227 – Visit to Pastena

At the end of April we welcomed two lovely ladies, Lissa and Debra, from the USA.  This was to be their first trip to this area of Italy and Lissa was keen to visit her ancestral home of her family, namely Pastena.  Pastena is a small but picturesque medieval village which is in the province of Frosinone and belongs to the ancient region of Ciociaria.


As Lissa and Debra didn’t have a car we offered to drive them to Pastena, which is along an interesting route, passing through Fondi and then heading inland towards Lenola and beyond. Finally we reached the verdant plain of Pastena surrounded by  hills and mountains. Here the soil is rich and fertile thus agriculture has always been the mainstay of the economy in these parts.


As we approached Pastena we saw a hill which at its peak has modern sculptures representing the patron saints of the town, Sant’Elena and San Sinforo.



Lissa first wanted to call in at Pastena’s Register Office or Anagrafe in the Town Hall.


We were received by the registrar who seemed to be rather flustered and busy, and he insisted that he did not have time to look through the records to try and find out more about Lissa’s ancestors. However he did take details from her and promised to look for them during the next few days.  Feeling slightly deflated we went for a stroll around the old town.

Close to the Town Hall is a museum – “Il Museo della Civiltà Contadina e dell’Ulivo” or Museum of Country Life and Olive Cultivation.This is  housed in a palazzo which was once the home and an ancient olive m of the Trani family.  Among the interesting exhibits are the original old mill-stone and press, tools related to olive farming, tilling the soil, animal husbandry, wine making, cheese making, basket making, spinning and weaving of linen.  Also there are examples of traditional clothes, musical instruments and general domestic items of everyday Pastena life in times gone by.





Lissa also wanted the visit Pastena’s cemetery which was situated a little way out of town. She was hoping to find some of her ancestors’ graves.


We went back into Pastena to wander through the characteristic Medieval centre. At the highest point of the village is the main square and the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. On the facade are two niches which house images of the patron saints of the town.



We noticed that there were festive lights mounted throughout the town. We learned that the following day was the Feast of “Il Maggio” or “la Festa del’Albero della Cuccagna” -a festival to celebrate the coming of Spring.  We soon made plans to return the following day, with our friends Pat and Melinda, to see the celebrations for ourselves.


On the 15th April the local men go out into the woods to choose the best tall straight cypress tree. Once this has been selected a cross is carved out of the bark mark it.  At sunrise on the morning of 30th April many of the local men folk will gather around the chosen tree for a traditional ceremony where the parish priest recites prayers.  The master of ceremonies takes the axe and makes the first cuts into the tree, in the presence of the calf, with each of the participants taking their turn to wield the axe. The actual felling of the tree is marked by gun shots and a drum roll. The tree is then cleaned of the bark and branches etc.

There follows a ritual “funeral” procession for “the tree of sacrifice” that has been taken from the “sacred forest”.  Slowly but surely it is hauled up to the village with the help of a numerous pairs of strong oxen, lead by the sacred calf.







During the long procession loud firework were periodically set off, and  unnervingly groups of hunters shot rounds from their rifles and shotguns into the air.






We then walked uphill back towards the town. As we entered the square in front of the town hall we were spotted by the register who eagerly tried to flag us down.  He told Lissa he had looked in the registers and had found several more generations of Lissa’s family. He lead us into his office where he handed over the paperwork.  Lissa was happy and we were so pleased for her.  We took a photo of the Registrar, Lissa and Debra to remember this very special day.



Debra and Lissa

A little more about the “Il Maggio” festivities ….

On the 1st May the tree is cleaned in the main square, in front of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore.  The top of the tall tree trunk is adorned with May flowers of broom.  A hole is prepared and then the men work together using ropes to gradually winch the tree trunk into an upright position.

On the 3rd May, on the feast day of the Santissima Santa Croce, when the statue of Sant’ Elena on her throne is taken from the church and carried around all the districts of the town followed by a solemn procession.

Typically the womenfolk  have previously prepared a type of sweet bread / doughnut in the shape of a decorated ring called a Ciambellone, these are carried during the procession as a symbol of religious devotion.  The procession is accompanied by ceremonial gunfire.

