What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Sicily? If it’s the Mafia, you aren’t alone. Between the movies and the rumors and the real-life crime melodramas, it’s a fascinating subject for people around the world.
“Everyone's interested in the Mafia and everyone's intrigued by Sicily's exotic history, and the two are completely intertwined,” says author Carl Russo. “You can't know one without the other.” Back in 1999, Russo was just another tourist hanging out in a bar in downtown Palermo, Sicily. When a young lady walked in and took a seat, the waiter leaned in to Russo and said, “Watch out for her, she’s the boss’s daughter.”
Russo thought the waiter meant the boss of the bar, but as it turned, out the staff was talking in hushed tones about the “big” boss: The woman was a Mafia daughter. Russo didn’t know that the Sicilian Mafia even still existed, and the incident triggered his fascination with the dark underbelly of Sicily: Cosa Nostra. He set about learning as much as he could about the still-very-active network, along with the hundreds of anti-Mafia activists and law-enforcement personnel who had been assassinated; some of whom, in fact, had known of their impending murders.
On a return trip to Sicily in 2006 – one week after Italy’s most-wanted mafioso, Bernardo Provenzano, was captured – Russo tried to find the shack that Provenzano had been holed up in. “Nobody wanted to tell me,” he said. “It took a few days of asking people in Corleone how to find it. I finally found someone to give me directions, and I raced up the mountain to photograph it. This old man had been smiling as the police rushed him, and the room was full of saints and crosses hanging from necklaces.”
Russo also tracked down the location where Italy’s most famous bandit, Salvatore Giuliano, was gunned down. At that point, he realized that no book revealed where these places were; he couldn’t find a list of Mafia locations published anywhere. To tourists, the Mafia is completely invisible. Many of the stories from Cosa Nostra’s 150-year history had never been told in English, and as a writer, Russo couldn't resist. After six years of researching the legends, running around the Sicilian outback in what he says seemed like an impossible task, Russo ended up with a book.
The Sicilian Mafia: A True Crime Travel Guide was published in February 2014 by Strategic Media Books, becoming the first-of-its-kind guidebook that allows visitors to discover Mafia landmarks: where murders happened, where the godfathers lived, and where their victims are buried. The book is written for the adventurer interested in going beyond the beaches, churches, and museums of Sicily – which are, admittedly, spectacular – to get an up-close look at the mysteries of the country’s tragic past.
Russo doesn’t give tips for finding cheap hotels or great restaurants; those things are covered by a plethora of other guidebooks, he says. His book is for the crime buff, focusing on the western half of the island, the true heart of Cosa Nostra.
In the year-and-a-half since Russo’s book was published, Mafia tourism in Sicily has grown. Feedback from his readers indicates a special interest in seeing three sites outlined in the book. One is the luxury Palermo villa that Totò Riina, the boss of bosses, secretly raising his family in, even as he was ordering assassinations by the dozens. Second is the hideout of his underboss Bernardo Provenzano – an intensely religious man nicknamed "the Tractor" for his preferred killing methods. The police found him hiding in this adobe shack used to make ricotta on a mountain overlooking Corleone. And the third is anything to do with the famous bandit Salvatore Giuliano, who may have killed for the Mafia and may have ultimately been killed by it.
“I researched everybody, good and bad, and came up with about a hundred biographies and key incidents, like gang wars, to tell the history of Cosa Nostra,” Russo says. “Then I laid them out geographically for the more adventurous traveller to find, with photos and street addresses. It helps if you like a challenge: The book has one master map and not every address will come up on GPS. But along the way, you'll see the real Sicily, including some of the most beautiful old villages, untouched by tourism.”
But don’t assume that the book glamourizes the Mafia the way many movies do; in fact, quite the opposite. Russo hopes that his accounting will help demythologize the gangsters.
“The most violent godfathers are doddering into old age behind bars while the anti-Mafia movement in Italy is huge now,” Russo says. “A new chapter of Cosa Nostra is being written as we pass from the horrible era of assassinations – from the 1970s through the ‘90s — to one of justice being served. In fact, the country has its first Sicilian president, and he's a staunchly anti-Mafia politician whose brother was assassinated by those guys.”
Still, not everyone has been happy with his approach. Some have been incensed that the media focuses on the Mafia first when dealing with Sicily. Russo fully understands that Italians, particularly Sicilians, are naturally ashamed of the Cosa Nostra’s history. In fact, Russo himself used to hear Mafia-related jibes as a kid just for being of Italian descent. But he says that to sweep it under the rug accomplishes nothing. “The Mafia thrives in darkness and freaks out whenever a spotlight is shone on its activities. Anyone who reads the book will see right away that it's fundamentally anti-Mafia, as I went to numerous villages and photographed the homes and gravesites of activists who were slain. I met with the brother of a factory owner who was killed for refusing to pay the extortionist, and spent an afternoon with the son of the famous anti-Mafia author Danilo Dolci. It's a sensitive issue, which is why the introduction to my book urges discretion and respect when visiting these places.”
The respected activist group Addiopizzo, which means "goodbye to the racket," gives anti-Mafia tours, visiting shrines of people martyred by the Mafia, meeting with victims' families, and sometimes helping to harvest farmland confiscated from the mob. Some anti-racket merchants have been refusing to pay, putting big Adiopizzo stickers in their shop windows as a public stand against the Mafia. The book lists these businesses that defy the mafia – even at their peril – so that tourists can support them.
“My two guiding principles while ‘trespassing’ on historical Mafia territory are discretion and respect. The emotional and ethical aspects of Mafia tourism come into play,” Russo says. “The sole purpose of my book is to lead you to sites most visitors never see, so they can experience the tragic side of Sicilian history first-hand, but also see what Sicilians are doing to change the course.”
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