Arriving at night into the airport at Palermo, we did not see the mountains of Sicily which came to characterise our stay in the country. Even in the dark we could tell this country was full of mountains because we soon found ourselves driving into and out of tunnels hewn through the stone. From Cefalu, a small town about 40 minutes from the capitol city of Palermo, we headed off the main road further into the inky darkness. Our car wound threaded its way up the side of the mountain in search of the villa from Massimo Villas which would be our home for the week. With no street lights, the stars were bright in the sky and the silence was complete, except for our car engine and the barking of the occasional dog. I’m pretty sure I heard a wolf howl but my husband told me it was my imagination. We were very glad when we found Villa Vittoria tucked away behind discreet gates. We knew as soon we saw Villa Vittoria, that our family holiday in Sicily with Massimo Villas was going to be good.
Watching the sunset from the villa every night was a highlight of our trip.
Massimo Villas has several different types of holiday homes catered for different needs such as child-friendly or romantic escapes. Our children are older so we did not need a child safety-proofed home.
Villa Vittoria was described as a ‘design villa’ which was perfect as we were concerned. With clean, contemporary lines, the villa was perched on the side of the mountain. Large picture windows and roof terraces on the different floors afforded views over Cefalu, the sea and the mountains. The villa itself is surrounded by olive groves and fruit trees.
Even when you are inside, large windows let in the sunlight and show off the view.
Our nearest neighbours were pretty far away.
We hung our clothes out to dry in the olive grove.
As for the house itself, we had everything we could need. The modern kitchen was well-equipped and easy to use. We spent most of our waking time outdoors either by the pool or on one of the terraces.
Jumping for joy!
We stayed at Villa Vittoria with another family, the Tolentinos from Dish Our Town. Yet, we never felt crowded for space. The layout was great in that the common rooms were on the middle floor. We had our bedrooms on the top floor and the other family had their bedrooms on the bottom floor. The assortment of terraces meant that we could all have outside space without necessarily needing to be together.
Angelo, the Massimo Villas representative, was very helpful in getting us situated. He told us about visiting Castelbuono which is known for its local delicacy of manna. He also organised our cooking class at Sant Ambrogio at the Taverna Bacchus which our children absolutely loved. He lived nearby and so knew all the local beaches and places to eat. Mimmo, the chef from Taverna Bacchus, could have come to Villa Vittoria and cooked for us. We choose, however, to have a light dinner most nights (more room for the vino!).
Villa Vittoria was well-located on the outskirts of Cefalu and near the Autostrada when we took the car to explore the rest of the island. From Villa Vittoria, we could reach Palermo in about 40 minutes. It took us 3 hours to cut through the centre of the island to reach Mt. Etna, and nearby Catania and Taormina.
We spend a delightful couple of days in Cefalu itself. Cefalu is a seaside resort with a calm sheltered sandy beach. It has some charming restaurants and a Norman Cathedral from the 12th century. The town reminded me of Italy from a bygone era – the 1950’s Italy you see in The Talented Mr. Ripley. The faded pastels of the buildings contrasted with the vibrant blue of the sky and the sand. Most of the tourists we saw were other Sicilians or Italians. The most common activities seemed to be sitting around in the sun people-watching and eating gelato. Perfect, in my opinion.
The pretty beach at Cefalu.
The shoreline at Cefalu in Sicily
Little piazzas with sidewalk tables.
The beach at Cefalu as seen through the old defensive walls.
Cefalu is nestled up against the mountains.
If wanted to, there were plenty of things to do near Villa Vittoria. For example, we were right on the doorstep of a nature reserve. Mostly though my kids wanted to hang out at the house and play in the pool. We missed a handful of activities we would have liked to do such as a tour-guide lead Godfather Tour of Sicily. There’s so much to do in Sicily but Villa Vittoria was so perfect it was hard to tear ourselves away.
A Family Holiday in Sicily
We had a perfectly relaxing holiday and loved Sicily so much we knew we would visit again. Angelo told us the perfect time to visit Sicily is in June and September/October. During this time, the crowds have thinned but the weather is still warm. Luckily for British school holidays, we have time off in both June and October.
Having usually gone to the north of Italy, we were also surprised at how affordable Sicily is. The wine, fruit, bread etc in the supermarkets are not only fresh, but also relatively cheap. We feasted like kings but paid like paupers.
An abundance of fruit.
After a day of sightseeing, we made a point of being back at Villa Vittoria for the sunset. Generally glorious, the sun would dip behind the mountains and melt into the sea. The children played in the pool and the adults gathered for the very civilised British tradition of sundowners. It was a great ending to a great day, knowing the next day we could do it all over again.
