Sicilian Diary

Dabbler Palermo shot
Toby Ash has just enjoyed a long weekend in Palermo. Just don’t mention the M word…

From the moment you land, it’s pretty hard to avoid the mafia in Sicily. Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino airport is named after two prominent judges slain in the early 1990s for successfully pursing the Cosa Nostra. On the road into the city you actually pass over the spot where Giovanni Falcone, his wife and four police officers were killed, in an explosion so powerful it registered on earthquake monitors.

The local tourist board would like visitors to believe that organised crime is a thing of the past, and it’s true that most of the big name Sicilian mafia bosses – including Toto Riina, responsible for killing Falcone and hundreds more- are behind bars. There is also none of the widespread violence – car bombs, assassinations, gun fights – that blighted Sicily, and Palermo in particular, in the 1980s and 1990s. From being the father of the Italian mafia family, the Sicillian Cosa Nostra is arguably now looking more like a distance cousin to the more powerful – and deadly – ‘Ndrangheta from Calabria and the Camorra, from Naples and the Campania region.

But the mafia still very much part of the fabric of Sicilian life. It’s estimated that about 70 per cent of Sicilian businesses pay pizzo, or protection money. For a small shop, it amounts to about 200 euros a month; for bigger businesses that figure can rise to 30,000 euros. What do they get in return? I suppose their friendly neighbourhood mafiosi will tell them protection from fraudsters, thieves and competitors. But in reality what they are paying is a tax to operate normally –a guarantee that there suppliers won’t suddenly cut them off; that their refuse is collected; that gangs of intimidating yobs won’t hang around outside their door day and night; that the tax office won’t repeatedly investigate their affairs.

Despite the high profile arrests and convictions, it’s still striking how pathetic and complicit the Italian state is allowing this state of affairs to continue. But then it was the absence of a functioning state that essentially gave birth to the mafia in the first place. The true heroes of Sicily are the many individuals who have taken a stand against organised crime. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was the extraordinarily brave investigating judges, priests and uncorrupted police and Carabinieri, many of whom lost their lives. Today, you also have those who diligently catalogue each and every murder at the Anti-Mafia museum we called on in the blighted town of Corleone, and members of Addiopizzo, a community of businesses and consumers who refuse to pay pizzo.  We dined in one Palermo restaurant whose owners had defied death threats by testifying against the mafia for the attempted extortion of 50,000 euros and for trying to force them to purchase solely from mafia-owned suppliers. Three local bosses were subsequently convicted. As we left, we noticed two Carabinieri sitting in their car on the opposite side of the road. There was another patrol car on the street when we passed by the following evening.

Will it ever end? Perhaps the answer lies with globalisation. On the edge of Palermo I noticed a large German supermarket chain had opened a large out-of-town shop. With their vast roster of suppliers, they aren’t reliant on a local supply chain controlled by local bosses. But it seemed to be the exception. For such a large European city like Palermo, there was a noticeable absence of large international retailers. But then would I be brave enough to sell or rent land to foreign businesses that undermined local mafia control? I’m not sure I would.


Even swearing in Italian sounds beautiful.

A rainy Sunday lunchtime, and Palermo were playing fellow Serie B promotion hopefuls Latina. I suppose the English football equivalent would be say Burnley against Blackpool, but this being Italy it was just far more glamorous and stylish. The stadium was probably only a third full, with the coach load of Latina fans who had made the long journey (every away fan has to make a long journey to Palermo) locked securely away in a small cage in one corner.

Palermo’s ultras were in fine voice. A few hundred in number, they chanted, sang, jeered, and jumped frenetically up and down without pause.  They also lit bright pink flares and smoke bombs with abandon – something that would land you with a prison sentence here- and the number of loo rolls they lobbed onto the pitch would make a Venezuelan seethe with envy. It was a great spectacle.

Needless to say we were robbed. Having taken an early lead, we conceded two quick goals much to the irritation of my fellow devotees. It looks like we’re facing a tough fight to exit the shame of Serie B, a league no self-respecting Italian city can reside.

On leaving the stadium I passed a kiosk serving snacks and bottles of beer. A large group of Palermo fans were eating chickpea patties (a delicious local delicacy) and drinking water. Now, I bet that wouldn’t happen in Burnley.


The final scenes of the Godfather III were shot at Teatro Massimo, Palermo’s fine opera house. The film is very accurate – the ushers do indeed all wear tailcoats and carry big sets of keys to open all the individual boxes. I could almost hear Michael Corleone shout ‘oh god, no, no!’ as I skipped down the steps past the spot where his beloved daughter was shot.

Being a foreigner, I made the laughable and extraordinarily stupid decision to spend ages choosing my tickets on the website, ensuring, or so I naively thought, I booked those with the very best view of a performance of La Traviata. How could I have been so trusting? This is, I now understand, something no right thinking Italian would dream of doing.

As with so much in Italy, there is crisis and chaos but then, almost inexplicably, a solution is found and order is restored. After being escorted to our box, which we were sharing with two charming elderly Sicilian couples, we discovered that the tickets booked had none of the view explicitly promised to me on the website. The fundamental problem lay in the design of the auditorium. Pretty it was, but also pretty damn useless. The boxes are arranged in tiers in a horse shoe shape in front of the stage, meaning that those closest the stage looked directly at the box opposite. Given that all the boxes were partitioned, unless you are in the front row and able to lean over, ones view of proceedings is pretty limited.

