Shortly before he visited, my friend James Seppi (who I can’t help but reflexively call Seppi), messaged me and voiced a few concerns about having enough to do in his time in Munich. He booked his flight while my mom was visiting, so I was a little scrambled and panicked and so I quickly rattled of a list of things, climbing, hiking, quick trip to Prague, a day in Salzburg, all sorts of stuff. Not on that list was a 2 day get away to Italy.
Now I know Italy is close, just on the other side of the Alps and Austria, but I didn’t know where to go exactly. I’d been to Lake Garda, but that wasn’t on any obvious bus routes, and the towns within a 3 or 4 hour bus ride, I had no experience with. However, with rain in the forecast in Munich, Seppi had a moment of inspiration. He knew his family hailed from a small village in Northern Italy. He texted his dad, and before we could think too hard about it, we’d booked a 3 hour bus to Bolzano, and about an hour of busses and a funicular to see the village from which Seppi’s family came. He started googling for hotels and restaurants in the village Ruffre which sits close to Mount Roen. Google basically told us half the town was businesses with “Seppi” in the name. We laughed that we’d walk into town, and he’s present himself as the prodigal son returned. “Hey, I’m-a Seppi!” “You-a Seppi, I’m-a Seppi, too!”
So, up at 5:30, a bad bus station breakfast in our bellies, and we were off. Our chunky tour bus was a stressful ride. Even the highways are narrow, especially as we squeezed through the Brenner Pass, the mountain road that takes you from Tirolian Austria, into Tirolian Italy. Just 15 km from Bolzano we were very gently side swiped by a semi-truck, and had to stop while the insurance situation was negotiated. Luckily we had an Italian speaker on the bus, and he seemed to clear things up quickly. Though when he returned to the bus he warned the driver in German, “Italianisch Versicherung zahlt nicht.” Italian insurance doesn’t pay.
We arrived in Bolzano at 11 am, and had a nice lunch, some wine, and watched the sun slink across the piazza. Everyone was incredibly well dressed, even the old man that ran the small carousel in the piazza. We swung by the tourist office, and they gave us the time tables for the busses and funiculars we were going to need. All was going smoothly.
Then we got to the bus station, and the man at the ticket counter told us we could go to the funicular, but it does’t run until May. Our other option was 3 hours of busses around and up the other side of the mountain. Unacceptable. There was only one option left: we’d rent a car. There was Sixt office in the city, and the attendant there had decided to take a leisurely 2 hour lunch. Eventually we called him, and after another long wait he showed, and happily rented us a small SUV with a stick shift. Seppi didn’t seem to want to drive, and I’d driven a bit in Italy before, so we hit the road. The GPS was set on German (which most people in the area seemed to speak, and we heard German more than Italian in Bolzano), and the roads out of Bolzano were small freaky spaghetti bowls of quickly vanishing lanes with surprise merges, but after only 5 km we were out of the city.
We got to Kaltern which is a major wine growing area, and then faced the part of the drive that was making my palms sweat and my inexperienced clutch-leg jitter. The climb up the Mendola Pass. 1200m of hair pin winding, with a very trim section of blind curves and turn outs. We passed more than a few cyclists tearing up this nasty road. I managed to not kill the car once as we crept our way up.
At the top we were greeted by a small ski town, and one of the first businesses we saw was “Market Seppi.” Seppi pointed it out excitedly, and I was mostly just relieved to have the climb over with. Now there was only 2 km to go to Ruffre.
Now Seppi speaks some Spanish, and his phone was working so we could translate some stuff. When we saw a sign that said “Maso Seppi” I thought it was a street, and he thought it was leading to a farm. We’d later find out that we were both wrong. Ruffre is a gorgeous little mountain village, only 400 people, and it looks like even tourism there is scant. There’s a church, a new manmade lake, a farm that sells meat and cheese, and some hotels that looked closed until the tourists season. I guess this high up and in late April, the weather could go either way. We were super lucky, it was incredible weather. Eventually we came across a bar and a grocery store. The bar was closed in the afternoon, but the market was open.
I have such admiration for Seppi, he walked in and awkwardly dove in his with his Spanish, and managed to explain who we were, and the odd premise of our visit. It became clear that my German would be helpful as they all spoke a little German, and Seppi took a piece of paper out and wrote down the names of his great-grandfather, his great-great-uncle, and his grandfather. The woman in the market said she had a guest room, and offered it to us, and told us to come back to the market at 7 for a tour of the town from her sister. The room was great, seemed brand new, and was ready for whatever tourist trade the town was doing.
