French connections

GENERAL CHARLES DE GAULLE (1890-1970), an eminent refugee from France, was dead against Britain joining what was the Common Market and is now the European Union, despite the country having generously hosted him during WW2, when his country was invaded by Germany. This is quite well known, but far less known is the fact that he lived in Hampstead, north London. His home was at 99 Frognal in what is currently St Dorothy’s Convent.

The convent building, Frognal House, was built in about 1740 and later modified in various ways (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1113077). The convent building stands on the site of a 15th century tenement known as ‘house called Frognal’ (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp33-42). At the beginning of the 18th century, the land on which this stood was owned by the bricklayer Thomas Smith, who probably built the present building, which became known as ‘Frognal House’. During the Crimean War (1853-1856), the house became The Sailors’ Orphans Home (from 1862-1869), which later shifted to the northern end of Fitzjohns Avenue in 1869 and which was constructed on land once owned by Sir Harry Vane (1613-1662).

De Gaulle and his family lived in Frognal House between 1940 and 1942. Monique Riccardi-Cubitt, a writer and art-historian, stayed in Frognal House in about 2000 and has written about it (https://blogs.mediapart.fr/monique-riccardi-cubitt/blog/210418/memories-general-de-gaulle-london). She wrote:

“The reception rooms on the ground floor have remained, but the General’s Cabinet de travail is now the chapel … The first floor panelled library is where I would feel his spirit most strongly hovering as I would work alone early in the morning … In the garden roses grew, I drew and painted them in the late afternoon … His spirit was there too, and I used to wonder how often he would have come back from his headquarters in Carlton Gardens worn and weary with cares, to wander off to the peace of the leafy bowers and refresh his tired mind and soul … From the roof terrace overlooking the whole of London below, he would stand at night and watch the German bombings on the City of London during the Blitz …”

While living in Hampstead, De Gaulle used to attend masses at St Mary’s Catholic Church in Holly Walk. It was the first Catholic church built in Hampstead after the Reformation (16th century). It opened its doors to worshippers in 1816. Its first pastor was a refugee, one of 500 clergy fleeing from the French Revolution, the Abbé Jean-Jacques Morel (1766-1852; https://parish.rcdow.org.uk/hampstead/about-the-parish/). Thomas Barrett, a historian of Hampstead, writing in 1912 in his “Annals of Hampstead”, noted:

“Towards the end of the eighteenth century another interesting religious association came into the life of Hampstead, in a very modest and unassertive way, as one of the minor overflows from the French Revolution. Among the priestly refugees from France was a certain Abbe Morel, who had been connected with the Grand Seminary at Bourg. He was attracted to Hampstead by the fact of there being several French families living there—Talleyrand among the rest, some say—exiles like himself, to whom the question of religious worship according to their own faith was becoming a matter of difficulty…”

Barrett believed that Talleyrand, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838):

“… lived for a time at Tensleys, on Hampstead Green, during his service as French Ambassador from 1830 until 1834 … It was pulled down, and the site is now partly covered by the Hampstead General Hospital.”

This is now the location of the Royal Free Hospital. Barrett quotes the following anecdote that reveals that the refugees included members of the French aristocracy:

“… A story is told of two handsomely dressed ladies visiting Hampstead in 1819. They drove in a carriage to the bottom of Holly Hill, and then got out and walked to the top; and sometime later the Abbe was seen walking down the road bareheaded, respectfully escorting them. As the elder of the two ladies got into the carriage she kissed the Abbe’s hand and shed tears. This lady, it was said, was the Duchesse d’Angouleme.”

After some years in Hampstead, Morel:

“… was put to a severe ordeal when, the Revolution having come to an end, it became possible for the refugees to go back to their native country. Most of the little congregation for which he had been officiating returned. He would fain have gone with them ; but in Hampstead he had found a real haven of rest after the turbulence which had preceded his exile, and had formed many ties with the people of the village. He decided to remain, and for many years after that Abbe Morel was a worthy and loved figure in Hampstead.”

In 1941, Fr Joseph Geraerts became the parish priest. During this period:

“… one of the more notable parishioners was General Charles de Gaulle who lived for about a year at 99 Frognal, now St. Dorothy’s Convent. We are told that his tall and impressive figure was always to be seen in the front bench at the 11 o’clock Mass whenever he was home.” (https://parish.rcdow.org.uk/hampstead/wp-content/uploads/sites/193/2015/09/St-Marys-June-15.pdf).