Later in the day the tree trunk is raised into position in the main square, having been covered in grease. This is known as the “albero della cuccagna”. Then there is a competition amongst the young men of the village, when they attempt to scale the slippery pole. At the top there are prizes for the successful climbers. In the evening there are more celebrations of musical entertainment and fireworks.

The tree trunk remains in place in the square until September, when it is cut down and distributed as firewood to the local inhabitants of Pastena.

All  photos by me © Louise Shapcott

#pastena #festival #ilmaggio #familyhistory #spring #italy



Tre Cancelle Farmhouse Apartments Near Sperlonga / Itri, South Lazio, Italy


71 – Atina – 2009 Gran Premio Dell’Arco Go Kart Race

Having enjoyed it so much last year, on the first Sunday of August we eagerly returned to Atina to watch the Gran Premio Dell’Arco, the Go Kart racing competition.  This year we took lots of photos of the event.


Just like last year, the designs of the carts were many and varied, the common theme being all “wheels” are made from Ball Bearing Races kindly donated by the manufacturer SKF of nearby Cassino.

Whilst not fully up to pace with all the design regulations, its seems carts can have three or four bearings  and these can be either large or small, or indeed a combination of both.  For months in advance the carts are lovingly crafted and tinkered with in the cellars and garages around the town, it has to be said some a little more seriously than others.


photo by ben woods






There are three driver age groups, the youngest driver age band being the Teenagers, then the 18 to 50 year olds, and finally the Seniors or over 50’s. Time trials are carried out throughout the morning of the event.  Each driver gets a lone run which is meticulously timed and determines their actual starting position on the grid.  Then  in the afternoon, after a good plate of pasta of course, the main races follow !!!


This year in addition to the normal fixed point cameras along the course, the events were recorded by an “eye in the sky” in the form of a helicopter camera man, and the event was recorded by a local radio station c.A.c. A c.a.S.


The course runs for a length of approximately 2.5 kilometres, starting from the main archway at the entrance of the old Centro Storico in Atina Superiore, and winds its way down to Atina Inferiore / Ponte Melfa on the valley floor below. 

3 members of our family were to take part:  Cousin Mario and his two sons Giuseppe and Simone.

Simone Massa

Simone Massa

Each race began with the sound system playing a loud rousing fan-fare to fully set the scene.  The  commentator then began the final countdown, and soon the competitors went careering off down the hill, fronted by a squad of motor bikes noisily beeping their horns.  In the square a large TV screen had been set up for the spectators to watch the rest of the race on the long winding road down to the finishing line.





Finally the ceremonial presentations of the trophies to the victors are held in the early evening. This year was more special for our family because we had a podium finish. Cousin Mario achieved second place in the over 50’s section, setting the standard for next year for his two sons to endeavour to supersede. 

Bravo Mario !!!






Also this year was special because in the middle category there was a lady driver on the podium for the first time ever.

Click here to see more of NonnaLou’s photos of the 2009 Go Kart Race

 Click here to read about the 2008 Go Kart Race  

Click here to see a Video of the 2009 events

Click here to see my Atina, Val di Comino, Ciociaria website


51 – New Homes For The Puppies

Last weekend the puppies were 8 weeks old, and fully weaned and thus ready to leave their mother.  We had to start thinking of how we could find good homes for them.  We decided to try placing some adverts on the internet (in Italian of course) …

“We are 4 sweet puppies, in good health, all looking for a good home, and love from a family or from people who are truly animal lovers. 

Not Hunters !!!

We are very affectionate and so much want to be loved and to play.”

The very same day we received several enquiries.  A young lady by the name of Oriana rang us to say she and her family were  very interested in adopting “Bertie”. She said that they lived  in Tuscany, so we had to work out a way of meeting up with her and her family.  Finally the meeting place was decided on, Ciampino airport. “Bertie” was wonderfully behaved during the journey, and as we drove into the entrance of the airport we could see the family eagerly awaiting us.   They had everything prepared, and had even purchased “Bertie” a stylish black diamonte collar and lead.  Unfortunately it was a little to large just yet.  They said they were thinking of renaming him.  He now has the stately name of  “Prince” !!!