Of course, this was not unique to this performance – it happens at every performance! But instead of pre-empting this most pre-emptable of situations, they continue to allocate seats with no consideration as to whether they actually offer a view of the stage. So after the first of the three acts, we joined tens of others in the extraordinary ritual of being escorted by an usher to see the manager and gaining his ascent (a knowing nod) for a seat change. After three lift rides and two botched box raids, we at last found ourselves with a wonderful view of the stage to enjoy the final two acts of a truly wonderful performance.


The most notable thing about Palermo’s museum of modern art is the absence of modern art. It has all the look of an institution that had been endowed with generous grants to restore the building, but then forgot it needed to fill it up with something.  I hazard a guess that on opening they launched an island-wide appeal for any old pictures people had in their attics and didn’t much like. With one or two exceptions it was all rather meagre – lots of lonely donkeys on hillsides and huge canvasses where the artist seemed to have become obsessed with the background and forgot to put a subject in.

The cafeteria, however, came strongly recommended, so we ventured there for some late lunch. Although not a vegetarian, after a couple of days of large meaty dinners, I chose the vegetarian lasagne. Not that it particularly bothered me, but half way through I noticed two large chunks of flesh in the dish in front of me. When the sweet waitress came to collect my plate, I pointed them out. She put on a sad face, drew two fingers down her cheeks to indicate tears, thought for a moment ( I was angling for a free espresso) and then exclaimed with a winning smile: “A special bonus!” And off she skipped.


A Friday visit to the antique dealers grouped together in a pedestrianized street close to the centre of the city. It was out of season, but most of the shops were open.  I didn’t spot anything to buy, but what did catch my eye were the numerous posters and flyers advertising ‘The biggest antiques market in Southern Italy’ on that very street at the weekend. Wow ,what luck!

So bright and early the next morning I set off, cash in my pocket, for some bargain hunting. But to my dismay, the street looked exactly the same as the day before. Where were all the stands overflowing with beautiful stuff, I wondered?

I enquired with one of the stall holders. The conversation went something like this:

‘Excuse me, but the big antiques fair advertised on the posters, is that here and is it today?’
‘Yes it is here. This is it,’ he answered.
‘But, it’s exactly the same here as it was yesterday.’
‘Yes,’ he said. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.


Twice in my life I have been sat in a vehicle and had to watch the tank being filled up by a petrol attendant holding a lighted cigarette in the same hand as the nozzle – Eastern Turkey in 1990 and Palermo in 2013.

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About Author Profile: Toby Ash

A former journalist, Toby now works a consultant in the private and humanitarian sectors. When not in deepest Cornwall or darkest London, he trots the globe taking stunning photos which you can see on his Instagram account - @toby_ash

6 thoughts on “Sicilian Diary

    December 19, 2013 at 10:54

    Well Toby, about the same time as you were gazing at that rather disturbing sight on a forecourt in Turkey, I was in Caracas, with plenty of toilet paper available, even in the Barrios/Ranchos. I was also on a forecourt, and what I saw was, in a way, even more chilling than your experience.
    The biggest 4×4 I had ever seen pulled-up and the tough-looking man that emerged from the cab simply grabbed the nozzle-gun, clicked it to auto-fill, and idly wandered over to the booth with a note. Halfway through the transaction the fuel started spurting out of the filler, as the tank was obviously full. This fact was conveyed to Mr Tough-Guy by the man in the booth by a slight lifting of his head, and a glance in the direction of the growing pool of leaded(as it was then). No particular alarm registered, either on his face or in his bearing; he simply waited for his change, and a packet of ten, only then drifting back to remove the spurting gun.
    Petrol was then about 3 pence a gallon (I think it is about 8 pence now), but I remember thinking to myself ‘One day, this will end in tears’. I think that day is fast approaching, as it would have done with or without the lunatic Chavez.

    December 19, 2013 at 11:34

    Thanks for this, Mr Ash. It renewed my desire to visit the island.

    With their vast roster of suppliers, they aren’t reliant on a local supply chain controlled by local bosses.

    There is a Sopranos episode in which two mobsters try and shake down a local coffee shop but find that it’s been sold to a multinational chain which would track down financial irregularities. The two men stroll out, look up and down the street and mutter, “What is happening to this neighbourhood?”

  3. Gaw
    December 19, 2013 at 12:20

    Fascinating and funny. More please. Perhaps you could go and live there for a while next? Or perhaps pop off for a few days to, say, Eastern Turkey or Venezuela?

  4. Worm
    December 19, 2013 at 14:50

    { insert token mention of Lampedusa’s The Leopard here }

    Lovely to read Toby, and has made me wander off to look at holiday websites for next year. I once had a sicilian friend in london who had moved to Britain after his parents discovered he was gay and had told him to leave before anything nasty should befall him at the hands of the intolerant local heavies. He’s a lawyer now.

    December 20, 2013 at 21:17

    Very well said,very true, sad and funny. I am Italian, love Sicily and I am glad that despite all our faults, foreigners still find it fascinating and charming.

  6. Brit
    December 20, 2013 at 22:08

    Lovely stuff, thanks Toby.

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