De Gaulle returned to France in June 1944. After initially declining to join the Common Market, Britain applied to join in 1963. De Gaulle was dead against this (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_de_Gaulle#European_Economic_Community_(EEC)). It was only after De Gaulle resigned as President in 1969 that Britain was able to join the European community, which it has left recently.  

Frognal House was converted into its present role, the home of St Dorothy’s Convent, part of a religious community based in Malta, in 1968. The organisation:

“… caters for young ladies coming to study in London or for a short holiday from all over the world. It aims at providing not only a boarding house, but a homely environment where guidance and advice assure the well being and comfort of all the students. Besides catering for the students, the sisters are very much involved in their Parish St Mary’s.” (www.stdorothysmalta.org.mt/convents.html).

Apart from a couple of restaurants in Hampstead, the former Cellier du Midi and the still extant Cage Imaginaire, I had never considered that Hampstead had any other French connections. However, seeing the convent today and looking into its history, has shown me that France had a significant role in Hampstead’s history.

PS: I almost forgot to mention the onion sellers, who used to come to Hampstead from France with their bicycles ands strings of onions. And, also, there is a French creperie in Hampstead next to the King William IV pub on Hampstead High Street.

Huguenots and Catholics in London’s Soho

SOHO SQUARE IN London’s West End contains two places for Christian worship: St Patricks Church (Roman Catholic); and The French Protestant Church. After Henry VIII came to the throne, life in Britain began to become awkward and sometimes dangerous for Roman Catholics. At around the same time, the same was the case for French Protestants (the Huguenots) across the English Channel in France. Life for the Huguenots was perilous in their native land. For example, in 1545 several hundred Waldensians, people who questioned the truth of the teachings of the Catholic Church, were massacred in Provence, and about ten years before that, more than 35 Lutherans were burnt elsewhere in France. Things got worse for the French Protestants during The Eight Wars of Religion (1562-1598; https://museeprotestant.org/en/notice/the-eight-wars-of-religion-1562-1598/). Even before the war broke out, Huguenots began fleeing to places where Protestantism was either tolerated or encouraged. England was one of these. Under the Tudors, the country became home to Huguenot refugees from France and Holland.

When the Huguenots began arriving in London, that is during the 16th century, the metropolis covered mainly what is now the City of London and areas just east of it such as Spitalfields. So, it was in what is now the City and East End that the Huguenots settled and added significantly to the richness of London life. Fournier Street in Spitalfields is one of several streets where they worked and lived. As the centuries passed, London expanded westwards and what some now call the West End began to be developed. Soho Square was built in the 1670s. As increasing numbers of Protestant refugees arrived in England, some of them settled in the newly developed western parts of London. Writing in his “Huguenot Heritage” Robin D Gwynn noted:


“If Huguenot taste made an impression in the cramped quarters of Spitalfields, it was stamped more deeply on the life of the nation through the work of the refugee settlement in Westminster and Soho. Here was the centre of French fashion, cuisine and high society in England, located conveniently near Court and Parliament.”

The churches used by the Huguenots in London were mainly in Spitalfields before the West End was built. By the 18th century, there about 14 in Westminster and Soho. By the 18th century, there were 31 Huguenot churches and their number increased to such an extent that the Anglican Church began to feel that its churches were becoming outnumbered in London. A version of the Marriage Act that was in force between 1753 and 1856:

“…required marriages other than those of Jews and Quakers to take place in a Church of England church, and led to the demise of some French churches. Some Huguenots of Spitalfields chose Christ Church as their place of worship. It was also the case that Huguenots gradually assimilated and intermarried into English society during the century since their arrival, eliminating the need for separate French churches.” (www.thehistoryoflondon.co.uk/huguenots/2/)

By the latter part of the 19th century:

“Soho was London’s major French neighbourhood and was therefore the obvious setting to build a new church …” (www.egliseprotestantelondres.org.uk/en/heritage/history-2/huguenot-refuge-england/)

The church that was constructed is that which is located on the west side of the northern edge of Soho Square and was completed in 1893. It was designed by Aston Webb (1849-1930), who also designed a façade on the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington.  The ornamental details on the mainly red stone façade were created by William Aumonier (1841-1914), a sculptor with some Huguenot ancestry. A bas-relief in the demi-lune above the main entrance attracted my attention. On the left, there is a depiction of a crowded sailing ship. On the right, there is a man holding a document, which is being signed by a man (a king) holding a quill pen. Both panels are surmounted by angels. The base of the sculpted demi-lune has the following inscription:

“To the glory of God & in grateful memory of HM King Edward VI who by his charter of 1550 granted asylum to the Huguenots of France.”