Oriana and her "Prince"

Oriana and her "Prince"

"Prince" and his new family

"Prince" and his new family

On Sunday we received another phone call, this time from a little closer to home in Pontecorvo, which is situated about 40 km inland from Itri. A young chap called Massimiliano was interested in adopting one of the male pups. That afternoon he and his father drove down through the rain to find us.  On seeing the puppies they found it impossible to choose between “Alfie” and “Georgie”, so they ended up adopting them both, which we were pleased about, as they would keep each other company.    We have since been in contact with Massimilliano who emailed  to say that the puppies are very happy as they have a large garden to run around and play in and he has also kindly sent us some photos.  The family have also decided to rename them as “Atilla” and “Ringo” !!! 

Massimiliano and the 2 pups

Massimiliano and the 2 pups

"Attila" and "Ringo"

"Attila" and "Ringo"

Another email enquiry was from a young lady called Federica, who said she came from a family who were mad about animals, and that she lived in a villetta with a garden.  They already had one dog, but she wanted to surprise her family by giving them a second.  She asked us to help keep it a secret as it was to be a big surprise for her Mamma.  On Monday evening we drove to Frosinone,   “Maisy” proved to be a bit of a handful in the car, but eventually calmed down and went to sleep.  Fede have us good directions, we had arranged to meet in the car park of MacDonalds.  Federica and a couple of friends were waiting for us.  She took hold and cuddled Maisy immediately, and promised that the puppy would be well looked after. She also has been in further contact saying that the whole family have really taken to Maisy, and that she is happy, settling in and eating well.


Fede and "Maisy"

Fede and "Maisy"


We really hope that we can keep in touch with all three families and receive updates on the puppies’ progress. We have been invited to visit them all when we can, which will be a pleasure.










48 – Afternoon of Wednesday 8th April

At last we drove  into the historic centre of Atina, where my family live in the quaint narrow cobblestoned alley of Via Dolabella.  As always we were warmly welcomed.


The cousins soon began to tell us of their experiences on the night of the dreadful earthquake.  Mario awoke to a feel the bed violently shaking, along with all the other furniture in the house. He roused Mara and hurriedly got dressed.  They said it seemed as if the shaking and rumbling was never ending, the quaking just seemed to  go on and on.  I could see the fear in their eyes.  They said they did not know what to do.  Many of the buildings in the historic centre of Atina date back many centuries, and are built of rock with no anti-seismic protection, their own house from around 1600.  They were afraid to go outside for fear of being hurt by falling masonry, and there are no large open spaces near to their home where they could escape to.  Finally, thank goodness, the shaking subsided.

However, the following day (Tuesday) there had been more violent after-shocks, some only slightly weaker than the main one, which were just as frightening. This time Mario, who is a Fireman, was more prepared.  He had  placed a heavy hammer near the front door, in case they needed to get out and the door should become jammed. They prepared a bag of essential belongings and medication in case they had to vacate their home quickly.  They decided to hope for the best and to stay put, nervously listening to the deep rumbling, violent shaking whilst observing the pendant light fittings vigorously oscillating. These ongoing aftershocks continued to traumatise people in this region, and hamper rescue teams in their work. Everyone is very on edge.

This is not our family’s first earthquake experience.  In May 1984 there was a strong earthquake in the Val di Comino, with the epicentre near to San Donato, which badly damaged the town and the surrounding towns such as Atina.  After this devastating event our family had to live in tents and caravans for several weeks before they could return home.  Prior to that there were earthquakes recorded in this immediate area in 1901 and  1915.  This area has been ravaged by such earthquakes from time immemorial, in fact Atina was totally destroyed during an quake in 1349.  My Atina Website:  http://atinaitaly.com

* photo by david davies

* photo by david davies

We said our goodbyes to Mario and Mara, and headed off across the Val di Comino to San Donato to visit Antonella with a basket of flowers to try and lift her spirits.  She had learned that morning that two of her close student friends were found in the ruins of the student accommodation block in L’Aquila, that collapsed like a pack of cards in the earthquake.  They were sisters, Genny and Giusy Antonini, aged 22 and 24, who were studying biotechnology and nursing. Antonella was very upset naturally and said that she wanted to return to L’Aquila for the mass funeral of 205 of then 287 victims to be held there on Good Friday, which had been announced as a national day of mourning for the dead.