We were hosted by Massimo Villas. All opinions and thoughts are my own.
If you are a movie buff, The Godfather Trilogy holds a special place in your heart. The Godfather Parts I and II are two of the greatest movies ever made … and The Godfather Part III isn’t as bad as many people think. While we were hanging out post-dinner at our villa in Sicily, my husband and I were shocked to discover that our kids had never even heard of the movies. How did such a shocking lapse happen in our family?? We thought we had done a pretty good job with their film education (Star Wars, The Sound of Music, Willy Wonka, etc.) but clearly there were still gaping holes that needed to be fixed. So, we took it on ourselves to teach the kids about the greatness of the three movies making up The Godfather Trilogy in Sicily.
Although the movies were set in the USA, Sicily is a big part in the movie’s backstory.
Why do The Godfather movies resonate so deeply? Not only are the movies works of cinematic brilliance, but the story itself is epic. Mobster movies are a dime a dozen but what makes The Godfather Trilogy special is the family dynamic.
The Movie Itself
The movies have an amazing cast of actors – Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and Andy Garcia to name a few. A young Al Pacino was simply delicious.
The scriptwriting was excellent with so many of the more famous quotes having entered the popular vernacular. How many of the lines do you remember? Probably more than you thought.
Clemenza is best known for this line: Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.
The epic revolves around family and the things we do to keep our families safe. We all have dreams for our children and we want them to do well. For example, the young Vito Andolini’s mother sacrifices herself to save her son, Vito Corleone wants his son Mikey to get out of the family business and Michael Corleone schemes to have his daughter Mary break up with gangster-cousin Vincent.
The only wealth in this world is children.
Along the way, the family is kept safe, but at what cost? Don Corleone may have fulfilled the American Dream but Michael Corleone’s hunger for power turns it into a nightmare.
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Mark 8:36 (American King James Version)
Michael, protected his family in his own misguided way, but only to lose them all at the end. He has his brother killed, his daughter dies, his wife can’t stand him and his son with the artistic soul will need years of therapy. The only one left with him at the end of his machinations is scary sister Connie and ruthless nephew Vincent.
All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy from Anna Karenina
At the end of his life, Michael dies alone (in a scene which turns out to be unintentionally comedic with Michael Corleone falling off his chair). Americans will be reminded of the television advertising line “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”
A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.
The movies are also about the immigration story in the USA. The kid who shows up with nothing and goes onto build a successful life in America. The kid doesn’t even get to keep his last name but is given the name of his hometown by the immigration officials at Ellis Island. Who doesn’t love The American Dream? I admire the movie for showing the seamier sides of the dream.
Sicily itself is only peripheral to The Godfather Trilogy. Only a small part of the 9+ hours of the movies are set in Sicily. Yet, the idea of their homeland is integral to how the characters see themselves. Don Corleone had only an immigrant child’s memories of his homeland and, like other immigrants, that connection with the past shaped his future.
Although there was supposed to be a fourth Godfather, I am glad they did not do make that movie. The fourth movie would have been about Andy Garcia assuming the mantle of the Godfather and the direction he chooses to take the family business. Frankly, I couldn’t see this story working as well because, at heart, The Godfather Trilogy was about familial relationships. Pretty much everyone in the main family is dead (or in therapy) by the end of the first three movies, so a bunch of random cousins we haven’t met yet would be needed to continue the family story.
Sicily and the Mafia
I realise that The Godfather image peddled by Hollywood is glamorised violence. Many Sicilians are less than thrilled that their country is associated with the Mafia. On the other hand, the tourist shops have embraced the image and peddle tatty souvenirs related to the movie. It’s not personal, it’s business.
Some of the tourist trinkets profiting off the movie and mystique.
We were told organised crime in Sicily has moved on from harassing the locals to more lucrative options, like government contracts and vote fixing. If you are looking for a serious post on the actual Mafia in Sicily, this isn’t it. We are merely movie buffs who can recite entire chunks of The Godfather movies.
Don Corleone is also the name of an art gallery in Taormina.
Explaining The Godfather Trilogy to the Kids
We were in Sicily with Andrew, Brenda and Bailey Tolentino, the family from Dish Our Town. We discovered that Andrew would probably be considered a super fan of the movies. He has practically an encyclopaedic knowledge of the trilogy.
Thanks to our ability to quote The Godfather movies extensively, our kids started asking us about the plot of the movies. We watched clips of it on YouTube since no one has time on holiday to watch 9+ hours of film.
We had a lot of fun filming these clips with our kids and we hope you enjoy watching them. Only a small portion of the films are set in Sicily, so we took lots of artistic license.
