New don for Sicily: Fattoria Corleonese
DAILY MAIL: The Mafia are going. Bring on the tourists!
PIZZAS poured from the wood-fired oven but the chef still had time to hiss under his breath as he deftly swept them into cardboard boxes for takeaway: 'Turisti. Inglese.' Fascinated locals spun round for a look at the 'English tourists.' Well, we were Scottish but we let it slide. Here we were in Corleone and it was nice to be something of a novelty attraction, nodding as the locals wished us 'Buona sera' as they left the restaurant.
So why were we such a star turn in a town with a name recognised the world over thanks to Mario Puzo's fictional Godfather? For a start, the real Corleone is also intertwined with the very real Mafia - the Corleonesi clan having taken control of organised crime in Sicily and America.
So tourists come to Corleone, many of them Americans fancying that their forefathers left here because of blood feuds and not just poverty. But most hop off the coach, pause long enough to buy a Godfather coppola - a kind of hat - as a souvenir and move on.
We were different, in town in the evening because we were staying nearby. But surely the heart of Mafia country in the hills 40 or so miles south of Palermo is an odd choice for a family holiday? Not if you want a real sense of being in a foreign country. It's possible to sit in any of the northern cities, or even in Rome, sip a G&T and hear more Home Counties accents than in Kensington.
Not so Sicily. The landscape is both spectacular and unique. Great peaks soar from fertile plains and all around Corleone rock pinnacles jut out from the soil like the bones of some long-dead great beast.
The roads wind and sweep through the hills offering tantalising vistas one minute and hemming you in with great rockfaces the next. Little villages cling to the top of great mounds of jagged rock.
You're close to Africa here and that shows up in unusual ways. There are lots of chillies on the menu and you're likely to get a handful of sultanas thrown over your pizza - sounds crazy but it's an unlikely stroke of genius.
Corleone is close to bustling Palermo - well worth a visit but expect a white-knuckle ride if you're driving; its traffic is seriously daunting - and within striking distance of the gorgeous beaches where many tourists spend their entire stay.
But they are missing out. We stayed at the flawless Fattoria Corleonese, in the heart of a bustling working estate producing cheese and olive oil. Our beautifully furnished and equipped apartment was part of a building that's still a family home, built around a dramatic and ancient courtyard yet with all mod cons - if we could just drag ourselves off the sun-drenched patio...
Our elegant hosts had provided us with a table groaning with local fruit, bread and their own magnificent pecorino cheese, made from sheep's milk and with a glistening, salted crust. There was also a bottle of a luscious Tancredi wine from the Donnafugata estates just a few miles away towards Marsala.
The draw of the swimming pool, set in an olive grove and just a short stroll out of the main courtyard and through delightful gardens, was strong.
But there was exploring to be done and so we took our Ford from Avis - public transport is problematic, so renting a car is advisable - into Corleone.
There are outlying parts of the town that look pretty unattractive - much of western Sicily got knocked about a bit during the war. The centre of town, though, is different. The streets are an exciting jumble in the way that only medieval towns, never designed with the car in mind, can be.
The whole place is a mass of hills but it's great fun to wander, getting lost up little stairways and marvelling at the higgledy-piggle way the town has grown.
As well as plenty of tourist-trap shops selling Godfather tat, there are supermarkets, chic designer outlets and no end of churches. For all its Mafia links, Corleone is known as 'the town of 100 churches' - all old and mostly with amazing architecture.
Hungry travellers can find everything from a quick bowl of linguini and a beer to formal dining. Choice is a little limited but you do feel you're getting authentic local fare.
And part of that is cracking Sicilian wine. The whites are refreshing on days when the sun is blazing while the reds, often using the Nero D'Avola grape native to Sicily, are a complex taste treat.
The Donnafugata estates have blended modern know-how with ancient techniques and a real feel for Sicilian ground and grapes to craft delightfully drinkable wines.
Prices? Expect to be shocked both by how little you'll pay here and how much more you pay for inferior rubbish back home.
For a change from the pool, we headed south to the coast.
We took our first dip in the sea on a sandy beach on the edge of Selinunte and then dined on fish at a restaurant right on the sand, the catch of the day having arrived just moments before us.
We then struck out for Agrigento and another spectacular sandy beach - we had it all to ourselves - before making for the area's big draw, the Valley of the Temples.
The sheer scale of these Greek ruins is astonishing. Even the children, who - let's be honest - don't do history, were dumbstruck.
Let the Yanks pretend they are the scions of Mafia dynasties. Here you can become part of Sicily's aristocracy, lovers of art and fine food, wine and conversation.
All of which is now within much easier reach thanks to Ryanair, who fly in to Trapani on the west coast.
If you're looking for a holiday within Europe that makes you feel like you're in a different world, sizzling Sicily ought to be high on your list.
PATRICIA KANE TRAVEL FACTS Part of soloSicily's new collection of budget villas with pools, Fattoria Corleonese (sleeps 6) starts at [pounds sterling]1,158 per week, rising to [pounds sterling]1,990 in August). www.soloSicily.com.
Fly with Ryanair to Trapani from London Stansted, from [pounds sterling]12.99 one way. New route from London Luton starts March 29, from [pounds sterling]14.99 one way. See www.ryanair.com For Avis, see www.avis.com