Antonella had been in L’Aquila that fateful night as she was due to sit an exam the following morning.  She began to recount her experiences of that dreadful night, how everything was shaking and things were falling all around her.  Still dressed in her pyjamas she grabbed her phone and decided to try and get out, having to move a heavy wardrobe that had toppled to get out of the door.  She said it had been really horrendous, and she had found hundreds of  people wandering around L’Aquila in a daze.  The shaking had seemed never to stop. As a few hours passed, the early morning light revealed the extent of the devastation. Even now it’s an experience that she feels hasn’t really sunk in. It seems inconceivable.  It is unlikely that she will be able to continue her studies in L’Aquila, as yet no one knows what will happen.

Antonella wishes to thank everyone for thinking of her and for their messages of  love and support.
We asked Elena what an earthquake sounded it like.  She said it was a terrifying thunderous roaring reverberation from deep in the bowels of the earth, a sound quite unlike any other.  “It feels as if the mountains are going to crumple on top of you”, she said.  The region had experienced a large number of  tremors since last October, which seem to have been steadily increasing in strength.

The following day , Thursday 9th  April, yet again there were numerous sharp tremors, the most severe registering 5.2 magnitude.  

This had been Italy’s worst earthquake for 3 decades.  Large areas of L’Aquila now stand in ruins, especially much of the historic centre with edifices that dated  back to the 13th century.  Many buildings that were supposed to have been built to anti-seismic regulations have collapsed. Many villages surrounding this town also suffered severe damage, one community Onno was totally destroyed.

mourn1The death toll now stands at 293, with more than 1500 injured. 28,000  people have been made homeless and have lost everything. Some of the more fortunate have been sent to stay in hotels on the Adriatic coast, however there are 17,000 still living in the hastily erected temporary tent camps, where they have to wait in long queues to receive food and drink, and endure smelly toilets, cold showers, no electricity and icy night time temperatures, rain and hailstorms. In fact some prefer to sleep in cars and also coaches brought in by the local authorities. 

Berlusconi has been in the limelight this week, wishing to be seen visiting the disaster area. We have recently been reading some of Beppe Grillo’s satirical blog reports in which he writes about  the Italian President, referring to him as “the psychotic dwarf  with the tar-smeared hair”.  This week during an interview for German TV  Berlusconi insensitively remarked:  “[The victims] have everything they need. They have medical care, hot food … of course, their current lodgings are a bit temporary, but they should see it like a weekend of camping.”  He is also reported to have told survivors of the Italian earthquake to lift their spirits by heading for the beach.  What a buffoon !!!


There is now to be an investigation into possible criminal blame regarding shoddy building work of  San Salvatore, Aquila’s hospital built in 2000 which was supposed to have been a state-of-the art earthquake proof building,  and now lies in ruins.  It is alleged that sea sand had been used, instead of normal sand mixed with cement (to increase the construction company’s profits). Experts say that the steel reinforcing rods in the concrete structure can become corroded by the salt in the sand with potentially fatal consequences. The construction firm which specialises in building hospitals is Impregilo, which has a monopoly on all major public works in Italy. This company also builds Waste Incinerator Plants and is also implicated with the Camorra in the mismanagement of waste disposal in Naples, which caused last year’s waste crisis, and are in line to get the contract to build the Messina Bridge to link Sicily and Rome, and several new Nuclear Power Stations.  Scary or what !!! 

47 – Morning of Wednesday 8th April

On our way to Atina, we decided to first take  Mike and Mary to see the spectacular Abbey of Montecassino and then proceeded to drive on through Caira and up towards the village of Terelle.  Near here we halted for a tasty  little picnic, blessed with panoramic views of the snow-capped Abruzzi mountains and the wide expanse of the verdant Cassino valley that stretched below.