Edward the Sixth (lived 1537-1553) was only nine years old when he succeeded his father King Henry VIII, yet even at this tender age he was an ardent promoter of Protestantism as the state religion. Following the visits to London by Protestant leaders such as John Laski (Jan Łaski or Johannes à Lasco (1499 – 1560), King Edward VI issued Letters Patent, which permitted the establishment of the (protestant) Dutch and French churches of London. Robin Gwynn wrote that:

“The nature of the letters patent was most unusual. In an age which set great store on stringent religious conformity, they allowed foreigners in London to worship … freed even from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London.”

A reason that Edward VI might well have sanctioned these foreign Protestant churches was because he hoped that they would be, to quote Gwynn:

“… the model, the blueprint, for a pure, reformed Church of England. The twin refugee churches [i.e. French and Dutch*] offer us a window into the future envisaged by Edward, a future in which there might be superintendents but not bishops.”

Laski had been a superintendent in Emden before he came to England. As such, he:

“… instituted the first example in England of fully-fledged reformed Protestant discipline, based on elected, ordained ‘elders’.”

At the end of Edward’s short reign and his successor Lady Jane Grey’s even shorter one, Queen Mary, a committed Catholic, temporarily put the brakes on the advancement of Protestantism in Britain, and Laski fled to the European mainland with some of his congregation.

The Roman Catholic Church of St Patricks that stands close to the French church was designed by John Kelly (1840-1904) and built between 1891 and 1893 on the site of one of the first Catholic buildings to be allowed in England after the Reformation (which countered Catholicism). It is interesting to note that many of the Catholics who came to London (from, for example Italy and Ireland) over the centuries were economic refugees rather than religious fugitives, as were the Huguenots. 

Despite the passage of time, Soho remains a richly cosmopolitan district of London. Although there are fewer than in than in the past, the area is still home to some fine purveyors of imported foods, notably delicious ingredients from Italy. Back in the 1960s, when I was a child, my mother used to do much our food shopping in these stores as well as in French and Belgian shops, which have long since closed. The disappearance of shops such as these is probably partly a reflection of the migration of members of communities such as the Huguenots out from the centre of town to the suburbs.

*Note: the Dutch Church is currently in Austin Friars in the City. It was first established in 1550.

Feeling at home in the UK

ALBANIA. BULGARIA, AND YUGOSLAVIA are countries that I visited in the 1970s and 1980s. I visited the former Yugoslavia the most and acquired a smattering of Serbo-Croat, the main language spoken in that fascinating part of the Balkans. My limited knowledge of this language helped me get by in Bulgaria. My poor Serbo-Croat seemed to be well understood in Bulgaria. During my first visit to Albania in 1984, although we were prevented from communicating with the locals, there were plenty of examples of the Albanian language in the form of propaganda posters and political slogans written with numerous pebbles on the sides of mountains.

Until 1990, my vocabulary of words from various Balkan languages was of limited use to me whilst I was practising dentistry in England, first in north Kent then, after 1994, in London.

In the mid-1990s, I began treating patients who were refugees from parts of the then violently disintegrating Yugoslavia. Many of my new patients were from Bosnia and Herzogovina. Some of them had little command of the English language and were grateful that they were being treated by someone who knew ‘where they were coming from’, as the saying goes, and who knew some words of their own language. Sadly, some of them hearing me repeating what little Serbo-Croat I knew, assumed that I was fluent. I attracted a faithful following, some of whom were charming and a small minority, the opposite, On the whole, even the most difficult of my ex-Yugoslav patients were grateful and brought me gifts, often strong home-brewed alcohol sent from Bosnia, as a mark of their gratitude. One dear lady even brought me a pair of earrings that her uncle in Sarajevo had made specially for my wife.

