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EUROPE > Italy > Sicily

Sicilian Vespers

Nicky Gardner
reproduced from hidden europe

Article & Pictures © 2005 Nicky Gardner

T/T #19

Corleone is the nondescript Sicilian town that gave its name to the protagonist in Mario Puzo’s epic novel, The Godfather

The Sicilian village of Savoca where part of Coppola’s film was shot- click to enlarge.The old bus waits just off the square in Corleone, along from the hospital. In the front window of the bus, a barely legible sign shows the eventual destination as Palermo, about sixty kilometres away to the north on winding rural roads. The two carabinieri smoke and chat with the bus driver. All three men would prefer to be at home and not to have to work this winter night in Sicily, when the rain pours and it is St Silvester. This is Corleone, a town that most people just drive through on their way from Palermo to the south coast. It’s not a place to linger on this wet December evening.

This irregular plaza by the municipal park was renamed a few years ago when it became Piazza Falcone e Borsellino, so commemorating Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two Palermo judges who were probing the pyramidal structure of the Sicilian Mafia: digging too deeply for the men of Cosa Nostra to tolerate. Falcone and his family died on the highway at Capaci when a massive bomb was detonated with devastating effect. That was in May 1992, and today a distinctive monument, marking the site of the atrocity, stands beside the main motorway that runs west from Palermo. Two months after Falcone’s assassination on the route out to the airport, there was another huge explosion, this time in Palermo’s Via d’Amelio. Judge Paolo Borsellino, who had only recently returned to the Sicilian capital as Palermo’s deputy chief prosecutor, was killed instantly. So too were five bodyguards.

Both men paid a high price for investigating the affairs of the clique of families which controlled much of what went on around Corleone, a web whose influence spread from Sicily to the Bronx and on to Chicago and the casinos of Nevada. For Corleone is the nondescript Sicilian town that gave its name to the protagonist in Mario Puzo’s epic novel, The Godfather, and Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful film trilogy.

Nowadays a couple of cafés in Corleone acknowledge the Godfather link, and on this wet night an old man who looks a little like Marlon Brando walks with the aid of a stick across the piazza. He seems not to agree with the move a decade ago to rename the square. But, for most of Corleone, there is a determination to move on, especially since the day when the Italian President visited and the names of about 400 victims of the Corleone mafia were read out in a simple ceremony on this open piazza. A local dentist now runs mafia tours of the town, and for truly dedicated followers of The Godfather, the one time home of Mafia boss Giovanni Brusca can now be rented out as a holiday villa. It is a substantial stone farmhouse set high about the Corleone Valley. Here and there, you’ll find other Godfather allusions, such as the local trattoria that claims to have Clemenza’s recipe for spaghetti sauce.

The bells toll six, and a couple of women in black push open the door of the church and disappear inside for vespers. I take my cue to join the mainly empty bus. A nurse runs out of the hospital, just as the bus driver starts the engine. She runs in the rain over the piazza and boards the bus. The carabineri stamp out their cigarettes, greet the nurse, each kissing her in that unaffected manner that Sicilians have mastered to a tee. The policemen walk back to their nearby car, and the bus moves off through Corleone’s tortured streets, past the spot where this or that gangster was gunned down in a feud, and out on the highway to the north.

By the time our bus reaches Piana degli Albanesi, it is completely dark and the rain has abated. The bus shudders to a halt on the steep main street, Via Giorgio Kastriota. I alone alight, and about a dozen young people climb noisily aboard, more than half of them evidently deeply preoccupied with meaningful conversations on their silver mobile phones. Some of them speak a language that is very unfamiliar, and it is definitely not Italian. The bus rattles away taking the revellers to New Year’s Eve celebrations in Palermo.

The hills of western Sicily are home to Arbëreshë speaking communities. Click to enlarge.I am distracted by the street sign which reminds me that, although I know this village by its Italian name, to the locals it is Hora e Arbëreshëvet, which means ‘Home of the Arbëresh’. For here, as in a half dozen other villages in this part of Sicily, a dialect of Albanian called Arbëreshë is still widely spoken.

I take an espresso and eat a cannolo at the little café on the main street. A man at the next table puts down his Italian newspaper and tells me the cannolo here in Piana degli Albanesi is the best anywhere in Sicily, made all the better he claims by the Albanian twist that the locals give to the traditional dessert. The wafer tube filled with candied fruit, ricotta cheese, sugar and pistachio is difficult to eat with any measure of decorum, and soon a mixture of cream and crumbs surround my plate. On the walls are pictures of the Albanian community in New Orleans, reminders of how thousands of Albanians left Sicily and moved to Louisiana with the opening up of the American South.

The man in the café tells me that he works at the hydroelectric power station just outside the town, but his real claim to fame, it turns out, is culinary. He proudly recounts how he once helped make the largest cannolo in the world, over four metres long. I ponder on the difficulty of sampling a cannolo of that length, savour the remnants of the sweet delicacy in front of me, and understand for the first time quite what Clemenza meant in The Godfather when he said to Rocco: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli”.

