Protecting Palermo: How a group of students stood up to the Mafia

The Sicilian capital is on another planet from the deathly, Mafia-ridden city I visited 40 years ago

A young woman in a singlet flies by on her bike. A young man in full make-up sits at a bistro table. Two minutes off the airport bus and I realise that today’s Palermo, capital city of Sicily, is on another planet from the deathly, Mafia-ridden Palermo I visited as a student more than 40 years ago.

How? Why?

I go searching for answers, and one of them is “Addiopizzo”, a movement which for 20 years has run a campaign to stop businesses paying the “pizzo” or protection money to the Mafia. Time was, no one mentioned the “pizzo”, but the student founders of Addiopizzo tried to open a cafe and found a contingency for the “pizzo” built into the business plan.

They recruited 100 other Sicilian businesses prepared to stand up against the “pizzo”, and published their names.


The place erupted. The students found themselves in the midst of a national and international media frenzy, and a movement was born. Twenty years later, some of the founders are still involved in Addiopizzo and its offshoot, Addiopizzo Travel, which runs tours through Sicily’s Mafia history and makes sure none of the profit goes to Cosa Nostra.

So this is how I find myself standing outside Palermo’s stunning Teatro Massimo, one of the biggest opera houses in Europe, following Chloe Tucciarelli’s fascinating No Mafia tour of the city with Addiopizzo Travel.

It was in the Teatro Massimo that the final scenes from The Godfather Part III were filmed – scenes portraying a Mafia which is a far cry from the grim reality of Cosa Nostra: “You get Al Pacino, but we get Bernardo Provenzano…” laughs Tucciarelli. The theatre is also a symbol of the new Palermo. The anti-Mafia crusading mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, who welcomed refugees to Palermo when Italy was closing her doors, promoted the theatre’s refurbishment because he saw culture as a powerful tool against the Mafia.

People who love their city are likely to have the confidence to withstand intimidation. Part of Addiopizzo’s work is to help Palermitani fall in love with this fabulous city, which was founded by the Phoenicians in 734 BC.

It shouldn’t be hard. We’re walking through one of the largest and most authentic historic centres in any European city, through markets which recall Palermo’s Arabic era, and past palaces and churches which are a Norman legacy.

As Tucciarelli recounts the history of Cosa Nostra in the city, I begin to understand that the Palermo I visited in the early 1980s was a war zone: the Corleone-based Mafia had killed their way to the top of what she calls “the Mafia tupperware”, with little tubs of mafiosi nestling inside big ones.

Enter Palermo-born judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in the early 1980s, as part of a concerted attempt by the Italian state to defend itself from Cosa Nostra. We all know the Mafia penetrated to the highest level of government in Italy, from the former president of the Republic, Giulio Andreotti, down, but Falcone and Borsellino were working for the state too; Tucciarelli urges her Italian guests to seek out the “clean” politicians right across the spectrum, rather than give into apathy.

Falcone’s massive breakthrough came in 1983, when mafioso Tommaso Buscetta, who had lost 11 members of his family to the Mafia, began to talk. And so began the “maxi-trials” of 475 mafiosi from 1986 to 1992 in a “bunker” specially built beneath a prison in Palermo.

It took the Mafia’s horrific murder, in 1992, of Falcone and Borsellino – along with Falcone’s wife and eight police agents – to provoke the massive public demonstrations against Cosa Nostra which continue to this day. Sheets scrawled with the words, “Non li avete uccisi” (“You didn’t kill them”) were hung over balconies during the 30th anniversary of the massacre last year, and there are still related art and photographic projects all over the city.

It’s very hard to remember the bravery of those two men without a lump in your throat. As Giovanni Falcone predicted: “Our ideas will walk on other people’s legs.”

That’s what’s happening. Tourism in Palermo is booming and the city is blooming, recovering past glories and developing contemporary cool. Advised by Addiopizzo, I meander along twisting lanes under canopies of drying washing through the Capo Market, trying the local arancine – stuffed, fried balls of rice – on my way. Better still, because it is more multicultural, is the rougher Ballaro Market, where I find a whole family gaily roasting a lobster in the middle of the street.

The historic sights should definitely come after the sights on the streets, but they’re amazing nonetheless: the gold mosaics of the Capella Palatina form a Unesco Heritage Site and showcase of Arab-Norman architecture, along with the Cathedral of Monreale, easily accessible by bus, and the jaw-dropping Cathedral of Cefalu, accessible by a train which runs along the coast.

A visit to Palermo’s Archaeological Museum is a fascinating gallop through the tussles of Sicily’s early history, with Phoenicians and Greeks vying for pre-eminence until the coming of the Romans. As a symbol of the newly unified Italy in the late 19th century, a visit to the huge, gilded Teatro Massimo with its extravagantly decorated Royal Box is well worthwhile.

Sicily is considered the home of Italian street food and I mostly ate while walking, but after climbing to the roof of the Monastery of Santa Caterina I rewarded myself with a Sicilian “cannolo” filled with ricotta, chocolate and pistachios in the famous monastery bakery, I Segreti Del Choistro. The Al Fresco Bistrot in a shady garden near the Cathedral is not to be missed: informal, reasonably priced Sicilian fare cheerily served by ex-prisoners making the most of their second chance.

It’s a new Palermo in which Cosa Nostra has gone almost entirely underground. Less than half of the city’s traders now pay the “pizzo”, down from 80 per cent 20 years ago. These days, says Addiopizzo’s Chiara Utro, “There’s a choice”.

We all have mafias to defeat. We’re used to going to Italy to be inspired by the past, but exploring Palermo with Addiopizzo Travel inspires hope for the future. Because if Palermo can change, anywhere can.

In Palermo, Addiopizzo Travel ( run regular No Mafia walking tours in English, French and Spanish, as well as Italian, and tours exploring multicultural Ballaro Market, the Port and seafront and the history of the Inquisition; they organise No Mafia tours of Capaci where Giovanni Falcone was assassinated, which include meeting a witness, along with tours of the Mafia homeland, Corleone. They organise in-depth tours of the Greek city of Agrigento and the Baroque city of Modica, as well as Mount Etna tours and bespoke study tours for young people. The tours are all run by inspiring guides with a story to tell, and not a cent goes to Cosa Nostra.

There are regular Ryanair flights from Dublin to Palermo until November 1st.

*This article was amended on October 17th to correct the photography credits.