NEW ORLEANS MAGAZINE TRAVEL: Corleone, Sicily; Napa Valley; Seattle/Victoria, British Columbia; and HoustonOur scheduled trip to the Aeolian Islands was canceled due to bad weather, but within view of our hotel-room windows was the smoking Mount Etna, which on September nights glowed with two red stripes of molten lava.
With enough of Sicily’s volcanic activity right there beside us in Acireale, just a skip from the east coast city of Catania, we settled in for a movie rental, never to see the smoking craters and thermal waters of the northernmost islands. So what’s for entertainment tonight? Why, “The Godfather,” of course, yet another way to view the landscape of Sicily.
On location in the quaint town of Corleone, a name given to the Don at Ellis Island because it was his place of birth, the movie thrilled us (again) with wedding scenes on the steps of the 14th-century Chiesa Madre (Mother Church) and narrow, winding roads on arid mountains swirled in vineyards.
The next day my husband, daughter and I made a quick decision to drive inland to the heart of Sicily to explore the less traveled reaches of antiquity that drew movie directors before us. Besides, we had learned from a friend that a Mafia museum had opened in Corleone.
It takes only a couple of hours on the autostrada from Catania to the outskirts of the capital, Palermo, where we headed south in the direction of Sciacca. This is definitely off the beaten track, but the mountain-hugging roads are in good condition and offer breathtaking views. We passed a castle, an enormous lake surrounded by layers of blue, gray and brown mountaintops, herds of sheep, ruins, and miles and miles of vineyards. Wineries were at the height of crush season and the air was redolent of grapes.
Arriving in Corleone, we set out to find the Hotel Belvedere, billed as the only hotel in town. It surprised us that such a large town would have so little lodging. After many failed attempts, a sympathetic Italian man who spoke no English offered to escort us there. This confirmed once again the friendliness of the Italian people, who may drive without manners but nevertheless will go out of their way to assist a stranded traveler. To his surprise, and our despair, the hotel was locked and without a sign of life at 5 p.m. on a Monday.
“Is it true this is the only hotel in town?” my daughter asked in strained Italian. Yes, he nodded, but his pleasant smile and confident manner assured us we would rest that night. We drove next door to a restaurant that is part of the hotel. Nothing stirred there, but our Italian friend knew to knock on a side door, which roused an elderly woman from her late afternoon riposo. She kissed us on both cheeks and awakened another woman, who loaded a Dalmatian into her car, led us back to the hotel and assigned us a room.
Alas, the restaurant, A’Giarra, though advertised on signs all over town, was closed the night we were there. No one we met spoke English, but we managed to get a recommendation for the Ristorante Leon D’Oro a mile or so away. We freshened up and found our way back across town to arrive at a large and inviting dining room and bar at about 8:30 p.m. To our surprise, every table was empty, but a few customers were sipping drinks at the bar. Our early arrival identified us as Americans, but a cordial manager and waitress rushed to accommodate us, providing a menu with English translations. The meal started with the traditional antipasti of olives, caponata, peppers, salami and sun-dried tomatoes. My first course was a delicate ravioli filled with porcini mushrooms and ricotta. We shared a salad of radicchio and arugula, and entrees of lamb chops, breaded pork and pizza. If there were any doubts left that we were American, we cleared them up by completing the meal with cappuccino. (Only children drink milk beverages after noon in Italy.) We filed out of the restaurant about 10 p.m., as the Italians began to pour in.
The Belvedere accommodated us adequately, but the next morning we once again found the hotel’s front door locked, this time with us inside. At the desk, we dialed various numbers until finally a young man came to unlock the door and make us coffee, served with packages of hard toast. So, with little under our belts, we set out to explore Corleone, the city of 100 churches.
First stop was the Chiesa Madre, shown in “The Godfather,” and to our surprise, a wedding was taking place inside. We remembered seeing Michael Corleone wed the young Italian virgin and imagined the cameras rolling as we stood out of sight behind pillars. The church is an artistic treasure, housing works by Domenico Gagini and other Italian artists, a white marble bas-relief baptistry from 1537, and an altar embroidered in gold dating back to 1600. It is true; churches are everywhere in Corleone, among them the Baroque-style San Domenico Church, the second largest after the Chiesa Madre, and St. Augustine Church, built in the 1300s. The patron saint of Corleone is St. Leoluca, who is celebrated on March 1 with a procession and lighting of bonfires, and in other ceremonies and processions at Easter and in May.
Signs around the city point to the Museo Civice (Civic Museum) in the heart of town, where several rooms of a 19th-century palace are devoted to archaeological finds from the area. Searching in vain for the Mafia museum, we finally learned that it was directly across the narrow stone street from the Museo Civice, without signage. What surprised us is that the Mafia museum we expected is actually an anti-Mafia museum.
One must walk through several open rooms to a courtyard where a plaque reads “Anti-Mafia Center of Corleone.” Inside, a library houses court records and other Cosa Nostra literature, opening to a large room lined with giant framed photographs of Mafia figures such as Toto Riina, a Sicilian who received three life sentences for murdering anti-Mafia leaders.
“We want [Corleone] to become just a typical European city,” Gino Felicetti was telling an audience of about 40 tourists. With its reputation as a Mafia center, the town has decreased from 24,000 residents in the 1950s to 11,800 now, he said. The museum and small staff are funded partially by a United Nations grant, he added, to educate people about the role of organized crime in Sicily.
“Until five years ago, it was unthinkable to have people come in to have a look at the Mafia,” said Fausto Iaria, another official of the museum; now, schoolchildren are brought to the museum to hear the truth about the Mafia. Several lectures are given each week, and so far no one is complaining.
“Before, you couldn’t speak out against organized crime,” Felicetti said. “Now we can talk about it.” Felicetti and Iaria claim the Mafia is still active, controlling both the government and newspapers of Sicily.
“Yes, there’s a strong Mafia history here, but we want to throw a curveball at them. We want to promote Corleone as something completely different.” Whatever the traveler’s interest, the lectures are informative, and museum officials are on hand Monday through Saturday to talk with people and show them around.
And mob or no mob, there was plenty more to see in Corleone.
The town is built on limestone and surrounded by splendid rock formations, towers and gorges with small waterfalls in some areas. The ancient streets and churches represent centuries of work by many orders of Catholic nuns and priests, and the local shops are filled with the produce of the landscape – fruit, olive oil, wine and local cheeses.
The traveler requiring cushy hotel service may want to stay in Palermo, rise early and make Corleone a day trip; it’s an hour and a half away. Another B&B, which was closed because of renovations, was the Casa Mia, a rural agrituristica haven in the midst of vineyards with a winery on the premises, about 30 minutes northwest of Corleone.
But Casa Mia’s dining room was open for lunch, and we feasted on a classic Italian meal beginning with antipasti. The next course was a tasty risotto, followed by entrees of large, thin-sliced steaks with salad and peas. A bowl of fruit arrived, then coffee, and just as we were about to exit the table, out came dessert. We left full and happy, purchasing some wine to take home, and skipped dinner that night.
With a day and a half in and around Corleone, we had time to tour several nearby towns – Chiusa, farther south, and Ficuzza, closer to Palermo, both with amazing antiquity, stunning beauty and a welcome tranquility far from the usual paths of tourists. The intrigue of the Mafia enticed us, but the adventure was far more rewarding than we ever imagined.