In the crisp cold air of the hilly Italian village of Savoca, our boots tread on an old cobblestone pathway, the air ringing with a rather unnerving silence. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and people are at home with their families after mass, perhaps settling down for a leisurely Italian lunch with wine. The only people we see poking about the village is another couple like us, here for the same reason: to explore the town where Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal gangster movie The Godfather was filmed.
Savoca is a small town in Sicily (population less than 2,000); a convenient 45-minute drive in our rented Fiat from our hotel in Taormina. The first sight that greets us as we enter the village is the panoramic valley, barely 50ft away – confusing because we didn’t see this idyllic view in The Godfather. It hits us then: Coppola filmed his Sicily scenes in Savoca with his back to the lush valley, dotted with tiny villages, old stone buildings and winding, tree-lined roads. He also completely left out the Mediterranean Sea, visible just beyond the valley from Savoca.
Our first stop in town (technically it’s a comune or municipality) is Bar Vitelli, which is right at the entrance to the village at Piazza Fossia, facing the view that we have been admiring. It’s at this bar that Michael met Apollonia’s father (the bar owner Vitelli), and “asked” his permission to court the beautiful Apollonia. It took just the name of Don Vito Corleone, the head of the Corleone crime family, and the quiet yet intimidating manner of his successor Michael, to get Vitelli to approve of the match; more on the wedding in Savoca later. Bar Vitelli is shut for the season (Italian places of business tend to down shutters during winter), but we hear the limoncello here is to die for. It has the same rustic feel that it did in the movie decades ago, with hand-painted signage, octagonal wall lamps, an old wooden door and vines snaking all over the facade.
A metallic silhouette of Coppola stands across the piazza from Bar Vitelli, rather jarring against the picturesque view of the valley dotted with Sicilian homes and a glimpse of the sea. In the film You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan’s character asks, “What is it with men and The Godfather?” I never really understood the question until I briefed my fiancé about Sicilian towns we could possibly visit on our honeymoon. When I made a passing mention of Taormina and its proximity to Savoca, he could barely contain his excitement. “We have to go there,” he had said emphatically. And that was that.
The quiet village is turning out to be the perfect backdrop for a romantic side-trip on our two-week honeymoon. Luckily Sicily is never bitter cold, and so the sun’s gentle rays light up Savoca, with pots of brightly coloured flowers dotting street corners and parapets. The best way to explore Savoca is by foot, and we leisurely stroll around the town.
A steep walk up a hill from Piazza Fossia leads us to an old church the colour of espresso. As we pause outside to catch a breath, my husband says, “Ah, this was in the movie.” The church’s interiors were not shown in the film, but the doorway and its street is a dead giveaway. Michael married Apollonia kneeling on the doorstep of this church, called Chiesa di Santa Lucia (also Church of San Nicolo), surrounded by cherubic altar boys and gun-toting bodyguards.
After their wedding, the newlyweds walked down the street lined with well-wishers. We stroll down the same path hand-in-hand, only this time, the showered confetti and flowers are in our imagination – and behind us, the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean sea, carefully left out of the frame in the film.
One of Savoca’s few nods to the film is at the restaurant La Pineta (the owner played Apollonia’s flowergirl in the movie), where we head for lunch. There’s a Godfather menu, which includes Al Pacino’s Balls in the main course, but we decide to settle for tomato sauce with handmade pasta and steamed prawns cooked in a wine-based sauce. Since we’re driving back, we skip the wine. We are served some of the largest prawns we’ve seen, very fresh and delicately flavoured. Everything tastes better with the unpolluted mountain air.
Of course, there’s Godfather trivia beyond Savoca. The hilltop town of Forza d’Agro featured in the second film of the trilogy, is smaller than Savoca, but has a 16th-century castle and key Godfather locales such as the church of Sant’Agostino and the piazza that appeared as the town of Corleone in the film.
