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The Butchers of Corleone

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 09:13 AM EDT

The Mafia were constantly in my thoughts as we travelled around Sicily. This may have had something to do with the book I was reading at the time, John Follain’s The Last Godfathers, which was so cram-packed with gruesome murder and body disposal methodology that I was finding it hard to look at an oil barrel without calculating its remains-dissolving acid capacity in litres. My new obsession was probably also due to the men of a certain age with cashmere coats slung casually about their shoulders, flashing gold from their wrists and forming the centrepiece of an all-male entourage of muscular, besuited Ray Ban-wearers. Our arty tutors may not have deemed it appropriate to go Mafia chasing on my previous visit to this dark isle, but now I felt it a vital part of my education to visit Corleone, the town that bred such a feared clan of dons that its mere mention can encourage an impromptu move to Brazil. In case you think it sounds familiar, this is also the town that gave its name to Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Godfather’, Don Corleone.

Negotiating the traffic on our way out of Palermo was frustrating, especially as the road signs were more confusing than ever and we really needed a proper road map to be sure of not wasting any more time on severely pot-holed back roads. This is where Sicilians can be pleasantly surprising - for the way I speak Italian, you’d expect a certain black-eyed, unshaven service station attendant in grubby boiler suit to pull a crowbar out of nowhere, cleaving it through my skull with a single thwack , blood and brains all over the forecourt. Instead of which, when we stop to try and buy a map, the same service station attendant wipes the grease off his hands and slowly, kindly, patiently explains to me that no, they don’t have maps but if we continue down the road we will find another couple of places where they should. He wants to be sure I’ve understood his directions and, once convinced, waves us on our way. You see? I’ve been watching too many Mafia films and that Follain book has been doing me no good. Next time we pick up holiday reading at an airport, Monsieur says he’ll make me buy Heidi.

Map eventually in hand, we follow a winding road into the Sicilian hinterland. The temperature drop is tangible as we snake our way up to cloud level. Driving past an abbey perched on a rocky outcrop, we zig-zag through a picturesque village, where, in spite of the pretty buildings and market square, the locals stare into our car, eyes dark with suspicion. I want to cross myself. Then I remember what it said in our guide: that Corleone’s residents are keen to dispell their Mafia associations in favour of more godly connections. Nowadays it sells itself as the city of a hundred churches, promoting its various saints. This was going to be one fascinating way to experience the co-existence of good and evil in one, small community.

It was market day in Corleone when we drove into town. Leaving the Cappuccino Wagon just behind the stall-lined main street, we wandered our way through the crowd. The first stall of note sold cacti of various shapes and sizes. In Feng Shui you tend only to use sharp plants for thresholds and doors to the outside world, as they’re supposed to ward off intruders. I began to wonder if Feng Shui had reached Corleone, or if cacti were some new weapon of choice.

Further along, we found a long, covered stand selling all manner of knives – cutlery, steak, kitchen, pocket, and oh, was that a meat cleaver? The more disturbing knives were businesslike switchblades and those with fiercely-serrated edges for hunting; whether destined for animal or human prey I couldn’t be certain, but disembowelling wouldn’t take long with one of those babies.

On we went, past the flapping arrays of fake pashminas and spreads of cheap, rash-inducing jewellery to a little square. Once more, the eyes of burly men bore into us as we, the interlopers, walked on. No, Corleone wasn’t the most welcoming of towns to visit. Now, where exactly were these hundred churches?

A grocery shop made the most of a prime corner window to promote its stock of Don Corleone, some sort of local liquor with Marlon Brando’s face etched into each label. Across the street, a vegetable barrow stacked with giant examples of local produce, was busy with local trade. But the merchant’s frontage that really stopped me in my tracks was that of the local butcher. Through the window, we spied strapping great men with watermelon-sized biceps, wielding bone-cracking cleavers as they hacked into sides of meat. Blood was smeared all over their white aprons as various sections of former livestock (PlanetRoss – Should that be ‘deadstock’?) swung from hooks all about them. CARNE (meat) was written above the door, prompting me to think of CARNAGE. Only in Corleone.

So far, so cliché. The weather was sombre. The market’s cacti were as prickly as the Corleonese. The knife stall chilled me, and now we were stood gaping as bloody men tore into hefty hunks of flesh. Was I the only visitor to find this scene more than a little Mafia-esque?

To counteract all this negativity, albeit in an overactive imagination, it was time to find some of these hundred churches and light a candle or two for the common good of Corleone, which has had such a murderous past that at some points the locals were accustomed to daily killing on their streets. Alas, wouldn’t you know it? It wasn’t even time for the Corleonese men of the cloth to lunch, yet every single church we found was firmly locked against us. There’s probably good reason for this: no more murder in the confessional because the priest hands out one too many Hail Marys, or to prevent the chalice from being nicked for the umpteenth time, but people of Corleone, listen up! If you want to promote yourselves as a god-fearing town of 100 churches, then you’d better open their doors so we visitors have more to look at than Don Corleone-branded goods.

Monsieur and I were now keen to track down the Anti-Mafia Centre, but all the signs led us on one wild goose chase after another, until we found one pointing up a dead end, having been painted over to disguise the outline of the carved letters spelling its name. In the local museum, we checked out the glass cases filled with fragments of ancient finds from local digs but thankfully no human mandibles of recent decades. With more time on our hands, the museum staff would have taken us on a free tour of the town, but we were keen to reach Agrigento that afternoon, so we didn’t stick around.

On the way back to the car we stopped off at a point from which to view the vista of the valleys below Corleone. The panorama was certainly stunning, but the viewing point was somewhat unattractive, as it was located next to a couple of large, municipal bins, one of which was largely melted in the sort of way that suggested bored teenage thugs playing with matches after dark. Then, turning a corner, we saw a tiny old woman watching us through lace curtains. White hair pulled back into a bun, dressed all in black, she was a walking Italian grandmamma stereotype. A picture of her would have been a star in my album, but I couldn’t bring myself to take it. In spite of her thumbelina size, the look in her eye told me she’d chase me out of town with a broomstick, should I dare to point my camera in her direction, and fair enough. If someone did the same to me, I’d be off after them with a broomstick, too.

And so, with no further a-do, we left Corleone, a little disappointed by what we’d found. We’d tried to visit three museums, only one of which was open. Not a single church stood unlocked, not even the 14th Century Chiesa Madre that had ’given the world two saints’. Admittedly, there were some little alleys affording pretty views of pastel-painted houses dropping gently down the hillside, and I did manage to find some terrible postcards for my Tacky Postcard Collection, including a nice black rectangle of ‘Corleone at Night’, and some bad Mafioso stickers for my journal, but apart from that Corleone was a dark little town. The locals gave off an unmissable vibe that outsiders were unwelcome, which is a shame given their current attempt to re-brand themselves as saintly. Even the world’s best gelateria wouldn’t tempt me back in a hurry.

As we drove out of town, I could imagine the locals cheering at our backs, farewelling another couple of unwanted Mafia trail-followers. Having said that, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a single local smile the whole time we’d been there. The air in Corleone crackles with misdeeds and grief. Perhaps it was wrong to visit this town, for over the years its people have been bullied into extreme wariness and now they just seem to want to be left alone. After what they’ve been through, who could possibly deny them that? For the above reasons, I won’t be going back to Corleone; not even for the best cannoli in the world. And for a girl called Epicurienne, that’s saying something.