As the director, I felt some of the pain of Francis Ford Coppola when he was trying to get some acting ability out of his daughter Sophia in The Godfather Part III. Suffice it to say, Sophia is an excellent director and should remain behind the camera. Along those lines, I feel our kids should embrace their geeky side and get desk jobs.
Visiting the Movie Locations in Sicily
By the 1970’s, the town of Corleone was too modern to be a film location and other towns near Taormina were used as its stand-in. We didn’t take an organised tour of these locations because we were going to visit on our own. Taormina though was so pretty, we decided to stay put for the afternoon. I’m sure hardcore movie fans will sneer at us.
It’s easy to see how such a beautiful country can inspire nostalgia.
The only movie location we visited in Sicily was the opera house, the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, where Mary is shot dead in front of her father. I’ve got to say that scene never gets old – primarily for its comedic value. Even our kids thought Mary’s death was badly overacted and hysterically funny.
The Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Sicily
I think Mary Corleone should have been developed more as a character. Her main role in the movie seems to be to romance her bad-news cousin Vincent who wants to step into her father’s shoes. No daddy issues there, of course. Her death leaves her father a broken man. Interestingly, the making and breaking of Michael’s character are the deaths of his first wife and his daughter, respectively.
My daughter took to Michael Corleone like a duck to water which I found a little scary. Her brother better watch out that he doesn’t get Fredo-ed especially if I am not around to keep the peace.
Sharing a classic cult film with kids is a good way to share your interests.
I loved Tom, the consigliere, who is the perpetual outsider. The family trusts him implicitly and yet he will never be family.
Friendship is everything. It is almost the equal of family.
I couldn’t stand Connie Corleone but both Andrew Tolentino and my husband thought she was a great character. I guess she did grow during the movies from a blushing bride to scary matriarch.
The movie family borrow their last name from the town of Corleone located near Palermo. By the 1970’s though, Corleone itself was too developed to be a film location for a movie set 20 years previously. Little Corleone does have deep associations with the Mafia. In the 1940’s, the little town had the one of the highest murder rates in the world. By the way, one set of Al Pacino’s grandparents were immigrants from Corleone.
If you are visiting Corleone though, the town has an anti-Mafia museum. In addition, Addiopizzo Travel organise tours that specifically reject the tentacles of organised crime (such as the small protection money called pizzo) that still exist in Sicily.
We rented our car through Hertz of which we are gold members. In retrospect, hiring a large 7-seater Volvo was fine in the big cities but was a mistake in the smaller villages and roads. Keep in mind also that Hertz in Palermo will let you hire a dongle to go with their in-built SatNav which is very handy. You may not have cellular access in the mountains and the Sat Nav proved unreliable on certain country addresses. Thank goodness for Google Maps!
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Sicily: A Short History by John Julius Norwich
Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb
Unto the Daughters: Legacy of An Honor Killing by Karen Tintori
When we first entered Castelbuono in the mountains above Cefalu, we thought it was the sleepiest town we had ever seen. Not a person was on the street. Most of the stores were closed. Soon we realised, we had arrived in town for siesta. Slowly around 4pm, the stores started opening and people started congregating on the streets again. This photo essay looks at life in the town of Castelbuono in Sicily which doesn’t seem to have changed much over the centuries.
We had come to Castelbuono to see its castle which is supposed to be one of the best preserved castles in Sicily. Unfortunately it was closed. The next day was a public holiday in Italy and the castle decided to close at 1pm the day before the public holiday. Why not? They hadn’t bothered to tell anyone though or even announce it on their website. We weren’t the only one surprised by the sudden closure. I felt sorry for the tour guides who were leading groups who were stuck standing gaping at the large castle.
The imposing Castle that no one got to see the inside of.
The town itself grew up around the imposing castle which was built by a local prominent aristocratic family. They made Castelbuono the centre of their landholdings.
The town is nestled in the mountains.
The Church of Matrice Vecchia
The church of Matrice Vecchio is pretty special because of its crypt. The crypt is covered in beautifully preserved frescoes from the 11th century.
The 15th century church is built on the ruins of a pagan temple.
An elderly priest is lead into the Matrice Vecchia.
One of the beautiful frescoes in the crypt.
Shopping & Culture
Castelbuono in Sicily is known for the production of manna which is a tree resin that is used as a sweetener.
A bonsai version of the Manna tree.
The owner of Putia told us that it is the same manna that was mentioned in the Bible as the food eaten by the Israelites as they wandered through the desert with Moses. She wasn’t quite sure how the manna trees grew in the desert so make of that what you will.