Some years later, I began treating Albanian-speaking refugees from Kosova, a region of the former Yugoslavia that had and still has a population, which is mainly of Albanian heritage. Many of the recent arrivals from that country, who came to my surgery for dental care, had minimal or no English. My knowledge of Albanian was extremely limited. I could greet them with ‘diten e mire’ (‘good day’) or wish them ‘mirupafshim’ (‘good bye’), when they left my surgery, but I could say little else of any practical use. However, if I said ‘rrofte partia socialiste e shqiperise’ (‘long live the Socialist Party of Albania’) or ‘lavde shoku Enver Hoxha’ (praise Comrade Enver Hoxha’), which I had learnt from propaganda posters in Albania back in 1984, this caused many of my Kosovan patients to smile.  

Now that I have been retired for a few years, many of the new arrivals to this country from the troubled Balkans have settled down and contribute positively to life in the UK.  Only today, whilst waiting in the street for take-away coffees, we were joined by three other customers, workmen dressed in overalls. Seeing my furry ex-Soviet Army hat, they struck up a conversation. They were all from Serbia and were delighted that I knew some words of their language, if ‘samo malo’ (‘only a little’). I decided not to show off my knowledge of Serbian swear words that my friends in Belgrade had taught me long ago, and which I shall not share with you.

Just before reaching the café, we had been taking exercise in Holland Park. This park, like many others in London, has wooden benches, often inscribed with words to commemorate lost member(s) of a family. I was idly looking at a row of benches opposite the curious “Annunciation” sculpture, a structure consisting of horns and cogs, when I spotted one with words that are not English:

“Detikuar prinderve  tane  te dashur sabri dhe behije preci”

I recognised this as being in Albanian. Google translates this as:

“Dedicated to our dear parents Sabri and Behije Preci”

Until today, I had not seen a park bench with an Albanian dedication. Seeing this typically British form of memorial made me feel that members of communities that have had to flee from their war-torn homes in the Balkans are beginning to feel that Britain is now also a place they can call ‘home’, whose public amenities they are helping to cherish. 

A place of greater safety

RICHMOND-UPON-THAMES WAS NOT a place that I would have associated with refugees until we went for a walk with some friends along the Thames footpath on the right bank of the river. We started at Richmond Bridge and headed towards Twickenham. Richmond Bridge is a handsome stone structure built by 1777. It was the eighth bridge to be built across the Thames and is now the oldest surviving bridge crossing the river.

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Octagonal Room at Orleans House

A leafy footpath runs alongside the river in which pleasure boats and waterfowl can be seen. Soon we arrived at a carved stone monument, a twisted polygonal structure on which words have been carved in three languages: English, French, and Flemish. The base of the elegant but simple monument has the words “The Belgian Village on the Thames” and above them, the dates “1914-18”. Nearby, there are a couple of information panels describing the history of a Belgian settlement on the river between Richmond and Twickenham during WW1. A Belgian village? You might well wonder; I did.

On the 7th of October 1914, Charles Pelabon, a French engineer who had been working in Belgium arrived in Britain with some of his workers. By the start of 1915, he had set up a munition factory in a disused roller-skating rink in East Twickenham. The factory soon employed as many as 6000 workers, mostly recruited from the vast numbers of Belgian refugees who had fled their country after war had broken out. This led to the establishment of a sizeable Belgian community, with shops and Belgian schooling, between Twickenham and Richmond. Sadly, almost all physical traces of the community have disappeared. Where the factory once stood is now covered by blocks of privately owned apartments. Standing next to the elegantly designed monument, it is hard to imagine that this almost rustic stretch of the river was a hive of industrial activity and filled with people speaking in French and Flemish.

Currently, our government is holding out the offer of homes in the UK for up to many residents of Hong Kong. I wonder whether we will see the establishment of ‘Hong Kong Village(s)’ to accommodate ‘refugees’ from a part of China that is undergoing potentially serious changes to its hitherto special status.

Further along our walk, we reached the park surrounding Marble Hill House. This neat looking Palladian villa set back from the river was constructed between 1724 and 1729 and designed by the architect Roger Morris (1695 -1749). It was built for Henrietta Howard (1689-1767), who had been the mistress of the then future King George II. When she ceased to be the mistress of King George II, Henrietta bought land beside the river and built Marble Hill House, using the substantial financial settlement she received from the King.