Back on the main street, the Albanian church of San Demetrio is closed for the evening, but signs outside evidence the devotional vitality of this small Albanian diaspora. In union with Rome, but still following the Orthodox rite, the Albanians of this little Sicilian town constitute one of Europe’s most distinctive cultural enclaves. The first Albanians came to Piana almost six centuries ago, and it is remarkable how far their traditions, religion and distinctive language have survived the dislocation from their Adriatic homeland.

Italians probably wonder quite who was the Giorgio Kastriota who gave his name to the town’s main street. But those with even only a hint of Albanian blood know only too well that this was the original name of the fifteenth century Albanian hero, Skanderbeg. Kastriota took arms against the Ottoman forces who subjugated the Albanian people. The Turks gave him the name Iskander Bey, which the Albanians corrupted to Skanderbeg, and it’s under that name that Skanderbeg is still celebrated by Albanians worldwide — except in Piana where the Arbëreshi, ever alert to that fine line that divides subtle expressions of national identity from unwarranted cultural assertiveness, stick to plain Giorgio Kastriota. So Piana degli Albanesi shares with the Albanian capital Tirana the distinction of having its major thoroughfare named after Skanderbeg.

I rush to catch the last bus of the year north to Palermo, and less than an hour later I am in quite another Sicily standing just opposite the port city’s great Teatro Massimo. Here all is glitz and the revelry of Il Cappadonna. Across the road on the steps of the refurbished theatre there is a little family group, standing chatting and laughing as a photographer works with tripod and flash to secure pictures of a newly wed couple. A few metres away, someone has scrawled some red graffiti on the grey wall. “Andreotti = Mafia”, it reads quite simply.

An unshaven man approaches and offers me a prayer card that has a curiously unattractive picture of the Madonna and child. I say no, but then regret it. But the man has already scuffled away and now he tries to secure donations from two men in leather jackets, who just laugh in his face and stride on. Undeterred, the beggar continues his missionary work and crosses the road. He approaches the wedding group on the steps of the theatre, purposefully targeting the serious looking man who is evidently the bride’s father. “No Sicilian can refuse any request on his daughter’s wedding day”, says the woman behind me with a hint of irony in her voice.

Travel Notes

Two bus companies connect Corleone with Palermo (AST and Sais Gallo). Many services run via Marineo and do not serve Piana degli Albanesi. The journey takes about ninety minutes and services run about every two hours, although less frequently on Sundays and Catholic holidays. Services from Piana degli Albanesi to Palermo operate with similar frequency, and the journey takes 45 to 60 minutes. The operator is Prestia & Comandè. Many bus timetables in Sicily are to be found online at the ANAV Sicilia website.

Albanians in Sicily

Sicily’s ethnic minorities cling to hillsides and long traditions - click to enlarge.The Albanians who moved to Sicily from the mid fifteenth century onwards are among the few migrants to Sicily who had no aspirations to conquer their new home. Some of the earliest arrivals were soldiers, sent to Sicily by Skanderbeg (Giorgio Kastriota) to help the Naples based Aragon monarchy suppress the rebellious south. These early detachments of troops brought with them their wives and families, and, such was the soldiers’ success in restoring order that they were rewarded with tracts of land and encouraged to settle in southern Italy.

Piana degli Albanesi is just one of several Sicilian villages where Arbëreshë is still spoken: others, all in the hills of west central Sicily around Corleone, include Contessa Entellina, Mezzojuso and Palazzo Adriano. Even in communities in eastern Sicily, such as Bronte on Etna’s western slopes, where Albanians once settled, they have left their legacy in the local Sicilian dialect. Many everyday words used by the local farming folk are evidently Albanian in derivation. Examples include cuppini ‘ladle’ from Albanian kupin, curatru ‘cheese maker’ from Albanian kuratug and conca ‘brazier’ from Albanian kunk.

Skanderbeg’s premature death from malaria in 1468 and the Turkish domination of Albania prompted many refugees to forsake the ‘Land of the Eagles’ and follow their forbears to southern Italy, giving further weight to one of Europe’s most remarkable migrations. There remain strong Albanian settlements of similar origin on the south Italian mainland, most notably the twelve settlements of Catanzaro. By the 1880s a few Albanians from Sicily were migrating to the USA, and settlements like Ybor City (near Tampa in Florida) became Arbëreshë speaking enclaves in the New World. The trickle became a flood and huge numbers moved to New Orleans. Take Contessa Entellina, for example, about 25 km southwest of Corleone. By 1900 there were more Contessioti living in New Orleans than in Contessa Entellina.

See also: Sicily — History Encapsulated by John Gregan.

See also: Sicilia: Through the Eyes of a Child by Stewart Collins.


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Best of Sicily.com
A guide to Sicilian travel and all things Sicilian. Strong on maps.


A site about Sicily and Sicilian people. Very detailed destination guides with good pictures.

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