Putia is an art gallery whose owner told us she has the only gallery for miles around.
One of the many ceramic stores in town.
The restaurants are small and make use of whatever outside space they can.
The town is also known for its panettone from Fiasconaro which is sweetened with manna. The store started off making gelato made with snow from Mt. Etna. The family then branched into other pastries of which the panettone has received international renown. They believe in using local products and making panettone the old-fashioned way (such as, for example, leaving it to rise for 36 hours!). Of course, we tried both the panettone and the gelato and they were as excellent as their reputation.
With nothing to do for 4 hours until our dinner reservations at Palazzaccio, we hung out in the town square and engaged in some people watching over a glass of wine (or two).
The town square in front of the Matrice Vecchia
My husband got the kids some playing cards and they were happily amused.
Little Miss Cardshark
One of our favourite scenes was played out in front of the Pope Piux X Catholic Men’s Club. The man on the left refused to engage with the other members who gathered in front of the club. As the afternoon wore on, there were so many members in front of the club he had to go sit on the inside and look out the window just to be alone. We had visions of him refusing to go home to his harridan wife but not wanting to hang out with the other men either.
The anti-social man at the Men’s Club.
We saw this lady talking to her neighbour across the street from their terraces.
A fountain in the centre of town.
Two men shooting the breeze on a bench in town.
One of the many religious shrines that you find in random corners in Sicilian towns.
Dinner at Palazzaccio
We had a wonderful dinner at Palazzaccio, a family-run restaurant, located on a pedestrianised street near the Matrice Vecchio. Not only were our reservations for 7:30 pm but we arrived on time. The restaurant had to turn on the lights when we entered! We were on our own until about 9pm when the regular customers showed up for dinner! We had a variety of dishes and there were children’s meals on offer.
Clockwise from top: a selection of starters, pasta, horse meat with cheese and pork loin
Getting To Castelbuono
Castelbuono is easy to reach by car from Cefalu in northern Sicily. It is at the end of a series of winding roads from the coastal motorway which can present a problem if you are prone to motion sickness. From our villa outside of Cefalu it took approximately 45 minutes to reach Castelbuono.
We were told about Castelbuono by Angelo, the local representative of Massimo Villas, where we stayed. In addition to the castle and the church, he told us about the panettone, the manna and the restaurant. I’m not sure we would have found this charming town if we hadn’t had his local knowledge!
When I heard that Palermo was ranked as one of the best places in the world for street food, I knew our family would have to check out the scene. We love our street food and it’s a fast, easy and casual option for eating out with children. We had checked out the Vucceria market of Palermo earlier in the week but found the choice of vendors overwhelming. Our Italian is non-existent and most of the market vendors don’t speak English. So, I duly signed us up for a street food tour with StrEAT Palermo. We were on a mission to try out street food in Palermo with children and we needed expert guidance.
The StrEAT Palermo Tour
Lead by a man named Marco, the owner of StrEAT Palermo, we meet some of the street food vendors of Palermo – Tony, Giuseppe, Mario. Yes, that’s their real names. I’m not sure we would have met these guys on our own because the markets are a labyrinthine tangle of streets. It really helped to be with someone who knew where to go and what to buy. To the delight of my children, Marco had little foodie passports on which we got stamps when we tried out the different types of food. Nothing like collecting stamps to bring out their competitive spirit.
My daughter has a competitive streak but drew the line at eating offal.
There are three major street markets in Palermo, the Ballaro, the Capo and the Vucceria. The oldest, the Capo, was established by the Arabs and has been going strong for 1200 years on the same streets! You can see the Arab influence in the tiny winding streets and the way the market is laid out – divided into food, clothes, leather goods etc.
The entrance to the Capo, the oldest market in Palermo.
The Vucceria, located near the Piazza San Domenico, is probably named after the French Norman word ‘boucherie‘ because it used to sell meat. Now it sells everything, including non-food items. In the evenings, the Vucceria becomes a trendy hangout, with people eating, drinking and playing table football.
One entrance to the Viucceria opens onto a grand piazza.
Bring on the Sicilian Street Food!
Our morning tour started of with Tony and his frittola cart. Frittola is basically veal leftovers (fat and cartilage) boiled and fried in lard. My daughter who is a vegetarian at heart (American hot dogs are her downfall) started to look a little green. She conceded defeat in the stamp-war early. No way was she eating offal of any sort. (No, I’ve not had the heart to tell her what goes into an American hot dog).
It was an adventurous start to the tour with frittola (boiled, deep-fried veal waste).