With a few hours to kill we bought some cheese and sausage at the farm, we drove up Maso Seppi, and photographed anything that was beautiful and/or had Seppi’s last name on it. When we found the little graveyard it began to become clear how Seppi this town really was. More than half the headstones had Seppis on them. We were creeping around, taking photos as the sun went down behind the Dolomites, and a car pulled up.
I was certain we were in trouble, but the Italian couple in their 50s walked up, introduced themselves and produced the piece of paper Seppi had written his relatives names on earlier. This couple were distant relatives, alerted by our friend at the Market and sent to meet us! They walked us through the graveyard pointing out the pertinent Seppis. Then we followed them home where we met their daughter, who spoke good enough German that she and I could patch any misunderstandings between Seppi and the parents and everyone. We drank beer, talked life in Ruffre, and then got the tour. I think they were stalling for time before dinner, which they had invited us to. So we saw the new manmade lake, only 2 years old and soon to have a bar next to it. And then they took us to Maso Seppi.
Maso doesn’t mean street of farm; in this case it’s the term for little neighborhoods, clusters of a few houses that centered around a certain family. There are Masos all around in Ruffre, each one named for the family or the type of farm they were clustered around. Maso Seppi’s centerpiece is a huge house, and as we walked up to it Seppi noticed a sign, in English, German, and Italian, that explained that Maso Seppi was a large building originally built there in the 1300s and continually added onto and changed, inside there are murals, and outside there are crests of dates in the 13 and 15 hundreds. It was called “Seppi Castle.”
We walked with the family up to Maso Seppi, and they explained that there are still two apartments in there, where two little old ladies live, and then another Seppi appeared. Fabrizio Seppi, brother of the Seppi who was leading out tour, lives across the street and he boldly took us inside the back part of the “Castle.” Clearly this part was used for farming mostly, but he showed us the prison, the old feed room for the animals, and he shoved the door open of an apartment there had been a fire in a few years ago. There was still tons of stuff left from some long gone resident, and in a room less touched by the fire we found bank statements from the 70s belonging to some long-gone Seppi.
Then it was dinner time! We drove further up the mountain to a small restaurant. We were the only ones there, and the five of us sat trying to make conversation through the language gap. Seppi charted out this entire family tree branching form the Great-grandfather, and brothers that had left Ruffre before World War 2. Then some Seppis arrived. As we ate our delicious pizzas, more and more Seppis arrived. After a little while there were a dozen Seppis, and James kept remarking how much some looked like other relatives of his. I asked how many Seppis there were in town, and the answer was a pretty confident “Half.”
I think what happened was they know their heritage enough that when the Seppi at the market got the list of Seppis from Seppi, she alerted the Seppis that were connected directly with that bloodline. Not just other people with the same last name. Earlier in the evening they’d proudly showed us a building that had been “All Seppis” only to later have other Seppis move in that weren’t a part of the same line. After dinner we drank a little liquor at the bar, and hugged and said good night. We drove back to our room. Seppi had to make some calls back to America, this was all a little unbelievable.
In the morning we awoke to a ridiculous view of the Dolomites, and then we walked down to the market and bar to get a coffee and to say our goodbyes. On our walk there, as if on cue, a Seppi peeled around the corner in a small red car. It was one of the Seppis from last night. He rolled his window down and said “For you, for the library” and handed us two copies of a book on the history of Ruffre. He sped off after a hearty “Ciao.” We walked down to the bar/cafe and there he was again having his espresso. We saw two more Seppis from the night before come in, and then we said our goodbyes. Seppi bought 25 Ruffre postcards. A last tour through the castle, and some investigation of the surroundings and it was time to coast our way back down to Bolzano, where we whittled the day away with wine and cheese and plans for Seppi to buy a summer home in his ancestral land.
Neither of us could believe how that all turned out, but it was an incredible and weird little detour. One I was honored to get to come along for.
WARNING: After reading this James said that I had embellished a bit. I asked how, and he said that I said that some people were Seppis that were not Seppis. I apologize. However, if they weren't Seppis then they were Larchers, which is the other prominent family name. I couldn't keep track of everything and everyone, and the story reads better this way. However, there were a lot of Seppis.