Re­lax in lit­tle Si­cily

The stun­ning is­lands are break­ing the Mafia’s strong­hold and, as Han­nah Stephen­son dis­cov­ers, tourist at­trac­tions are do­ing it for them­selves

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IMEET my guide Erme Ric­cobono at the en­trance to the Teatro Mas­simo, the ma­jes­tic Palermo opera house where the last scene of The God­fa­ther Part III was shot nearly 25 years ago. The Ital­ian hol­i­day is­land of Si­cily may have been ruled by the Mafia for decades, but things are chang­ing as lo­cals in­creas­ingly refuse to pay pizzo (pro­tec­tion money), while anti-Mafia or­gan­i­sa­tions show visi­tors how to see this sun-kissed hotspot with­out fill­ing the cof­fers of the mob.

Erme is a guide for one such or­gan­i­sa­tion, Ad­diopizzo – which lit­er­ally means ‘Good­bye Pizzo’ – set up by a group of stu­dent friends 10 years ago in the cap­i­tal, Palermo, who met in se­cret to dis­cuss how they might loosen the Cosa Nos­tra strong­hold and open their own busi­nesses with­out pay­ing pizzo.

They put up posters anony­mously through­out the city and then se­cretly col­lected sig­na­tures from con­sumers who wanted to sup­port shop­keep­ers who were re­fus­ing to pay pizzo.

We weave through the nar­row streets to find a mix­ture of splen­dour and squalor, where mon­u­ments rub shoul­ders with seed­ier-look­ing streets hous­ing an eclec­tic mix of out­lets.

These range from high class patis­series selling cas­sata si­cil­iana – the sickly sweet gateau filled with ri­cotta cream – to tacky sou­venir shops selling sin­is­ter mem­o­ra­bilia – T-shirts with Mar­lon Brando’s face along with the film’s mem­o­rable logo and im­agery grace sev­eral sou­venir shops. “This is the sort of thing we want to dis­cour­age,” says Erme.

He leads me to a more charm­ing square, home to An­tica Fo­cac­ce­ria San Francesco, an Ad­diopizzo mem­ber, its mem­ber­ship sticker boldly em­bla­zoned on its door.

The res­tau­rant is fa­mous in Palermo for its up­mar­ket street food and I tuck into de­li­cious arancini – rice balls filled with meat and peas - while oth­ers nib­ble on pan­elle (chick­pea frit­ters), or en­joy a veg­e­tar­ian sta­ple of caponata (a stew of aubergines, onions and olives

Erme thows me round some other land­marks, in­clud­ing a me­mo­rial to the fa­mous anti-Mafia judges who were mur­dered in Palermo, Capo Mar­ket and the cathe­dral.

Away from the glory and the grime of the cap­i­tal is a much calmer, more serene set­ting in Las­cari, a lit­tle vil­lage in the hills about 20 min­utes’ drive from the pop­u­lar sea­side town of Ce­falu in the north of the is­land, where we are based in a beau­ti­ful lux­ury villa, which boasts a mag­nif­i­cent view of the coast.

The ad­van­tage of stay­ing near fam­ily-friendly Ce­falu is that, if we want to ditch the car for a day, we can catch a train from Ce­falu to Palermo and be there in an hour, or Messina, at the tip of the north east of the is­land, in two. The trains are cheap, rea­son­ably com­fort­able and the timeta­bles are easy to fol­low.

But a hire car gives you more in­de­pen­dence. Driv­ing up the hills, we pass olive and le­mon groves, spiky prickly pears and pur­ple morn­ing glory weav­ing in and out of the conifers, which line our route to our hill­side haven, Villa Elisabetta, in the Madonie Na­tional Park.

Equipped with all the ameni­ties of any top notch ho­tel – spa­cious pool, loungers, air con, bril­liantly equipped kitchen – it’s the view of the coast­line which steals the thun­der. Pearles­cent skies de­light the eyes, while the fra­grance of pine and aro­matic laven­der fills the air.

With the lux­ury of a car, you can visit plenty of an­cient sites, from the Ro­man ru­ins at Enna to the cas­tles and cathe­drals fur­ther afield, not to men­tion the vol­cano, but it’s a large is­land and we’re too far from the fa­mous Mount Etna for a day trip.

With chil­dren in tow, his­tor­i­cal sights may not be first on the list, but the beach at Ce­falu cer­tainly is. It’s a pretty coastal town, the north-west coast’s ri­val to Taormina, where seafront cafes serv­ing de­li­cious piz­zas ooz­ing with cheese and toma­toes are just a short stroll away from the pretty old town, with its cob­bled streets, buzzing town square and cathe­dral.

It’s an ideal place for all gen­er­a­tions, as young­sters try surf­ing and ca­noe­ing in the warm sea, or pe­ruse the beach­front stalls selling leather bags, scarves and ce­ram­ics, while cul­ture vul­tures ven­ture to the gothic 12th cen­tury cathe­dral,and the nu­mer­ous mu­se­ums.

We find the ru­ins at Sol­unto, set on im­pres­sive cliffs, but there are many ex­ten­sive ru­ins else­where, in­clud­ing the Val­ley of the Tem­ples in Agri­gento in the west.

Another day, we drive in­land, com­ing across a pretty town called Castel­buono, with an im­pres­sive 15th cen­tury feu­dal castle, busy old­fash­ioned streets and hostel­ries, where friendly restau­ra­teurs serve us mouth­wa­ter­ing pasta and cold drinks.

Ar­riv­ing back at our hill­side villa, it’s dif­fi­cult to be­lieve the is­land still har­bours such a strong Mafia in­flu­ence – but with re­spon­si­ble tourism and a new gen­er­a­tion, we may even­tu­ally see a Si­cily that says Ad­dio to the mob.

PA Photo/Stephen Pat­ter­son

Ce­falu har­bour in Si­cily

Child friendly pizza (above) and Pi­azza Pre­to­ria in Palermo, adorned with stat­ues

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