderness, with a backpack and food. Or for the less gung-ho, like my family, we start out towing a small sled filled with wine and beer, a small charcoal grill, sausages and cured ham, scamorza, a local cheese that toasts to perfection, fresh crusty bread from San Donato, and perhaps a pork chop or two. We always try to get our skiing in before lunch; after a lunch with ice-cold beer and wine -- we bury it in the snow -- it's hard to start trekking again, especially in warm sun. On windless days it can get remarkably hot, a condition that can only be cured by more beer. Lying in the sun against one of the beeches that skirt the Macchiarvana plain, cold beer in hand, looking over the vast expanse of white, the snowcapped peaks starkly silhouetted against the dark, deep blue sky, is one of life's great pleasures.

    Over the years we became very attached to these picnics in the snow. As the winters went by, friends from my village of Gallinaro started skiing and at weekends groups of up to twenty of us would set off for the mountains. I remember one occasion when I described our picnics to some friends. They thought it sounded like fun and decided to join us there. By that strange serendipity that allows Italians to meet one another when neither the time nor the place has been decided, we met up with our friends who had gathered in a little valley deep in La Macchiarvana surrounded by beech trees, miles from anywhere. We had arrived on skis, towing our sledge of victuals and pushing our baby daughter in her buggy, on which I had fitted tiny skis.

    As I unpacked our picnic, I began to notice what the others had brought. A three-kilo bag of charcoal, a large, not-so-portable grill and oven combined, fifteen beef steaks, eight large brown trout, a two-kilo loaf of bread, a ten-egg onion omelette, a kilo of liver sausages, seven litres of wine, four bottles of mineral water, beer, a large mixed salad in a plastic bag, a bottle of olive oil, a bottle of vinegar, a box of salt, Tabasco and a large fruit flan. Oh, yes, and a tin of corned beef. There were six of them. It was hard to make half a kilo of sausages look exciting as I unpacked beneath their watchful and slightly pitying gaze.

    We built a large fire on the snow from the dead branches that were all around us; without it we would have spent the day with cold feet and wet socks. As the day passed the fire burned a deeper and deeper hole in the snow, until by evening it was a good three feet below the surface. It also became clear that skiing had assumed a distinctly lower priority than eating. The fire and the food were the principal sources of activity and conversation. The only skiing that took place was collecting wood for the fire.

    The steaks were cooked on the fire embers, and eaten between slices of pagnotta, the large two-kilo loaf that is the Italian staple. The trout were wrapped in foil and suspended on green branches over the fire, the omelette was divided, the sausages and cheeses devoured with beer and wine. The flan was followed by a thermos of good coffee. All this under a dark blue sky with the sun blazing against the brilliance of the snow. We didn't leave until nearly five, as the gathering darkness brought the cool night air.

    It was a special day for all of us. Italians love an excuse for a meal and a new location for eating is an exciting discovery. Since this meal on the snow, we have had many others, even one by the light of the full moon. The road to the Abruzzi makes one last hair-pin turn before leaving the upper edges of our valley for the pass of Forca d'Acero. The view from here is spectacular, since nearly all the valley can be seen laid out below like a scenic model railway. About twenty of us had our midnight picnic in the snow here, the lights of the towns and hamlets below us twinkling in the crispest of clear nights.

    My first memory of Italian picnics is going with my uncle for a mountain picnic on the August bank holiday when I was eight. Until then, picnics had been sandwiches in a field beside a road, or sandwiches in the New Forest or sand-filled sandwiches on cloudy English beaches. I was unprepared for the Italian version. Three car-loads of family and impedimenta set off for Canneto, a sanctuary high above the town of Settefrati where the Melfa begins its course. In those days the road was what the Italians called a `white road', which is to say its surface was non-existent. It was absurdly twisting and narrow and had no crash barriers to prevent a car from sliding off the edge into oblivion. The road arrives at the sanctuary and opens out into what was once a lake -- a flat expanse of small white rocks -- over which my uncle insisted on driving, cursing all the way. Uncle Alberigo had a great line in curses; he adapted litanies learnt in his youth into a list of saints who could go fuck themselves. He started with Adriano and continued alphabetically, systematically cursing each in turn. Sudden jolts, or ominous sounding bangs from the underside of the heavily laden Fiat 1500, found the Madonna joining the saints in this list of invective.

