Getting Away, Yet Going Home

A writer’s journey to a remote Italian village brings back, with startling clarity, memories of a North Dakota farm.

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Summer time in the tiny Italian village of Vitiana

Credit: Phil/

Last summer, more than ready for a vacation, my wife and I packed up our eight-year-old daughter and headed to someplace we had never been, a house in the tiny Italian village of Vitiana.

The house was officially a "villa," of course, as are all Italian house rentals these days, but the word was too grand for the home. It was a charming yet fairly modest, very old stone house, one of three on a small courtyard in a village that ran along the crest of a wooded mountain in the region known as the Garfagnana. This is the far northern and less fashionable part of Tuscany, a couple of hours from Siena and the gentle landscape of olive groves and grape arbors—the stuff of those romantic, villa-owning fantasies that can make you millions.

The Garfagnana is not gentle. In earlier days, it was considered a land of witches and demons, and it's not hard to understand why. The mountains are rugged, the forest so dense it feels primeval. The most notable architectural landmark is an oddly asymmetrical bridge, which starts across the Serchio River in a responsible fashion on three squat Romanesque arches and then suddenly springs into the air, a ribbon of stone bent in a high and airy arch, as if the bridge maker was taken with a fit of uncontrollable exuberance. Legend has it that the bridge, known as the Ponte del Diavolo, was built by the devil.

That may or may not be true, but the devil certainly built many of the roads in the region. They make their way up the mountains in endless switchbacks, often barely one lane wide, rarely guardrailed, seemingly intended to send a fair number of their travelers on to an afterlife of one kind or another.

The best one can say about the road to Vitiana is that it is better than the roads to other towns, such as Tereglio or Casali. Still, you must negotiate a twisting, uphill passage so narrow that we had to pull our mirrors back, edge the car to within a couple of inches of one wall, let out the clutch, and pray. We took to calling the passage the Devil's Gate.

So this is how we came to our Italian villa at the end of a long day: past the Devil's Bridge, through the Devil's Gate, into an ancient village perched on top of a haunted landscape. We dragged our bags down a "street" too narrow for a car and collapsed into a house that reminded my daughter of Harry Potter's Hogwarts. Later that night, we went for a walk through the maze of twisting cobblestone paths and steep stairways, all squeezed between stone houses that felt as if they had been carved out of the mountain sometime around the discovery of fire. My wife, who has traveled a fair amount, turned to me and said, "I've never been anyplace like this in my life."

Neither had I. And over the two weeks we stayed there, the strangeness of the place never completely left. The damaged fresco of the Virgin Mary and two unknown saints in the center of the living room wall continued to haunt. The nearby stone villages perched in the air, the forests impenetrable and green, the valleys roped with glowing mist in the mornings—all held a persistent magic. And yet, as we walked through the village and the surrounding countryside, I was overcome by another sensation. There were grapevines on the vertiginous mountain slopes and a few cows kept here and there in stone buildings on the edge of town. The smells of moldering straw, manure, and livestock, the sagging suspenders and heavy trousers on the old men we sometimes spotted in the vineyard or next to the barns—all of this tugged at me in an oddly familiar way. I realized I was remembering my uncle's North Dakota farm, which had been sold earlier that summer after he died at the age of 84. His family had farmed outside the small town of Michigan for more than 100 years, and I spent many long August days there as a boy.

The two homes—a stone one on the mountains of the Garfagnana and a wood one on the plains of North Dakota—could hardly seem farther apart. Yet they settled side by side in my mind, and I found myself remembering my uncle's farm more vividly than ever before.


The remainder of Reed Karaim's essay will be available online on May 1.

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