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
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.
Cefalu harbour in Sicily
Child friendly pizza (above) and Piazza Pretoria in Palermo, adorned with statues