Bella Vista

Saluda receives award for Sister Cities exchange

By: Margaret Butler

Judy Thompson of Saluda shows off another steep, picturesque town: Carunchio, Italy.

Judy Thompson has always had a zest for travel — especially to Italy. The marvelous nation of pasta, statues, and wine kept her returning again and again. 

On a trip in 2014 to the Southern portion of the country, with a group of her fellow Saluda residents, Thompson brought home more than a souvenir: She brought home the gift of connection.

That visit sparked the idea to link Saluda (elevation 2,103’, pop. 779) with Carunchio (elevation 2,343’, pop. 628) in a long-term cultural partnership through Sister Cities International. 

Since 1956, Sister Cities International has encouraged “citizen diplomacy” created by cross-border friendships. To officially become a Sister City, a formal agreement is brokered between the highest elected or appointed officials in each city. The cities then conduct cultural program exchanges. 

Carunchio is an ancient hillside town in the Abruzzo region. Unlike Saluda, the small town’s economy is traditionally agricultural (sheepherding). 

Saluda, perched on the Blue Ridge Escarpment, is known for its charming Main Street and summer festivals. The town features the steepest historical railroad grade in the U.S. and is popular with artists and bicyclists. Carunchio lures tourists with a refurbished hilltop palace: Palazzo Tour D’Eau is an upscale event hotel that specializes in cooking classes.

Once the official Sister City title was granted, Saluda went to work to grow the international relationship. Last year, Thompson and her crew started a “cultural suitcase” circulating through Saluda Elementary classrooms, filled with materials about Italian history and culture and lesson plans for teachers. It was such a hit that the school decided to reciprocate. 

A suitcase, bound for Italy, was filled with fun items referencing Saluda and the U.S., including maps, DVDs, a stuffed brown bear and bald eagle, American games including Bananagrams and Monopoly, children’s books about North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Mountains, a floor-size puzzle of the United States, and arrowheads. 

What’s more, the idea of “cultural suitcases” landed Saluda the Sister Cities’ annual award for “Innovation in Youth and Education,” one of five honors bestowed by the organization.

Beyond sharing mementos via snail mail, Carunchio and Saluda have engaged in yearly community visits. In 2019, the first Carunchio high-school exchange student made the journey to Saluda. “The city of Saluda embraced Benedetta,” Thompson says. She was treated to game nights, dinners hosted at local restaurants, and even a ride in a glider plane. Perhaps the sweetest part was Benedetta’s friendship forged with Saluda local Claire Thompson. Soon, Claire, too, will embark on her own exchange visit to Carunchio, where she will reconnect with Benedetta and be immersed in Italian culture. 

Saluda expects more student exchanges and the start of teacher exchanges, too. 

Today, a banner marking the Saluda-Carunchio connection flies on Main Street. “By touching kids this early,” says Thompson, “you open their eyes to how to be a part of a bigger world.”

To get involved in Saluda’s Sister City Program, contact Judy Thompson at jdt@jdthompsonlaw.com. To learn more about Sister Cities International, visit sistercities.org. 

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