Palermo is a place that has always created many different pictures in my imagination. Palermo is the city of the Mafia, a word I’ve never really understood until I came to live here.
The Mafia is not a Hollywood stereotype; it is a tangible form of organised crime that has grown and developed together with the unification of Italy, which occurred relatively late for this European country in 1860.
The Mafia is the hidden underbelly of Sicilian crime, which exists because of a rigid system of honour, secrecy and silence. It is something everyone knows exists without really being able to pin down its hierarchy.
Sicily, the Mafia isn’t Marlon Brando, Al Pacino or Lucky Luciano, who are all American inventions. Organised crime on the island has its origins in Sicily’s history, which, apart from many invasions from foreign powers, embodies also much poverty and depression in a once primarily agriculturally based society.
The first Mafiosi were illiterate, malicious thugs who used any means to extract money for their organisations. These were and are people with no conscious, cold-blooded killers who did things like dissolve children in acid, cut up their victims, and feed their bodies to swine. Most of the last Bosses have been captured or died. There was a period when organised crime and terrorism was a problem in Italy.
Judges Falcone and Borsellino were the only ones to come close to understanding and arresting participants in Mafia crime in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, they were left without the support of the Italian parliament and the Italian justice system. They were isolated and went without the protection of the state, which led to their deaths in separate mafia bomb executions in 1992.
Falcone was killed while returning from Rome after being proclaimed the supreme head of mafia investigation, giving him absolute power in investigating mafia crime. His car was bombed by a truckload of explosives hidden under a highway bridge, detonated as his car and escort approached Palermo. Fifty-five days later, Borsellino was killed by a car bomb explosion while visiting his mother’s house.
After the anti-mafia trials and the deaths of Sicilian Judges Falcone and Borsellino, what was left of the Mafia went underground. The Mafia will not come knocking on your door; these days, they are probably more involved with politics, drug trafficking and significant development and business. I have never been asked for money.
When visiting Sicily’s bigger cities, you have to be more careful about petty crimes like pickpockets. The general understanding is not to carry anything too valuable with you, don’t be ostentatious, keep your valuables at your accommodation. Like in any big city worldwide, you need to keep your eyes open and be safe.
Generally, smaller towns and villages are pretty tranquil and safe. There are neighbourhoods to avoid in the major cities, together with train stations at night and periphery. Any run down area neglected areas are a sign of being careful. If you are a tourist, you won’t need to worry about going too far out of the way to visit the main sites.
Apart from the petty crime, I think the natural thing to worry about, especially if you buy a house in Sicily and Italy in general, is all the red tape. Real estate in Sicily is very reasonable compared to the US, UK or Australia. You can easily buy a villa or apartment for a fraction of the price, but what follows is worthy of a circle of Dante’s Inferno.
Anything like buying or selling a property or even renovations will take twice as long, even three times, as there will be a million problems. The ancient and positively baroque bureaucracy is a thing of beauty, designed by many centuries of history, and a lack of reforms will reduce anyone to tears of frustration. The paperwork, documentation requirements and fees will take forever to process. You will also be dealing with real estate agents who are very complicated sly characters who will want their generous cut. If the house needs any work, it’ll be hard to find good people to do the job; they will probably charge you way too much.
The real Mafia is the bureaucracy, real estate agents and workmen. The Italian culture of furbizia is the real danger.
Apart from the sinister elements of Palermo, this city is enthralling because it used to be one of the great cities of Europe. People would put it at the same level as Paris or London. I once read that Palermo is full of decaying grandeur which once used to welcome royalty during the Victorian period. Queen Victoria herself used to holiday in the city often.
I’ve always imagined Palermo to be a city full of sinister and beautiful contradictions, an intoxicating combination of elements that have made me want to visit and keep returning to explore. A strange concoction of deadly decaying grandeur.