Crossing a small lane, one leaves the grounds of Marble Hill and enters the smaller grounds of Orleans House, or, at least what, remains of it. The house was a fine Palladian villa built for the politician and diplomat James Johnston (1635-1737) in 1710 to the designs of the architect John James (c1673-1746). In 1720, an octagonal room in the baroque style, designed by James Gibbs, was added. This was used to entertain George II’s Queen Consort, Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1683-1737). She regarded Johnston with ‘great favour’.

Between 1813 and 1815, Johnston’s house was home to another royal visitor, a refugee from France, Louis Philippe I (1773 -1850), the Duc d’Orléans. Soon after the execution of his father in 1893, he left France. Later, he returned to France where he reigned as King Louis-Philippe I, the last king of France, between 1830 and the year of revolutions all over Europe, 1848. A print by the French artist Pingret shows the King and Queen Victoria visiting Louis Philippe’s former home at Orleans House some years after his coronation. It was the first time that a British and French monarch had been together on British soil for 500 years (see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryofthe…/…/NrKCqDE8Q-arYJHipxLXDQ). Although most of the house was demolished in 1926, the octagonal room was saved. I noticed a fragment of masonry in the grounds close to the remains of the house. It bears a crest on which there are two fleur-de-lys symbols. In the 21st century, a new arts centre, including an art gallery, was built that incorporates the octagonal room, which has been restored to its former glory.

Further along the river near a disused ferry landing stage, we came across the home of yet another refugee, the composer and conductor (Sir) Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991). Born in Warsaw, Panufnik, a leading light in the Polish classical music community, ‘defected’ to the West in 1954 having become uncomfortable with the politically dominated cultural environment in Poland. He settled in Britain, becoming a British citizen in 1961. After marrying Camilla Jessel in late 1963, the couple bought the house near Twickenham that overlooks the Thames and now bears a light blue circular commemorative plaque with a red Polish eagle on it.

We returned to Richmond Bridge following the riverside path. We watched a plucky little dog rush into the water only to make a hasty retreat when swans hissed at him. Despite the birds’ unwelcoming threats, he dashed into the water several more times. We arrived back at Richmond Bridge after having enjoyed a pleasant stroll and seeing three places that have provided people from Europe with ‘a place of greater safety’, these being the words used by Hilary Mantel as the title of one of her novels.

A place of refuge

THE ROAD FROM SURAT TO BOMBAY runs through flat terrain with many industrial establishments until it is within a few miles of the border between Gujarat and Maharashtra, a frontier that did not exist before 1960, when the former Bombay State split along linguistic lines into Gujarat and Maharashtra. Beyond the border, the countryside changes suddenly and dramatically, becoming hilly, greener, and much more rustic.

We stopped at Sanjan, a small town near the Arabian Sea and just within Gujarat. In 689 AD, some boatloads of Zoroastrian refugees, fleeing from the Moslems in Iran landed at the, port of Sanjan. The local Indian ruler gave them sanctuary. Thus, began the Parsi community in India.

Sanjan today is a small rather untidy country town surrounded by Arcadian landscape. The modernistic Parsi agiary (fire temple) stands in a walled enclosure at the edge of town close to the Surat to Bombay railway line. It is only open to Parsis.

Close to the agiary and open to the public there is a large enclosure dominated by a tall obelisk surmounted by a gold coloured jar from which gold coloured metal flames are modelled. On three of the four sides of the obelisk there are inscribed plaques: one in an ancient Parsi script (maybe Avestan), another in Gujarati, and the third in English. These notices explain that the obelisk was inaugurated in 1920 by Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy. The column was erected to celebrate the arrival of the first Iranian Zoroastrians at Sanjan and their welcome by the Hindu ruler Jadi Rana.

Next to the obelisk, there is a structure containing a Parsi time capsule placed there in 2000. It contains objects that characterise the past and present of the Indian parsi community. It does not mention when the capsule may be opened.

About 50 yards from the monument stands a cluster of buildings. One of them that stands alone is a meeting hall. The other buildings are parts of a hostel (dharamshala) where Parsi pilgrims can stay for 15 rupees per night in simple accommodation. The main room of the hostel contains aging photographs of no doubt eminent Parsis. There is also a bust of Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress.