We began to make our gradual descent, passing through Terelle’s magnificient chestnut woods which are said to be the most beautiful in all of Lazio. The largest chestnut tree has a circumference of 12 metres and the oldest is 800 years old. On the second Sunday of November a well-known Sagra delle Castagne or Chestnut Festival takes place in Terelle. Here there is the opportunity to eat the local roasted chestnuts and desserts and cakes made of them and sample other such delicacies such as wild boar, local hams, sausages, cheeses, bread, polenta, beans, mushrooms, and try a sip or two of the local Cesanese wine.

We continued our descent passing beautiful vistas of the picturesque village of Belmonte Castello which appears to cling to and wind its way around the rock spur on which it stands.


Belmonte Castello

My Atina Website:   http://atinaitaly.com


46 – The Week The Earth Shook

This will be a week that people will remember for many years to come, particularly those that have lived in the historic city of  L’Aquila and the surrounding area of the Abruzzi mountains, in the centre of Italy.

We have had Paul’s brother and sister-in-law staying here with us this week at “Tre Cancelle”.  The first we knew of the disaster was when we received a mobile phone call from Mike’s son in the UK on Monday morning, as he was ringing to check if we were all OK.  Immediately we switched on the TV and were horrified to see the news story that was unravelling  – a devastating earthquake in L’Aquila measuring 6.3 magnitude.  It seems that there had been another significant tremor around midnight, and another prior to this on 30th March.

We actually had not felt a thing, as we were probably fast asleep and there was no apparent damage here. (Later we learned that some people in Itri and Fondi had definitely felt the tremor, as had Rome and Naples.)

View From Atina of the Abruzzi Mountains

View From Atina of the Abruzzi Mountains

We were naturally concerned for our family in Atina and San Donato, which border the Abruzzi mountains, so we immediately telephoned to check up on them.  Mara was very upset, they had experienced a very harrowing, sleepless night, with violent tremors.  However, thank goodness there had been no serious damage in Atina or the Val di Comino area.

However cousin Elena’s daughter, Antonella, is a student in the university town of  L’Aquila studying Biotechnology.  We learned that, despite many students having already left for the Easter break, Antonella had been staying in L’Aquila that dreadful night, and that she had had to crawl out of the student’s lodgings in her pyjamas, in shock but thankfully physically unhurt. Our cousins were distressed as they were unable to drive to L’Aquila to fetch her as the roads had been blocked off by the Police and Civil Protection authorities, and there were reports that some major routes in the area had been damaged.  Eventually one of Antonella’s friends drove her home to be tearfully reunited with her family in San Donato.

We arranged to go and visit the cousins on Wednesday to give them some moral support.


43 – Fuochi di San Giuseppe – 19th March

The 19th March is the feast of the Fuochi di San Giuseppe, in honour of St Joseph the patron saint of Carpenters, and is also celebrated as Father’s Day in Italy.

Originally this was a pagan festival, full of mystic symbolism of purification. It celebrates the end of winter and welcomes the long awaited arrival of Spring. Prayers are said to grant a good harvest for the year.




This was our first opportunity to see how Itri celebrates this special evening.  Itri was thronged with people and the air was filled with the smell of wood smoke as large bonfires had been  lit around the town. Different neighbourhoods compete to build the largest bonfire.

Despite the slightly inclement weather there were long queues at the various stalls serving traditional dishes and zeppole, fritters made of sugar, eggs and honey.

In the main piazza by the Comune a band played folk music. 


I was particularly interested in the zampogna player, as this instrument is typical of the Atina / Villa Latina /  Ciociaria area, from which my Italian grandparents originated.


The zampogna is a type of rustic bagpipe that was traditionally played by local shepherds known as zampognari particularly at Christmas and other times of celebration. 

The evening came to a somewhat dramatic crescendo when a lively thunderstorm struck the town with a pelting of hailstones.  Thankfully it had held off so there were no disruptions to the San Giuseppe festivities.


41 – Our New Website about Atina, the Val di Comino and Ciociaria

Announcing our New Website about Atina


 Atina  is a place very dear to my heart.


My maternal Italian grandparents originated from this sweet little town.  

