Tina Pisco’s grandfather arrived on Ellis Island from Corleone in 1905. She travelled with her 92-year-old father to the town that inspired The Godfather.
I started my journey from West Cork, with a rainy drive up to the city in the middle of the night.
There are few flights left out of Cork airport these days, and so the best way to make an early morning Dublin flight is to take the 2am Aircoach from Patrick’s Quay.
After a sleepless night I arrived in sunny Palermo and met my 92-year-old father who had flown in from Brussels.
Despite his age, he looked fresh as a daisy.
I was punch drunk tired, but ready for our adventure. We were partners on a family quest.
In 1905 my grandfather, Francesco, left Sicily for NYC.
It is said in the family, that he came from the infamous town of Corleone. When my father suggested that we go to Sicily to investigate, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I had rented a Fiat 500 for the week, but when the man at the desk saw our suitcases, he fell about laughing and suggested that we upgrade to an Opel SUV.
Once I got on the road I was happy for the extra height — the tarmac was frighteningly bumpy, even on major roads.
Driving on the right-hand side is a chore for me, made even more stressful by the love Sicilians have for beeping the horn as they overtake wildly.
However, we were soon on the windy SS118, full of hairpin bends, tractors and potholes.
Were it not for the landscape, it almost felt like driving back in West Cork.
And what a landscape! I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t the surreal beauty that I discovered as we climbed up and around, and higher still on the road to Corleone.
It looked computer generated, as if a crazy hacker had used everything in his toolbox to create a mind-boggling image.
Checker board fields of cereals, dotted with rows of olives and vineyards, stretched the horizon so far that I often felt a sense of vertigo as I drove around another bend.
Huge barren rocks, some with teeny little castles on them, jutted out from the bucolic fields as if they were going to devour them. Flowers lined the roads: red poppies, white daisies and yellow cactus.
We had booked into a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. I was glad to have the SUV, once I found the turn-off for Agriturismo Ridocco. The steep dip in the road and mile long broken concrete drive would have been quite challenging in a Fiat 500.
At the end of the drive we found beautiful mid-19th century buildings, gardens and a courtyard filled with flowers, plants and sleeping dogs and cats.
The 200 hectare farm is run by brothers Giovanni and Vicenzo.
They grow wheat and olives, and raise Charolais cattle on fields of camomile and meadow grasses.
Dinner, taken with the family in their lovely dining room was both delightful and delicious, and reassured us that we had made the right choice in going for mezza pensione (breakfast and evening meal).
Every night was a four-course feast of antipasti, pasta, meat and vegetables and dessert; along with wine and coffee.
It was Sicilian home cooking at its best.
One night my father was thrilled to be served roast chicken with oregano, just like his mother (who was from Ribera, a commune in the province of Agrigento, Sicily) used to cook.
Before our trip I had joined Ancestry.com and found the ship manifesto that listed my grandfather, Francesco Pisco, arriving in Ellis Island on October 12, 1905.
It stated that he was 18 years old, came from Corleone, and was accompanied by his 16-year-old brother Vito.
Armed with this information, along with Francesco’s mother’s maiden name, we took ourselves off to Corleone.
It was almost too easy. Once we had located the Oficio State Civile, it took about 30 seconds to find Francesco Pisco in the 1887 registry of births.
There he was: #45, born on January 15, to Antonio Pisco, and Margherita Lecata; who lived in the quarter of town still known as La Grazia (after the church dedicated to the Madonna de la Grazie).
Having achieved our mission so swiftly, we decided to go and see what else Corleone had to offer.
Situated about one hour south of Palermo (and 550m above sea level), Corleone is a small town tucked between two imposing rocks, one topped by a Capuchin monastery, the other by a Saracen fortress.
The narrow streets and steep alleys wind around 100 churches, which range from Wendy house chapels to the imposing 14th century Chiesa Madre (Mother Church).
Its history reflects that of Sicily — from the Neolithic and early Greek settlements, through Roman, North African, and Norman invasions.
Corleone has changed hands many times.
The town was often bought or transferred as a gift or settlement of a debt, accompanied by plantations of people from other parts of Italy and further afield.
Its harsh feudal system led to the town being at the heart of the struggle for social justice in the late 19th, and early 20th century.
And then there’s the Mafia.
It is, of course, most famous for its connection with Mario Puzo’s book and Francis Ford Coppola’s movie The Godfather.
We took a tour of the “Anti-Mafia” museum and learnt about the grim reality behind the Hollywood version.
This is recent history, still very much alive.
In fact, the next day there was a big celebration to honour the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Judge Falcone who led the Maxi Trials against the Corleonese mafia between 1986 and 1992, which put nearly 500 people in jail (the last Mafia boss was caught in 2006 in the hills of Corleone. He had been on the run for 43 years).
Marcella, our guide is both passionate and pessimistic about the power that the Mafia still yields. Though the killings and feuds have largely stopped, a mafia boss was gunned down while riding a bicycle in Palermo on the eve of Falcone’s anniversary.
To get a better picture of the town as a whole we took up Giovanni’s suggestion and booked a tour with Luca of Corleone Tours.
He is married to Stacey, from Dublin and we spent a delightful day walking, driving and eating around Corleone.
The highlight was visiting the San Salvador Monastery, high above the town. The view from the bell tower is worth the trek up the stairs.
Luca and Stacey could not have been kinder, and the three hour tour extended to three hours.
Along the way we learned about Spanish fortresses and Roman aqueducts, Knights Templar and Saracens, socialist uprisings and mafia gunmen, until I felt that we had tumbled into a mad narrative that encompassed most of European history.
The rest of our stay was taken up with enjoying the warm hospitality of our generous hosts at Ridocco, wandering around Corleone (which seems entirely populated with large groups of old men chatting), and a white knuckle drive up and over the mountains to see the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento.
Giovanni and Vicenzo even gave us a tour of the farm in their 4x4.
The wheat was being cut in the fields which spread out as far as the eye could see under a perfect blue sky dotted with clouds.
It was sad to say good bye to such a lovely spot and such lovely people.
“Partire e’ un po’ morire” (to leave is to die a little) said Vincenzo as we left and I certainly felt the tug of loss as I drove up the cracked and bumpy drive to start the long journey back home.
Ryanair flies to Palermo Falcone Borsalino. Aer Lingus only flies to Catania. Both only fly out of Dublin.
We rented the car with the Ryanair flights, which was good value.
Do check the car before you take it.
We were charged €200 for a little scratch which I am pretty sure I didn’t cause.
Where to stay
Enjoy a magical stay on the farm at Agriturismo Ridocco, Corleone. www.ridocco.com
Where to eat
Restaurants range from snack bars to elegant dining. They are all good. It’s really a question of how much you want to pay.
Sicilian food reflects its history: Italian with the addition of Arabic spices to the locally produced fruit, vegetables, seafood and meats. The wine is also terrific. Don’t miss the ice cream. A Corleone favourite is a brioche bread filled with gelato.
What to see
Check out Corleone Tours with Luca and Stacey for an unforgettable tour of the town. They also do wine tours. The Ethnographic museum and Anti-Mafia museum are also worth a visit. Nearby Ficuzza boasts an 18th century hunting lodge built by Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies, along with a forest and nature reserve.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved