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 church; however, a peek inside reveals an exquisite nave framed by stone pillars, and elegant archways with crystal chandeliers.
This leads us to the next filming location, in front of the Chiesa della SS Trinità e Convento Agostiniano. The wedding celebration continues here with a puppet show, music and dancing. As the movie scene scans the crowd, you can see the puppet show taking place underneath a stone archway. The arch is at the top of a stairway that opens up to incredible views of the surrounding valley. It is one of few remnants left from the time when Southern Italy was ruled by the Spanish.
Finally, we find ourselves back at the car, where we have parked in almost the exact location as the scene from the third movie where Michael Corleone stood next to his car with Kay as a man on a bicycle rode past and handed her a bouquet of flowers. A fitting end to a picture perfect visit!
We wind back down into the valley and up the other side to the town of Savoca. Even smaller than Forza d'Agro, there are less than 50 residents here. The town is everything you would imagine a small, Sicilian hilltop town to be. Charming, quiet, and timeless; complete with the ruins of a thousand year old castle.
Our first stop in Savoca is Bar Vitelli, the restaurant made famous by the second Godfather film. It was here that Michael Corleone met Apollonia's father, who he subsequently convinced to let him court and marry her.
The restaurant has changed in the 50 years since the filming, and so has the town; however, you can't help but feel the presence of Il Padrino here.
The outdoor patio area, now surrounded by trees, still has the Bar Vitelli sign over the doorway. As we step inside, we find a small room just inside the front door with props and pictures from the movie. This is sacred ground for any true Godfather fan!
Outside the restaurant, across a small outdoor terrace, a mirrored sculpture of Francis Ford Coppola stands to commemorate the filming of the movie and the influence it's had on the town.
On to the final filming location of the tour, the Chiesa di San Nicolò. To reach the church where Michael and Apollonia knelt in the doorway to be married, our storyteller leads us up the the winding, uneven cobblestoned walkway to the pinnacle of the town. Along the way, our guide, and now friend, points out the parts of the castle that remain and tells us the story of clay carvings on the old city walls.
The path we take was the same one that Michael and Apollonia took after their marriage ceremony, back down to the Bar Vitelli and the stone courtyard for the wedding celebration. I swear I heard the sweet sound of violins playing as we walked!
To complete our tour, we walk past the church and take the path around the back side of the city. As we pass the remnants of the crumbling castle set among modern day stone houses, I get the feeling that this quaint little town overlooking the Ionian sea has many more stories to tell.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my experience on The Godfather film locations tour! If you are interested in taking the tour, I HIGHLY recommend using Etna Sicily Tours.
Planning a visit to Sicily? Read all about the lessons I've learned while living here! Driving, eating, coffee drinking, and more! Check out Living in Sicily: First Impressions