Our first holiday in Atina was 25 years ago. I still have cousins who live in Atina and they kindly invited us to come and stay with them for a fortnight. They wined and dined us. Mara is a wonderful cook. Mario took us out and about in his car to see some of the local towns in the Val di Comino. All in all they thoroughly spoiled us. We fell a close connection with Atina and the scenic Val di Comino.


We often visit Atina, Montecassino and surrounding area, and are getting to know the area well.

Last weekend we explored the village of Caira, The German War Cemetery at Cassino, the nearby village of Caira, Picinisco and Gallinaro.

One of our hobbies is Family History.  Last year we had 3 sets of guests here with us at “Tre Cancelle” who were tracing their family roots in the Atina / Ciociaria area.  We did our very best to help them and took them all on a tour of the area. 

If perhaps you share my enthusiasm for Atina or have family that were born there we would love to hear from you. We have also started a Group on Facebook called We Love Atina. 

Perhaps you might like to join and meet other people that share Atina connections. 

 The New Atina Website: http://atinaitaly.com


24 – “Casa Lawrence” Near Picinisco

"Casa Lawrence"After lunch we took a short drive towards the little town of Picinisco on the edge of the Abruzzo National Park.  Cousin Mario had told us that the English author D.H. Lawrence, and his wife Frieda, had once stayed in this area in an isolated, little house, owned by Orazio Cervi.  Lawrence wrote about  his experiences here during the Winter of 1919. 

Having cut short his stay in Rome, Lawrence described his arduous journey, by train to Cassino, by post-omnibus up into the mountains to Atina, by cart to an inn and on foot with a donkey at the end. 

“You cross a great stoney river bed, then an icy river on a plank, then climb unfootable paths, while the ass struggles behind with your luggage”. 

He described the accommodation as being  staggeringly primitive” and “so cold”.

“The house contains a rather cave-like kitchen downstairs – the other rooms are a wine-press and a wine-storing place and a corn bin:  upstairs are three bedrooms, and a semi-barn for maize cobs: beds and bare floor.  There is one tea-spoon – one saucer – two cups – one plate – two glasses – the whole supply of crockery.  Everything must be cooked gipsy-fashion in the chimney over a wood fire: The chickens wander in, the ass is tied to the doorpost and makes his droppings on the doorstep, and brays his head off.”

Lawrence describes the mule track up to Picinisco as being  “a sheer scramble – no road whatever”  and Atina, where they went to the market to shop for their weekly supplies, as being perfectly wonderful to look at”  for costume and colour”   but which offered only basic provisions and no wine hardly”.

He seems to have been intrigued by the local culture and wrote about musicians playing under the window and a wild howling type of ballad”.  

He referred to the locals as wearing “skin sandals” and the ladies as wearing sort of swiss bodices and white shirts with full, full sleeves – very handsome – speaking a perfectly unintelligible dialect and no Italian”.

He describes the days as being hot and lovely”,  however the nights were already freezing amid the snow-capped peaks.  As the weather was turning colder, and as he suffered from a weak chest and the weather was turning colder, he and his wife decided it would be best to move on to the milder climes of Capri.

However, Lawrence  took inspiration from his soujourn in Picinisco, to write his novel “The Lost Girl”,  which was published in 1920.  The final chapters are set in the villages of “Ossona” and “Pescocalascio”  (fictitious names for the towns of Picinisco and Atina).

This information was sourced from the book entitled “D.H. Lawrence 1885 – 1930” by by David Ellis, John Worthen, and Mark Kinkead-Weekes.

The charming “Casa Lawrence”, with its arched doorways and wrought iron balconies,  has now been converted into a museum and is furnished as it would have been at the time of Lawrence’s stay there in 1919.   It is a picturesque, location with lovely mountain views and fresh mountain air. 

On the day prior to our visit, “Casa Lawrence” had been the venue for a convention, of academics specialising in the works of the author – “L’ Italia di D.H. Lawrence”.  

The house is also an Agriturismo offering Bed and Breakfast accommodation and has restaurant serving tradition dishes using home-grown produce.  From time to time soirées  are organised when local musicians play traditional instruments such as the zampogna (a type of bagpipe) dressed in the typical Ciociaria costume.