In search of... The Godfather in Sicily
Take a tour of this Mediterranean island and discover the locations where the classic Mafia movie was filmed, says Ben West. It's an offer you can't refuse
Sunday 27 April 2003
The Godfather about a bunch of American gangsters?
Sicily? Wasn't The Godfather about a bunch of American gangsters?
Yes. But Sicily is the ancestral home of the notorious Corleone family at the heart of Francis Ford Coppola's classic nine-hour cinematic saga.
Will I find a dead horse in the bed of my hotel room or end up "sleeping with the fishes" if I visit Sicily?
Don't be silly. However, the author of The Godfather, Mario Puzo, was inspired by real-life events perpetrated by Sicily's mafia. These days, the only crises visitors are likely to face are deciding what historical sites to see, what beaches to lounge on and what restaurants to eat in.
So where can I unearth The Godfather?
You could start in Corleone, in the island's hilly interior, south of Palermo. Not only does the central character, Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, take his name from the town, but it is also the surname of Sicily's most feared mafia family.
The film-makers felt Corleone was too developed to be used as a location. But the town has strong historical links with the mafia – it was the scene of 153 violent deaths between 1944 and 1948. It has been home to some of the mafia's most notorious leaders for many years, including Salvatore Riina, who was finally arrested in 1993 and charged with being responsible for more than 150 murders.
Corleone's shady past is well hidden from today's visitors. Overlooking a fertile valley, it is a pleasant town to stroll around. Its ancient cobbled streets have a scattering of bars and trattorias as well as a hotel called the Belvedere. There are two churches to see: the 14th-century San Martino and the 17th-century Santa Rosalia, which contains a notable Velasquez painting of St John the Evangelist.
Were any of the scenes shot in Sicily?
Devotees of the first Godfather film will recognise Savoca, a pretty hillside village at the end of a steep, winding drive on the east side of the island, accessible from Taormina. You will remember this tranquil medieval spot as the setting for the courtship between Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and his first wife, Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli).
Just as you enter the village you will see the Bar Vitelli, where Michael discusses his proposed marriage to Apollonia with her father, the owner of the bar, aptly named Vitelli in the film. It is a pretty, 18th-century stone-flagged building, draped in climbing plants with a vine-covered terrace looking out over a deep valley. Much is as in the movie, even down to the curtains over the door. Inside, the partially panelled bar has a small display of photos, press cuttings and mementos from the making of the film. Signora Maria will tell you what it was like to have a Hollywood film crew descend upon a quiet Sicilian village – but you need a good grasp of Italian.
Is there anything else to see there?
Drop in at the Cappuccini Monastery, where the crypt has catacombs preserving 37 fully dressed mummified bodies from the 18th century. (Open Tues-Sun, April-Sept, 9am-1pm, 4-6pm; Oct-March 9am-noon and 3-5pm. Admission free).
Where are we off to next?
Sant'Agostino, a church in the charming hilltop village of Forza d'Agro, features in the second film, in the scene where Vito escapes to the US hotly pursued by Don Ciccio's men. Some scenes from the The Godfather Part III were also shot here. Reached via a twisting corkscrew road from the coast, Forza d'Agro is dominated by a 16th-century castle overlooking the coast towards Messina and the strait and is easily reached from Taormina. As well as a couple of decrepit churches and some rickety cottages, there are just a couple of bars and a small restaurant.
Is that the end of the tour?
Not yet. Sicily's capital, Palermo, was another source of inspiration for the film. The city's huge, heavily gilded, late-19th-century theatre, the Teatro Massimo, features in The Godfather Part III in the lengthy but gripping opera scene. Tours of the theatre are available in English (Tues-Sun, every 30 minutes between 10am-3.30pm).
But you shouldn't restrict yourself to Godfather-spotting. The city has plenty of other sights, including an historic centre with splendid piazzas, ancient churches, a 12th-century Arab-Norman castle, markets, cafés, bars and shops. It's noisy and choked with traffic, but it is exciting, with great nightlife, and even has a sandy beach.
Ah, the beach. I fancy a rest
Then you should also visit impossibly picturesque Taormina, the island's premier resort. Taormina has views of both the sea and imposing Mount Etna and is full of pretty cobbled alleyways filled with bars and restaurants as well as a splendid Greek theatre, cathedral and churches, mansions and an exhilarating cable car that will whisk you down to the beach. But you should try to time a visit here outside July and August, when it's extremely hot and attracts thousands of tourists.
So, how do I get there?
Italian Journeys (020-7370 6002) offers apartments in a beautiful 18th-century farmhouse near Patti on the northern coast. A two-bedroom apartment costs from £379 per person per week, based on four sharing. Citalia (020-8686 5533, www.citalia.com) offers seven-night breaks in Taormina from £599 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights. Car hire is available through Holiday Autos (0870 400 4447; www.holidayautos.com) from £139 per week. For further information contact the Italian State Tourist Office (020-7408 1254, www.enit.it).
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