Some people make the mistake of visiting Corleone, the birthplace of Don Vito Corleone. But prepare to be disappointed – none of the films were shot there. Some diehard Godfather fans like my husband believe that Corleone was too dangerous at the time for filming (the irony!), but reportedly, the film’s crew found the town too developed to offer a small-town feel. You’d rather visit Teatro Massimo in Palermo instead, featured in the climax of The Godfather Part III. In the tense, masterfully directed finale, Anthony makes his opera debut, and the Corleone family watches from their seats, as enemies are vanquished inside the theatre and in the Vatican, while an assassin hunts down Michael. On the way back to Taormina, the husband is in high spirits now that his Godfather dream has come true, and asks me to shoot a video of him at the wheel. Half in jest, he addresses the video to our future kids and tells them they must visit Sicily, especially Taormina and Savoca. Around us are narrow streets filled with colourful Vespas and tiny cars, old churches and family-run trattorias – the Italy we’ve glimpsed in films and novels.
We make a last pit-stop before heading uphill to Taormina, stopping at a coastal town to walk down a rocky beach. I make a mental note to watch the second and third Godfather films, and perhaps re-watch the first, while my husband tells me he’ll be re-reading the books (for the ninth time). The sun sets over the calm Sicilian countryside, over its small charming towns and cheerful locals. My husband suddenly says, “Let’s save up for a house in Sicily. I want to retire here.” I’m a bit bewildered but after a few minutes of pondering, I say, “Why not?”
It’s been two years since we married, and yes, the Sicily Retirement Fund has begun.
The tourist season is in summer (June to August), but since Sicily isn’t as cold as other parts of Italy, a winter visit (December to February) will help you beat the crowds.
In Savoca, Piazza Fossia, Bar Vitelli, and Chiesa di Santa Lucia. In Forza d’Agro, Sant’Agostino and the surrounding piazza.
For Il Padrino (The Godfather) souvenirs, Taormina has the best choice of quirky T-shirts, key-chains and magnets. In Savoca, visit Chiesa Madre and the catacombs in the Capuchin Convent, which has mummified bodies of the town’s prominent citizens (for the strong-hearted only!). Also take a guided day trip to the dormant volcano Mt Etna. You could also go on a wine trail, sign up for a cooking class, and take a guided Vespa tour in Taormina. There are also tours of Sicilian farmhouses that can be booked online or through your hotel in Taormina.
The best way to reach Savoca and Forza d’Agro is to set up base in Taormina and rent a car for the day. Several major airlines fly to Rome and Florence from India, mostly via Middle East or western Europe. You can then catch an overnight train or fly to Catania. Several buses ply from Catania airport to Taormina (more often during summer). Savoca is 30km from Messina and 26km from Taormina; a one-way trip will be less than an hour. Since Forza d’Agro is 13km from Savoca, you can visit both towns on the same day.
If you’re renting a car (₹2,200-4,400 for a day), make sure you put everything in the boot when you park. Sicily is largely safe, contrary to popular belief, but theft is not uncommon. While rental agencies may have their own insurance, you can buy travel insurance before your trip from leading insurance providers. In most parts of Italy, you require an international driving license to rent a car. In Sicily, this rule is flexible, especially when you’re renting from local agencies. But it’s always good to plan for one before you leave India. You can use public transport to get to Savoca from Taormina, but you would need to change buses en route. Check with the tourist office in Taormina for bus schedules.
Apart from La Pineta and Bar Vitelli, Gelsonero on Strada Provinciale and Ristorante San Rocco on Via San Rocco in Savoca, offer great local cuisine.
There are limited hotel options in Savoca. You can stay at the B&B Il Padrino (from ₹4,300 a night) or the plush Borgo San Rocco Resort (₹8,000 onward). There are more hotel options in Taormina to suit a range of budgets. Taormina Garden Hotel is a great choice for budget travellers (₹4,200 onwards), while Hotel Taodomus and Maison Blanche offer great value for money (double rooms from ₹12,000 and ₹20,000 respectively). Grand Hotel Timeo is a more luxurious option (double rooms ₹45,000 onwards).
Several hotels, restaurants and other places of business in Italy shut shop in winter. There may also be fewer buses or guided tours at that time. If you’re planning to visit between November and March, please check with your hotel and on local websites beforehand. If you’re driving on your own and need mobile navigation, buy a prepaid SIM card with a 3G plan from leading telecom operators in Rome, Florence, Catania or Palermo.