It was always difficult to get any information out of my grandmother. For some reason she liked to keep the family history a little murky. You’d ask about her mother—what she was like, what she cooked—and get a one word answer. (Stew!)
Every now and then she’d come out with something a little better. It seems that at some point in her widowhood, Nonna received a proposal of marriage. You’d think she might have jumped on it, what with five kids to support, but she just said, “I’ve been married before.”
So given all of that, it’s no wonder I had no idea where her chunk of the family was from. Tuscany was all I knew, and it’s the largest province in Italy. Luckily, my grandmother’s sisters may have been a little more forthcoming. One of my dad’s cousins went to Sassalbo, my great-grandmother’s village, and pointed us in the right direction. It was just spectacular.
It’s easy to picture Italy as a conglomeration of all the stereotypical places and things, even though they’re so diverse. Ruins and gondolas and Renaissance cathedrals and a bunch of pictures of the Madonna. You could spend years and still only hit the highlights.
And then there’s Sassalbo, so far off the beaten track that there’s not even a real signpost.
Sassalbo is in the Lunigiana, a mountainous region in the very northern part of Tuscany, known for its castles. The entire region is almost unaffected by tourism despite its incredible beauty. When I Googled it prior to the trip the main results were about UFO sightings and trekking through the Apennines with pack mules.
And having been there, it all makes sense. It is wildly and beautifully remote, exactly the kind of place that lends itself to a shared delusion, whether of lights in the sky or the enjoyability of spending time with mules.
We drove through the rain, up and up on a windy two lane road full of switchbacks, and drove right by it into the heart of the national park of the Appennino Tosco-Emiliano. Realizing we missed it, we turned around and tried again. No luck.
We had wanted to try the Albergo Giannarelli because my great-grandmother was a Giannarelli. Unfortunately, we kept missing the turnoff and finally stopped along the main road and ate the closest thing to my grandmother’s ravioli I’ve ever had.
We were about to admit defeat and continue on to Milan when we finally found the turnoff.
The streets are too narrow for cars, so you have to park on the outskirts and walk. Everything is made of stone, and even the houses that aren’t maintained show the craftsmanship involved, as the stones continue to fit together without mortar.
We spent a lot of time walking, looking at the view of the white rocks (derivation of the name Sassalbo), and just plain snooping. We saw maybe one or two people the entire time, plus a dog. But there were a few gardens, the sound of rushing water from down in the valley, a pony cropping grass on the hillside, and everywhere the old stone houses and walls, crumbling or patched together, with ferns growing out of the mortar.
It’s easy to see why people left, and also easy to see why they would miss it forever. There is nothing there. Nothing. No way to earn a living at all. But the greys and gold of the stone walls contrasting with the vibrant greens of the plants and hills are so ridiculously, deeply, deliciously beautiful that they affected us unlike anywhere we’ve been.