I recently returned from a Solo Tour of Sicily.  I arrived a day early to visit relatives of my Grandmother who immigrated to America in 1914.  I never knew if my Grandmother had siblings left behind in Piana degli Albanesi, Sicily.  Due to Ancestry.com and Facebook, plus other relatives, I was able to meet my Grandmother’s relatives and explore our geneaology.

Piana degli Albanesi is “the Albanian Plain.”  It is located about 20 miles inland from Palermo, the capital of Sicily.  It is not really a plain, as the village is literally built upon the side of a large hill or small mountain. The population of Sicily is about 5 million people, mostly located around the coastline.  There are about 6,000 people that live in Piana degli Albanesi.  The Albanians were given land in southern Italy and Sicily for protecting Italy against the Ottoman Empire in the mid 1400’s.

Family Reunion

Fifteen of us gathered at a local restaurant and had a 3-hour, 7-course dinner.  It was a typical way of celebrating an occasion.  Luckily some younger family members spoke English and translated for me.

Some of them took me around the village through the winding, steep streets to visit the local churches, the local museum, and where family members lived.

This is the door front where my Grandmother’s family lived.  It is currently vacant.  You cannot imagine how significant this door meant to me. This door is the opening of my being. It is from whence my Grandmother left her home, boarded a ship, and arrived in New York City on January 14, 1914 when she was 18 years old.  Francesca Stassi met up with her betrothed, Nicolo Cuccia and was married in Madison, WI on February 14, 1914.  My Uncle was born in December of 1914 and after 7 more children, my father was born. My Grandfather immigrated to Madison, WI in April, 1910 to work with stone quarried in Sicily for the capitol building in Madison which was built from 1910-1917.


The architecture is similar to what you would see in other parts of Europe , or in Southern Caifornia where the weather is mild.  Plaster coating over stone with clay tile roofs is the norm.  You used materials that were readily available—rock, stone, rubble, pebbles, soil, and just a little wood.

To aid in walking, some streets had steps built into them and the cars would straddle.

Of course, parking was at a premium.  Most people only had one car as a public bus or train is available to reach most Sicilian cities.


People in Piana degli Albanesi are ethnically Albanian.  In the middle ages, people who lived in Albania called their land “Arberi” or “Arbeni.” One of their languages was called  Arbëreshë, the other language is standard Albanian.  Arbëreshë has elements of Albanian and Greek. The only book written in English for the U.S. and U.K.  to learn this language is Everyday Arberesh by Martin H. Di Maggio (2013).  Of course locals know Italian and a Sicilian dialect and students learn English in school.

Sicilian Mafia

“Today the Sicilian mafia is way less dangerous than before. Today we can say that the mafia – the one capable of killing magistrates and attacking the state – has been defeated.” according to a Sicilian attorney.   “Numerous experts say the organisation that crafted its own mythology – inspiring films, books and television series – has never been weaker. Decimated by relentless arrests, weighed down by the recent economic crisis, short on cash and on foot soldiers, Cosa Nostra has become a paper tiger.”  “Dead? No, because it’s still embedded in Sicilian society; but transformed, yes: reduced, according to many, to the level of a neighbourhood gang.”

Since Juge Falcone and Judge Borsellino’s deaths in 1992, the police arrested more than 4,000 mafiosi.

Technological advances in the fight against the mafia have played a crucial role. First and foremost is the use of wiretaps and hidden cameras. Bugs placed in bosses’ homes and hidden cameras in mafia hangouts have shed light on the new mobsters’ activities. They have led to compelling evidence in court, with bosses often receiving long sentences in maximum-security prisons.

Following the deaths of Falcone and Borsellino, the harsh prison regime was intensified, aiming at cutting off mafia inmates completely from their former criminal associates. The new regime banned the use of telephones, any association or correspondence with other prisoners, or meetings with third parties. In order to avoid living a completely isolated life, many mafiosi decide to turn state’s witness.

This is a memorial to “peasants” from Piana degli Albanesi who were massacred by the Mafia for no apparent reason in 1947.

Open Your Own Door

I am grateful for the opportunity to learn more about my paternal heritage, to visit the actual residence of my Grandmother, and to re-unite with her relatives.

Travel allows you to see “outside of yourself.”  If all you see are your surroundings, you cannot learn more about yourself, for you cannot know yourself until you  have experienced that which is different.  Go travel, explore, and open your own door!

–Gina (Cuccia) Newell, eXp Realty & Premiere Stagers & Realty; 608-345-9396