Sicily – home of ‘The Godfather’ and more

  • Europe
  • Saturday, 15 Nov 2014

Picturesque: Panoramic views surround Teatro Greco (Greek Theatre) in Taormina, a town perched 250m above the Straits of Messina.

The writer made a proposal her family couldn’t refuse, and they ended up in Sicily where ‘the essence of Hollywood’ permeated the trip.

What is it with men and The Godfather? I was just as perplexed as Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail when Tom Hanks spews quotes from The Godfather, referencing it to every life decision. It was at the end of my three-month consulting assignment in Rome when, during a phone conversation with my husband, I proposed a family vacation in Sicily. Immediately he proclaimed: “It’s the home of The Godfather!” I pictured him doing a jig of jubilation.

In the same breath, I received a download of the Mafia history which spanned more than 150 years, originating from Sicily. Unlike the romanticised version of the Mafia in movies, the Sicilian Mafia, known as the Cosa Nostra, posed more complex and menacing threats to the socio-cultural system, as it seeped into the economy and political threads of society. Modern-day Sicily refused to buckle under the shadow of the Mafia and came together through its anti-Mafia movement to bring justice and reform by raising awareness and tightening its financial scrutiny on economic activities.

Thankfully, its dark past hasn’t tainted the island’s allure and attractions. The largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily still retains its unique culture and architecture inherited from the Greek, Roman, Arab and Norman empires, among other influences. I certainly wouldn’t want our two weeks to be usurped by conversations on the underground undertakings, but I should have known that this topic would inevitably surface and hold me ransom.

The family met me in Rome and together we flew to Catania, Sicily. From there, we boarded a bus and then a hydrofoil to Lipari, one of the Aeolian chain of islands off the northern coast of Sicily. Lipari is one of the most populated islands and a popular base for touring the other Aeolian islands: Alicudi, Filicudi, Vulcano, Salina, Panarea and Stromboli.

Mini cannolo (plural cannoli) with cream cheese – irresistible
Mini cannolo (plural cannoli) with cream cheese – irresistible!

Past volcanic activity have given rise to the formations of these islands yet each one exudes its own distinct character and charm. Driving around Lipari, we discovered Roman ruins and archaeological sites, such as the imposing Castle Rock and the Aeolian Archaeological museum which traces the cultural evolution of the Aeolian islands from the last centuries of the 5th millennium BC. The most impressive find is the collection of 77 amphorae – stacked liked a pyramid to the ceiling – that dated back to around the first half of the first century AD, discovered by chance by a scuba diver in 1979.

During an evening stroll along Marina Corta, Lipari, we stumbled upon a pastry shop that displayed a colourful array of Sicilian pastry and confectionery. We ordered the cannoli or “little tube,” made of fried rolled pastry dough filled with ricotta. The first bite into the crispy dough and fresh creamy cheese truly tantalised our taste buds.

“No wonder Peter Clemenza said ‘leave the gun, take the cannoli’.” My husband looked close to swooning.

The cannoli became a newfound addiction, and we tried different fillings – each time accompanied, much to my chagrin, the infamous Godfather cannoli quote. On the tip of my tongue, I wanted to holler, “For Pete’s sake – just take the cannoli!”

From Lipari, we cruised to the other Aeolian islands. The excursion to Alicudi and Filicudi included dips in the sea and time to enjoy the tranquillity of these islands. We spent most of our time chilling out by the pier and sipping granite (pronounced gra-ni-tei). Time must have stood still in Alicudi, where we saw mules treading the stepped walkways to transport goods, in the absence of roads.

The Noto Cathedral, a showcase of Baroque architecture.
The Noto Cathedral, a showcase of Baroque architecture.

In Vulcano, the stench of sulphur greeted us even before we disembarked. We joined the many visitors soaking in the natural mud bath, applying layers of mud which purportedly cures rheumatism, arthrosis and skin diseases. The sea also provided a natural jacuzzi – bubbling from the heated underwater fumaroles. At sundown, from the deck of our boat, we saw Stromboli erupt and spew lava, each time drawing gasps of awe from the crowd.

We left the warm basin of the Tyrrhenian Sea and bussed to Taormina, a picturesque town perched 250m above the Straits of Messina, which offers stunning views of the coastline. Romantic, chic and posh, Taormina’s medieval streets are lined with boutiques, cafés and hotels.

A well-preserved Greek theatre still functions, with operatic and theatrical performances staged there.

Upon our checking in, our host drew the drapes of our apartment and gestured to the beautiful cove and, in the distance, a villa perched on a hill. I squinted to make out its significance.

“It’s the movie set location for The Godfather!” My husband interpreted the faltering speech of our host. Taormina was one of the locations for the first Godfather movie. If that isn’t enough to excite fans, almost every souvenir shop is well stocked with memorabilia, from adorned T-shirts to key chains featuring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino.

We picked up a few mementos as well as our rental car and headed to the next destination, Syracuse.

Along with the towns of Noto and Ragusa, it is a showcase of artistic and architectural splendour, particularly of the Baroque style. Completely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693, the Baroque triangle boasts a dramatic use of ornaments and vibrant frescoes in churches and palazzos, and designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2002.

A combo picture of the exterior and interior of the Ear of Dionysus.

In the archaeological park of Neapolis, a sprawling area of 240,000sqm, lie the ruins from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, most notably the Ear of Dionysus, a cavern that has amazing acoustic quality, going by the reverberating echoes. As the name implies, the cave is shaped like an auricle. Legend has it that the ruler, Dionysus the Elder (405-367 BC), was able to hear conversations of his enemies locked inside the cave due to the clear echoes.

Another magnificent monument is the Temple of Concordia located in Agrigento, 200km away. Built in the 5th century BC, it is the most well-preserved temple outside of Greece. It is also one of the seven restored archaeological structures of the Doric order that can be found in the Valley of Temples. It is a replica of the Temple of Theseus in Athens, in terms of structure and colour.

We explored the park at dusk – a privilege during summer months – and gawked at the changing light that draped the temples in dramatic hues.

Nearby, the regional archaeological museum enthralled with an impressive collection of over 5,000 artefacts from prehistoric times to the Greco-Roman period. Considered one of the biggest and best arranged archaeological museums in Sicily, it displays one of the Telamons from the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The Telamon stands at an imposing 7.6m high, making us look like miniatures. When we reached the capital of Sicily, Palermo, we returned our rental car. Then we realised that we had missed an important centre en route to Palermo – the CIDMA museum dedicated to the study of the Mafia and anti-Mafia history located in Corleone, 60km south of Palermo. We spent two hours mulling over logistics and exhausting all options. Honestly, we couldn’t possibly go there without wheels. I feigned disappointment.

Still, I rationalised, Palermo itself would be absorbing and engaging.

Less than a decade ago, it was the capital of organised crime, its streets tainted by violence and innocent lives lost. Today, Palermo is a melting pot of diversity, with its large immigrant population – of Arabian, North African and Sri Lankan origins – giving life to a variety of cafés, shops and markets. The Norman, Arabic and Roman influences have produced spectacular architecture and stunning mosaics which can be seen in the Norman Palace and the Cathedral of Monreale.

A casual stroll brought us to the neighbourhood of Teatro Massimo, the largest opera house in Italy. We instantly recognised it. The climactic tragic scene of The Godfather III was filmed on the very steps of the grand Teatro Massimo.

Any more reference to The Godfather, I swear, I would go to the mattresses.

At the Palermo airport, my 13-year-old son looked almost too eager to get home. In response to my raised eyebrows, he enthused, “So I can watch Dad’s collection of The Godfather.”

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