Next on the list was babbaluci – small snails cooked in oil and garlic. You suck the snails straight from the shell. Marco tells us that there is a Sicilian saying that you can never suck too many snails or kiss too many women. I’ll take his word on it!
The babbaluci are usually served in a paper cone. You suck the snail and toss the shell on the ground (of course – Palermo is not the cleanest city). When babbaluci are traditionally eaten on the feast of St. Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo, the sound of crunchy discarded snail shells under the feet of pedestrians add to the general noise and hubbub of the city.
Babbaluci are smaller than French escargot.
Thank goodness for some of the less adventurous street food. My daughter really wanted stamps on her StrEAT Palermo passport but not at the expense of eating offal or snails. She loved the arancina (deep-fried risotto balls), panelle (deep-fried chickpea squares) and crocche (deep-fried potato balls). My son thinks its hilarious that the crocche are nicknamed cazzilli (little penises) because of their shape. It wasn’t all deep-fried goodness though.
The last of the hardcore Sicilian items we tried was pani ca meusa, the famous spleen sandwich of Palermo. It wasn’t all spleen, there were some lungs in there, too. All of it boiled and deep fried (sense a theme here?). My son and my husband thought it was delicious.
A spleen sandwich sitting in the pan waiting to be served. This local sandwich specialty is from a 500 year old recipe that was originally created by the Jewish population.
Photo Gallery of the Palermo Food Markets
I hope you get a sense of the crazy cacophony of colour that marks the food markets of Palermo. Discovering local foods is one of the joys of visiting a new place I find. For example, I had no idea how many different types of tomatoes you can get in Sicily. In my local supermarket, you get a choice of two sizes (big red or small red). Sometimes the small cherry tomatoes come on a vine and you pay extra for that farm fresh look!
Farm fresh vegetables for sale at the Capo. I have never seen some of the vegetables before including some large zucchini which was almost as long as my children were tall.
We were told that you need to find your favourite fishmonger and then stay loyal to them. Woe betide you if you are caught cheating on your usual vendor. Loyalty seems a Sicilian thing (even to the fishmonger).
This local delicacy of dried tuna ovaries in powder/block form is often used to sprinkle on pasta.
Boiled octopus being diced to be served to waiting customers.
Fresh tuna being sold at the market.
Signs in Japanese. Marco told us that most of the tuna caught in Sicily is exported to Japan.
Salt from the famous Trapani salt flats. Yes, they really are a euro for a bag!
Freshly dried oregano, a staple of Italian cooking.
Street Food in Palermo with Children
Was this street food tour a good idea to do with children?
Well, my daughter ate enough to be full. The tour ended with a traditional Italian gelato which made her very happy. My son, the more adventurous eater, ate everything and liked it all. My husband and I were likewise split. I’m never going to like offal no matter how deep-fried in lard it is. I just don’t like the texture and chewiness in my mouth.
Overall, I’d say the StrEAT Palermo tour was a great experience and we learned loads of cool trivia. As for Marco, he was great with my children. We were a group of 10 people and we had the only two children on the tour. Marco made sure they felt included in the group with his jovial personality.
I had read that we would be visiting churches but we didn’t. Neither did we finish the tour near Palermo Cathedral as was stated. So, in true Sicilian fashion, the details are a little fuzzy but the gist of the tour was as advertised.*
*StrEAT Palermo has pointed out that we were on the shorter summer tour which starts in June. We thought we were on the longer winter tour because we actually booked the tour in May but the date of the tour flipped into June.
We paid for our StrEAT Palermo tour ourselves. There are affiliate links contained in this article. If you click on these links, we will receive a small commission at no cost to you.
Tips for Experiencing the Street Food Tour in Palermo
Street food in Palermo is definitely for the adventurous foodie! As my daughter showed though, even vegetarians will find plenty to try. The StrEAT Palermo Tour is very easy to find and meets in central Palermo.
We rented our car through Hertz of which we are gold members. Driving and parking in Palermo is pretty easy. There are unofficial African parking attendants who will keep an eye on your car for a small tip. We rented a 7-seater Volvo which was fine in Palermo. In retrospect, we would not have rented such a big car to navigate the small villages and roads outside of Palermo. My husband (not me!!) dented the car a couple of times and we wound up paying a fine for damages upon our return of the Volvo.
Sicily: A Short History by John Julius Norwich
Sicily: Recipes From An Italian Island by Katie Caldesi & Giancarlo Caldesi
Spring in Sicily: Food From An Ancient Island by Manuela Darling-Gansser
Made in Sicily by Georgio Locatelli
Welcome! My family and I love to travel, to learn more about different countries and to experience new cultures. We also like our nice hotels, good food and other comforts. Join us on our adventures!