We left this peaceful flower filled Parsi compound and returned to the National Highway. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant called Atithi (means ‘guest’) and ate a very good mutton dhansak, a Parsi dish containing meat cooked in a gravy rich in dals and spices. We were surprised how excellent it was. A few hours later, we met a Parsi friend in Bombay, who told us that the restaurant is owned by a Parsi.

After crossing the river or large creek near Vasai, which was once a Portuguese possession and port, we entered the region of Greater Bombay. Immediately, the countryside ended and the landscape became urban. We were 70 kilometres from the heart of Bombay. We drove that distance through an uninterrupted built up area containing modern high rise buildings that look over large areas of slums filled with makeshift corrugated iron shacks, most of which have TV satellite dish antennae.

Eventually, we crossed the attractive Rajiv Gandhi Sealink Bridge that connects the suburb of Bandra with the upmarket Worli Seaface. It was not long before we were cruising along Marine Drive, one side of which is the sea and the other a series of buildings that includes many fine examples of Art Deco architecture.

Soon, we became immersed in the social life of Bombay, a tropical version of Manhattan: endlessly fascinating but quite exhausting.

They helped Garibaldi to unify Italy

The Arberesh of Sicily are a group of people descended from Albanians, who left the Balkans in the 15th century to escape from the Ottomans.

Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is separated from the rest of the island by a crescent of mountain ranges. After the occupation of Sicily by the Arabs in the 9th century, the Bishop of Palermo moved his seat to Monreale, a small hill town southwest of the city. There, he built a cathedral and then, later, after the Arabs had been expelled, the Normans built a Benedictine monastery. Monreale, which overlooks the metropolis, is now a suburb of Greater Palermo but in mediaeval times it was almost 5 miles away from the old walled city.

Albanian refugees landed along the coast of Sicily during the 15th century while the Ottomans were fighting in Albania, ably resisted for many years by George Kastrioti Skanderbeg (1405-68). Some Albanians landed near Palermo about twenty years after the death of Skanderbeg. In 1488, the Archbishop of Monreale granted them some vacant, disused, plague-ravished land across the mountains about 5 miles south of Monreale. They were told to make the most of it, and they did so very successfully. In exchange for this ‘gift’ of land, the Albanian settlers were required to recompense the Archbishop with taxes raised on what they were able to produce.

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The settlers established a town on the south-east facing slope of Monte Pizzuta. Originally named Piana dei Greci, it is now known as Piana degli Albanese (‘Piana’).  With a present population of about 7,000, most of the people speak an archaic form of Albanian known as Arberesh, as their mother tongue. They are also fluent in Italian and Sicilian.

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Bilingual signs (Italian/Arberesh) in Piana

In 2014, I published a book, “From Albania to Sicily”, which describes the Arberesh communities in Piana and several other villages in western Sicily. In October this year, while staying in Palermo, we re-visited Piana for a day and a night.

The bus from Palermo to Piana winds through the mountains separating Piana from the capital. As we travelled along the sinuous road with its many hairpin bends, I looked at the slopes strewn with greyish boulders and pondered the difficulty of the terrain through which the Albanian settlers had to struggle in an era long before there were decent roads. Then, I remembered the landscape of wild, steep mountain ridges in south western Albania, south of Vlora. Travelling through the wild terrain south of Palermo must have seemed no different to what the settlers had left behind in Albania.

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San Demetrio Megalomartire

On arrival in Piana, I popped into the lovely cathedral of San Demetrio Megalomartire. This church has an iconostasis such as you would expect to find in an Eastern Orthodox church. It is home to worshippers who practise the Byzantine rites. The first inhabitants of Piana, who originated mainly in south-western Albania and the Morea (Peloponnese) were Greek Orthodox Christians. The Archbishop of Monreale allowed them to continue to worship according to the Byzantine rites, but they had to adopt the Pope in Rome, rather than the Patriarch in Constantinople, as their spiritual leader.

In 2016, we visited Himara in Albania. This beautiful seaside resort was one of the places where the Arberesh lived before escaping to Sicily. The old part of the town, high above the coastal resort, is largely abandoned, but it resembles closely the historic centre of Piana. Incidentally, Piana has a street named Via Himara, and, also, a restaurant called Valle Himara.

