Just as we had retraced my Mum's family roots in Malta, I was keen to do the same with my Dad's in Italy. Dad was born and raised in a tiny little village called San Marco in Lamis, located in the Province of Foggia. Even though none of our family remains in San Marco in Lamis, I was determined to visit the town and nearby villages to get a feel for the place where Dad spent the first 13 years of his life.
To do this we needed make our way to Foggia city centre and then head to our accommodation in San Giovanni Rotondo - the town neighbouring San Marco in Lamis. At first I was excited as the train pulled in to Foggia station. But once we stepped out of the station, we had a slight uneasy feeling. The usual sketchy characters awaited us and we felt as if we had entered some South American country bordering on the third world. Dad grew up in this place??? No wonder he's so street smart and always emphasised the importance of completing our studies and doing something meaningful with our lives.
On board the bus to San Giovanni Rotondo we were pleased to find that we would be staying in a much nicer part of the Province of Foggia. San Giovanni Rotondo had all the hallmarks of a vibrant and tightknit local community. The town really came to life during the evening passeggiata when all the locals would walk down the main streets and get chatting to one another. San Giovanni Rotondo would make for the perfect launching pad for our travels throughout the Province of Foggia.
Another thing to know about San Giovanni Rotondo is that they're big fans of St Pio (formerly known as Padre Pio). Padre Pio was priest in the early part of the 20th century who is believed to have received the stigmata (the wounds to the hands and feet that Jesus is said to have suffered when crucified on the cross). Padre Pio spent most of his adult life working in San Giovanni Rotondo and his body is now housed in the church bearing his name. The people of San Giovanni Rotondo sure are passionate about their local Saint. He is EVERYWHERE! There's the Padre Pio church, bar, hospital, pharmacy, hotel, you name it. Every public statue and fountain features Padre Pio. There were even posters and framed pictures in our hotel room. And there's also a channel on TV called "Padre Pio TV". You just couldn't escape the bloke!!
After being a little overwhelmed with Padre Pio pandemonium, we decided to escape to San Marco in Lamis and make a pilgrimage of or own - to dad's old hometown. As we slowly made our way to the apartment where dad grew up, I couldn't help but imagine what it would have been like for Dad to roam these streets as a youngster, terrorising the locals and getting up to mischief. We finally located the apartment in a tiny little laneway called Vico St Tommaso (how appropriate, Dad has a grandson name Thomas - but he's no saint!) and began taking pictures.
Whilst snapping away, one of the neighbours popped out of her house to see if we needed assistance. I struck up a conversation as best as I could with my broken Italian and explained what we were doing out the front of the neighbouring apartment. Before we knew it we were invited into her house to say hi to her family and some visitors that she had over. As I struggled to converse with the guests, I overhead the lady talking to Jess in perfect English with a thick Welsh accent. She could speak English all along!! Turns out she was also born in San Marco in Lamis but moved to Wales as a young girl and only recently returned home.
Sadly, the excitement of retracing Dad's roots was soon replaced by frustration as my infamous cough started to return. At first it was a little tickle but within a half an hour it was completely uncontrollable. This b****** had been following me for 6 weeks, across 3 countries, and had made more comebacks than bloody John Farnham. I had finally had enough. And so had Jess - she had really put up with me for longer than she needed to. We hopped back on the bus to San Giovanni Rotondo and made our way to the hospital - the Padre Pio Hospital (of course!).
Trying to explain my symptoms in Italian was fun. The triage nurse understood what I was saying but he seemed more intrigued by the fact that I was Australian, could speak Italian, and was in this part of Italy. He also wanted to know if I knew his wife's cousin who lived in Melbourne. He even took time out from taking my vitals to call his wife and find out exactly where this cousin lived. Turns out he lives "on the main road near the theatre". Well that narrows it down!!! Can we skip the family tree and get back to my cough which, by that stage, I was starting to suspect was asbestosis? When you're a male and you're sick, there's no such thing as overreacting…
We finally managed to see the doctor and it turned out he had a Melbourne story too. But this time there were no phonecalls to find out the addresses of relatives. Instead it was just a short story about how he worked out the Royal Melbourne for a few months. As the Doc carried out his x-ray and diagnosed me with bronchitis, I kept Jess in the loop by translating what he was saying to me. However there was no need to translate when the doctor pulled out a decent sized syringe and motioned for me to drop my pants. I was about to find out what it was like to be Elton John for a few minutes - I always hoped that it would involve winning a Grammy and sharing a stage with Billy Joel but, unfortunately for me, I was going to experience something else. Good GOD that thing hurt! And for a few hours it left me walking with a slight wobbly hip like I was Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Despite the visit to Dad's old stomping ground not turning out exactly how I had imagined it, our time in the Province of Foggia wasn't all that bad. My cough finally cleared up and hasn't reared its ugly since I copped a good stiffy in the rear. And we did enjoy mingling with the locals in San Giovanni Rotondo. We tucked into the local produce (the mozzarella di buffala campana will make you weep) and, oddly, we received regular discounts at the local fruit shop. At first I thought it was because I could speak Italian but I soon discovered the real reason: the old fella running the shop loved having a perve at, and turning on the charm for Jess. From that point forward Jess became the ultimate 20% discount card on all items sold by dirty old Italian men.
We also managed to see some of the other nice parts of the region such as Lucera. Lucera was once home to some 20,000 Muslims, who were expelled from Sicily by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (after whom Jess' pet lizard is named). As such, many of the churches bear Arabic style architecture and designs - having been originally constructed as mosques. We also paid a visit to the ruins of Lucera Castle, which was commissioned by Frederick II and, ironically enough, was teeming with lizards on this particularly hot day. And we even managed to squeeze in visit to one of the most well preserved Roman amphitheatres which dates back to the time of Augustus.
Next stop: Pompeii