Traveling through Sicily on a new coast-to-coast pilgrimage route
Stories of Stoicism
“The mafia was not born in Corleone – it is everywhere in Italy”, explains Federico Blanda. We stand next to a photo of a young man shot dead in a nearby cobbled street. It’s one of many blood-spattered images of organized crime in 1970s and 1980s Italy lining the walls of Cidma, the anti-Mafia museum housed in a former orphanage in Corleone. “Before, I hated seeing people here on the trail of Don Corleone – a fictional movie character,” explains guide Federico. “But I realized that we have to take the opportunity to tell the real story.” And the real story is not that of the romanticized feuds of the godfather, but that of the resistance. Beyond a gallery of Letizia Battaglia photojournalism, a vast archive of court documents details the 474 mafiosi tried in Palermo’s Maxi Trial – which lasted nearly six years – by judges as nervous as Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone .
“Judges, journalists, activists: they paid with their lives for their bravery,” Federico said. The Cidma celebrates these fallen heroes, murdered by the Mafia in retaliation. “At the time, we were a population of 10,000; just a handful were Mafia. Yet the people of Corleone still live with the stigma. He smiles: “So, I love it when visitors come looking for a myth and leave talking about Falcone.”
As the Via attracts more visitors, Corleone’s story has a better chance of being heard. Stacked dramatically through mountains and plunging canyons, the city is a stellar stage over which the Magna Via Francigena zigzags mercilessly, past churches and monasteries where confraternities in pointed hats gather in the spring for celebrations of Easter. “It’s another little-known story beyond our island,” says Federico of the region’s Semana Santa processions that defy Spain for its pomp and scale but draw none of the international crowds. .
We follow the San Nicolò river which falls from Corleone in a chain of waterfalls that once fed the mills in the area. As small-scale wheat production dwindled, locals could not turn to the tourism that supported the coast. “People don’t come here just by passing,” says Totò Greco, another friend of Francigena, whom I met in the nearby town of Prizzi, perched on a hill, far from any main road. “But now people can welcome pilgrims.” Prizzi didn’t have a hotel before, so like Marialicia and many Via residents, Totò has transformed a family home into a hip, hostel-style B&B. He also created an association – Sikanamente, named after the surrounding Sicani hills – to encourage young residents to stay in the area.
In the important Prizzi Archeology Museum, Totò exhibits Roman coins and jewelry, as well as other artifacts dating back to 5000 BC. AD, which were mainly found on the slopes of Sicani. I am particularly fascinated by a 3rd century clay sculpted foot, which bears a remarkable resemblance to my walking boots. Then, head to the Totò cantina to taste the wine of this season. Like a growing number of enterprising young locals, Totò turns an old masseria (country farmhouse) into a vineyard, learns to make wine, revives native grape varieties and employs local artists to design labels. “You have to create your own path because nobody teaches you how to do things here,” says his colleague, Gabriella Lo Bue. Like many entrepreneurs I meet, Gabriella recently returned to Sicily after years of working abroad, partly because of the pandemic constraints, but also because of the perspectives that the pilgrimage brings. “We all bring with us skills and new ways to promote the region,” she says. “It’s exhausting but exciting.”
These bright new horizons do not extend to the weather. A storm explodes again on Casale Margherita, our next night stop, where the owner, Carmelo, refuses to let us continue on foot. “The river overflowed,” he said, chasing us in his van the next morning. “It’s just not safe – I’ll take you to the next hill.” Carmelo’s organic farm and gourmet hotel is a new investment. “Tell everyone about us,” he shouts as he waves us off on the breathtaking climb to Sutera. With roads flowing like rivers again, we meet the stoic Belgians who skipped a train line to avoid crossing the river. Raincoats defeated by the endless deluge, they now carry village-bought umbrellas, a powder blue with a lace-effect white border. They stumble away uphill, looking like a group of old ladies heading for the shops.