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One of the reasons for our recent visit to Piana was to present a copy of my book to the town’s excellent library that occupies two storeys above Piana’s centrally located Extra Bar, which is famed for its fine canoli. We were invited to meet Ing. Rosario Petta, the town’s Mayor, who showed great interest in my volume, and even suggested that it ought to be translated into Italian.

During our visit, we met many people who remembered us from our earlier stay in Piana. They greeted us like old friends, an indication that the Arberesh have not abandoned the Albanian traditions of friendship and hospitality. They have also not forgotten other traditions they brought with them from Albania. Although they dress like other Italians for daily activities, no opportunity is lost to change into colourful, decorated traditional Arberesh/Albanian costumes. This is particularly the case at Easter time, when visitors from all over Italy flock to Piana to see great numbers of people wearing this garb.

Eric Hobsbawm remarked that the people of Piana, “… had a reputation for rebelliousness …” He quotes the words of GM Trevelyan who said that Piana “… was the hearth of freedom in Western Sicily.” I wondered why of all the towns in Sicily, Piana was one of the most rebellious. GM Trevelyan puts it down to some kind of inheritance. Maybe, those Albanians, who preferred living freely rather than under the yoke of the Ottomans and also chose to leave their homes in the Balkans in the 15th century, were perhaps endowed with something, maybe even genetic, which engendered in them a love of freedom and equality. Who can say?

The Arberesh in Piana played an important role in assisting Garibaldi in his invasion of Sicily in 1860, the beginning of a series of events that led to the Unification of Italy. When GM Trevelyan visited the town sometime before 1912, he met leading citizens of the town, “… in their circolo, where a very intelligent and just pride is taken in the history of the revolution of 1860 and the highly creditable part played in it by the ‘Albanians’ of Piana.” Garibaldi, who began his campaign to liberate and unify the Italians in Sicily, proclaimed to the Sicilian Arberesh who fought with him that: “Avete combattuto come leoni” (i.e.: they had fought like lions).

During our recent visit to the library in Piana, we met a group of highly educated librarians, who showed great interest in my book. When we began discussing Garibaldi in Sicily, they, like several people we met in Palermo, displayed unfavourable sentiments about the Unifier of Italy. They all felt that the liberation of Sicily and its incorporation into Greater Italy was a bad thing for the island. What had once been a prosperous part of the Italian lands became impoverished whilst the previously impoverished north of Italy became increasingly wealthier. Many of the people we met in Piana and Palermo suggested that the liberator Garibaldi, a northern Italian, had not only liberated Sicily from the Bourbons, but had also ‘liberated’ much of Sicily’s wealth including the contents of the vaults of the island’s banks. I have yet to check the veracity of these surprising slurs on Garibaldi’s reputation.

Returning to Piana, this delightful little hillside town is an attractive, peaceful place to stay. There is accommodation in the town and in the countryside around it. You can explore the old town with its steep streets as well as the interesting Nicola Barbato Museum, the lake, and several old churches. Energetic visitors can enjoy breathing fresh mountain air on the slopes of Mount Pizzuta and other nearby peaks. If you speak Albanian (or Italian), you will have no difficulty communicating with the hospitable Arberesh. Although the Arberesh language differs from Albanian, Albanian-speakers can easily converse with the Arberesh. If, however, you are hungry for Balkan food, Piana will disappoint.

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Various restaurants in Piana, including the first-rate Antica Trattoria San Giovanni, serve wonderful Sicilian fare. Signor Salemi, who established the Antica Trattoria, was a child in May 1947. He was present at a large public political gathering on the 1st of May at Portella della Ginestra (close to Piana), when members of a gang of bandits led by the bandit Salvatore Giuliano opened fire on the unarmed people, massacring about 12 folk including children as young as he was and a baby. But, that is a tragic story that I will save for another time.

Wherever you go in Piana, you will see the Albanian double-headed eagle and Albanian flags. Road direction signs and other public notices are frequently bilingual: Arberesh and Italian.  In the Cathedral, I noticed a huge poster recording the 550th anniversary of the death of the original settlers’ compatriot, Skanderbeg. The people of Piana retain their ancestral homeland, Albania, close to their hearts.

book cov

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ARBERESH BY READING
FROM ALBANIA TO SICILY

by Adam Yamey.

Available on Amazon and bookdepository.com