    At the far end of the old lake bed an even worse road starts to climb, roughly following the waterfalls of the upper reaches of the Melfa. Up here we drove until my Aunt Gerardella persuaded Uncle to stop. Some 20 metres below the car was the mountain stream. Across the stream, there was a small flat area of grass at the top of a waterfall, a natural terrace with a view down the valley to the Sanctuary of the Madonna. We began to unpack the picnic: not as I had suspected some sandwiches, but tables, chairs and white linen table-cloths, gas cookers and cylinders, pots and pans and food, lots of food. The men unloaded the cars, set up the tables and chairs and brought the water from the stream for boiling the pasta. The women cooked. As far as I could make out the purpose was not only to eat well, but to ensure that whatever standards of cuisine and comfort were set at home could be maintained even at the top of a mountain. This was a three-course picnic. Pasta to start, then a meat dish, and finally a dessert. As with most Italian meals on special occasions, we were eating for a good two hours. Even a natural fridge is available -- all wines, beer, watermelons and fruit go into the freezing waters of the stream. We've been back to this place many times since, but there is one thing that has always been left undone -- a swim in the icy waters of the mountain brook.

    Mountain culture is deeply ingrained in my valley. We go to the high places for recreation, to collect wild strawberries, to gather mushrooms and plants for salads -- and we go for our health. As a boy my father's brother had asthma; the cure then was a prolonged stay in the little town of Terelle. This is the highest village in Frosinone, standing at about 1,000 metres above sea level. Although the comuni of Terelle and Casalattico border one another, by road the journey was long -- from Casalattico to Atina, the winding road to Cassino, and then doubling back up the hairpin bends to Terelle, a car journey of some two hours. From Atina a new mountain road now gets you directly to this little town with its stunning chestnut groves in about twenty minutes. These chestnut groves are the last remaining in our province; they surround the lower reaches of the town and during the heat of the summer there is cool mountain air and shade.

    The area of mountain forest along the ridge of La Silara above Casalattico, a part of the family patrimony that has come to me, was for many years something I looked at proprietorially from the valley floor. Not relishing the prospect of a three-hour uphill climb along overgrown mule tracks, I contented myself with long-range visual inspections of my forest. Well, to be exact, I inspected what I thought was my bit. My grandmother Luisa, who left me this piece of forest, was never too clear as to its exact location. When pressed by me, she would point vaguely at the ridge and say, `It's up there.' I am still not entirely sure which bit is mine, but since there is not much I can do with it anyway, it's not really a problem.

    Now I can drive to within a kilometre of where I think it is, and do so regularly. A terrifying, unsurfaced road runs up the side of Monte Prato from Atina, and continues along the ridge of La Silara. The views are sensational. To the north, spread out below, lies the Comino Valley, visible practically in its entirety; to the south the Monte Cairo Valley stretching down to the Cassino plains. You can see Belmonte, Terelle, the town of Cassino and the abbey of Montecassino, with the horizon disappearing into the haze. Along this ridge are the scars of war. There are bomb craters and fox-holes, part of what was once the Cassino line. Almost at the summit of La Silara is a small area of pasture, and five Samnite wells. They are called wells, but are in fact huge cisterns that collect the winter rain in this natural basin. Even in the driest of summers there is always cool water deep down the cisterns. Places like the five wells have remained unspoiled because of their inaccessibility, but expansion into previously remote areas will certainly continue, as increasingly mobile and affluent Italians demand more space. Currently the density of the Italian population is on a par with India.

    When I was twelve, my cousin Gigino took me to the top of Monte Cicuto, a small hill to the west of Atina where the family olive groves are. We drove to La Macchia, a hamlet of Casalattico, and then walked from there to the summit. It was my first recollection of seeing so much of the valley at one go. Immediately below was the bridge over the river Melfa, connecting Atina to the rest of valley. I could see the garage, the hotel and the few scattered houses that made up Ponte Melfa. Today, from the same vantage point, now reached by tarmac road, Ponte Melfa looks like a miniature Hong Kong. Dense, high-rise buildings line the banks of the river, housing developments stretch up the surrounding hillsides, an industrial estate lies downstream, the skeleton of a huge hospital is taking shape, a hippodrome and go-kart track invade more of what was once green. So meteoric has the growth of Ponte Melfa been, fuelled in part by the new road to Cassino, that moves are afoot to establish it as a comune in its own right. The majority of the citizens of Atina now live there rather than in the old town on the hill.

