Updated: Mar 4, 2021
For many, thoughts of Sicily inextricably bring to mind scenes from The Godfather. A vision of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone sitting in a dimly lit room, leaning back in his leather chair uttering the words, “You come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married…”
The Godfather, or Il Padrino in Italian, is arguably one of the most revered movies of all time. The story of a young boy who escaped death at the hands of the Italian mafia, made the journey from the hills of Sicily to the streets of New York, and then became the head of one of the most powerful crime families in America. And finally, the son who ironically returns to Sicily to escape his own death in New York. The second and third films follow him as he walks in his father’s footsteps and embraces his Sicilian heritage. The story is, of course, fictional. But even so, it has won the hearts of millions of people and is considered a film-making masterpiece even 50 years later.
I typically like to travel “free style”; on my own time and at my own pace. I like to research a place and make my own itinerary. Sometimes I like to just show up in a town and wander around until I’m delightfully lost. You can go where you want, when you want. You don’t have to feel like a “tourist” following a pack leader with 20 other people wearing headsets and waiting to be told where to go next. But there are some places that are made so much more special with a guide. And this was one of them. When your guide feels more like an old friend telling you stories about a place they love, that’s when you know it’s truly magical.
We began our journey driving north from Catania, along the eastern coast of Sicily. Always with Mount Etna puffing away just over our left shoulders. In this region the volcanic rock is extremely porous, which allows it to absorb so much of the rain water that the vegetation is lush and green. We drive past vineyards, olive groves, and citrus tree farms, while palm trees, agave, and prickly pear cactus lining the roadside happily remind us that we are in a tropical paradise.
As we cross over the Alcantara River into the province of Messina, there is a distinct difference in the terrain. Sedimentary rock formations and grassy hillsides, with trees that remind you more of a pine forest than a tropical island. Cliffside villages built during medieval times, with fortified walls and watch towers to warn of incoming enemies. It was among these cliffs that Francis Ford Coppola chose to film the Sicilian locations in The Godfather II and III.
Our guide tells us that this area was actually the second choice for filming the movies. The first and most logical choice was the town of Corleone, near Palermo on the western side of the island. However, in a comical twist of fate, the real life mafia families of that area kindly suggested to Mr. Coppola that he find an alternative filming location.
Just after passing the seaside city of Taormina, we begin to catch glimpses of the breathtaking Valle d'Agrò. We slowly wind along the switchback road that hugs the hillside, as the valley opens up before our eyes. Our first stop is Forza d'Agrò, a medieval village perched on the smaller of the two mountains that form this valley.
We park along a street at the edge of the village, where the views of the valley and coastline below are so spectacular I almost forget why we’re here.
As we walk along the cobblestoned streets, our guide becomes more of a storyteller than a tour guide, and I imagine what this quiet Sicilian town must have been like in its prime. It’s sad and beautiful at the same time. The people we see are friendly, and they welcome us with a smile and a nod, but there is also a look in their eyes that seems as if they are unaware of how special this place is.
We make our way through the narrow streets to the house that was used as Vito Corleone’s childhood home. A small marker and a picture from the film identify the door that was used in The Godfather II, when Michael Corleone goes to visit the town his father lived in as a child. As he stands at the door a woman walks by and says, “No one lives there anymore.” And as if we are visiting in some magical parallel universe, a man walks past and tells us that the people who own the house have moved away, and that the house is empty. He then tells us that so many houses have fallen victim to this same fate. As young people grow up they move away to bigger cities on the mainland, and it has left this cliffside village with very few permanent residents.
We continue our journey to the Chiesa di Maria S. Annunziata e Assunta, the church used for two different filming scenes. The first of these is the scene from The Godfather II where a young Vito Corleone escapes as he hides in the basket being carried by a donkey ridden across the front of the church. The second scene, from The Godfather III, shows an older Michael Corleone back in the town with his second wife Kay as they happen upon a wedding taking place at the same church.
As the bride and groom come out of the church, the small stone courtyard in front of the church is filled with wedding guests, towns people, and a band. There are no scenes filmed inside the churc