    Monte Cicuto is still largely unspoiled. Amid the olive groves there is a small cottage, which now belongs to my uncle. Originally it was a casa colonica, a house for the farmworkers, who were given the house under the old system of land use, whereby the landlord let the land in return for half the produce -- a system unchanged for centuries. Gradually I have discovered its drawbacks as an absentee landlord: my strip of olive grove on Monte Cicuto has produced, over twenty or so years, 1.5 litres of oil as my share.

    It was in this cottage on Monte Cicuto that my father and his cousin Dino hid from the Germans from October 1943 to February 1944, while the Gustav line at Cassino was established. When Italy broke with the Axis powers on 25 July 1943, my father, still officially in the Italian army, needed to keep his head down. On that July day, which also happened to be the day his grandfather died, he took off his uniform and walked home from Rome, avoiding roads and keeping to the hills. When Monte Cicuto itself was declared a war zone by the Germans, the family moved en masse to the hills above Arpino, burying as much of their belongings as they could in a cave. They stayed here until the end of May 1944, when the Allies finally took Cassino and liberated the valley. For them, at least, the war had ended.

    Despite massive post-war emigration, the Italian economic boom has continued unabated here, so much so that the valley, once a source of manual labour for Rome, and desperately poor, is now one of the most expensive parts of Italy in which to buy land. It must be said that the price of land is so high not only because of the economic upturn in the valley's fortunes, but also because of capital returning from abroad. The diaspora that so impoverished the valley in the late 1940s and 1950s is now being reversed. The emigres who have made their fortunes have been coming home, bringing their capital with them. Many of those who left were landless, and the dream of returning always carried with it the need for land on which to plant a vineyard and on which to build a house. Their determination to buy land at virtually any cost pushed prices on occasion up to 8,000 [pounds sterling] or 9,000 [pounds sterling] an acre, at least four times as much as similar land in Tuscany.

    A trip around the valley towns in August shows clearly who emigrated to where. In Casalattico and its hamlets the roads are filled with cars with IRL stickers, or in the case of Mortale, GB stickers. Mortale, a small hamlet, has recently had its name changed officially to Monforte. This is to honour its most illustrious son, Lord Charles Forte, who came from here. Recently he has been spending more and more time in Casalattico, where he is held in high regard, especially since he paid for the floodlighting of the football pitch. In Atina you find GB, in Gallinaro F and B. Germany, Venezuela, America, Argentina and Australia became home to many from the valley. As Italy's fortunes improved -- it is now ranked sixth among the world's economies -- so homesickness and perceived opportunities have brought many of the emigrants home.

    For some of those who remained, the returning emigrant has been a lucrative source of income. `A chicken ripe for plucking' is a phrase often used to describe the emigrants, and plucked of their feathers many of them have been -- a few emigrating a second time, perhaps to rebuild their fortunes. They pay too much for the land they buy, too much to the builders of their houses, too much to builders' suppliers and often not enough to people in public office who could help them through the tangled web of regulation and red tape that is Italian bureaucracy.

    This particular minefield, the Italian bureaucracy, can be an impenetrable labyrinth to the uninitiated. It has driven a couple I met, recently returned from Scotland, right back to the safe, honest, Presbyterian haven of Aberdeen. The closest a casual visitor or tourist is likely to come to this bureaucracy is in an Italian bank. To change bank notes -- in any other country an operation of blinding simplicity -- involves a minimum of two queues, and probably the need to produce a passport and forms signed in triplicate. Any Italian bank will be full of men in shirt-sleeves behind the counter, all purposefully shuffling papers and moving from desk to desk, completely ignoring the customers. Tellers shut their doors for no apparent reason and disappear. Anything more complicated than changing money can take hours, or in some cases days. Queues in banks, by the way, are exactly the same as most Italian queues -- that is, the order of precedence is not often first come, first served. Favoured customers are taken in behind the counter to do their business while lesser mortals wait at unmanned tellers' windows. Town halls and post offices are identical in their view of customer service.

    In the 1970s my parents opened an antique shop in Sora, specializing in English furniture. Having rented the ground floor of a new building, they needed only a fire certificate to open. My mother asked her friends how to proceed. `Easy,' they said. `Go to Frosinone Head Office, and give the fire chief a million lire [about 500 [pounds sterling]], and he'll give you the certificate.' My mother, who had spent many years in England and admired the English way of doing things, was horrified. The idea of paying a bribe to get something that was hers by right appalled her. She refused, and waited six months in vain for a certificate allowing the shop to open. Eventually she did as her friends suggested, paid the chief and got the certificate, having lost six months' trade.

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