Palermo has shaken off Mafia stigma and is now city full of vibrant culture

Sunday morning is when the Sicilian mammas stock up their larders.

Stalls in Palermo’s medieval streets are piled high with tarrochi (blood oranges), artichokes and aubergines the size of melons.

Red tuna, swordfish, sardines and octopus are laid out under theatrical lights. The banniare, the noise of traders shouting out prices, drowns out conversation.

Say cheese: A delicatessen at Ballaro Street Market in Palermo, one of many such stalls

It could be an Arab souk but for the numerous churches along the way, their architecture a testament to the many empires that have ruled Sicily over the millennia — Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Normans, Moors.

‘Un cappuccino per favore,’ I ask as we sit at a cafe on Piazza Marina. The smile on the waitress’s face freezes and she shakes her head. Drinking cappuccino after midday is blasphemy, explains my Sicilian companion.

Palermo once had a reputation for Mafioso-inspired gangland shooting. Happily, the city centre is now largely trouble-free and the Mafia is a subject for tours.

My guide, Stefano, a 30-something musician, is an addiopizzo activist (goodbye to protection money), an organisation created after five students wanting to set up a bar were told to include pizzo payments in their business plan. Furious, they pasted addiopizzo stickers all around the city.

This rallying call became a catalyst for change with shops and restaurants sticking up their own ‘leave us alone’ notices, with customers showing their support.

Today, the round stickers are displayed in most windows and the Mafia is in retreat.

Stefano meets us on the steps of Teatro Massimo opera house (as seen in The Godfather Part III), before leading us through back streets and markets.

At Piazza 13 Vittime, where marble and steel pillars have been erected in memory of 13 Mafia victims, he gets emotional. ‘This territory does not belong to the Mafia,’ he says stamping his foot.

Rich in history: Palermo's architecture is testament to the empires that have ruled Sicily

Rich in history: Palermo’s architecture is testament to the empires that have ruled Sicily

Later, we refuel at one of the city’s oldest restaurants, Antica Focacceria di San Francesco, which serves some of the best local food. Palermo is famous for such specialities as chick pea fritters, spleen sandwiches and pasta omelette.

Around every corner there is a square reflecting some aspect of the city’s multicultural past. The most ostentatious is the Renaissance fountain with its Francesco Camilliani sculptures.

The naked figures shocked the nuns of Saint Catherine who could see it from their convent and it is still known as the Fontana della Vergogna — the Fountain of Shame.

We are staying near the ancient city of Marsala about an hour’s drive west, in one of the Scent Of Sicily villas. It’s a newish company, growing rapidly under the stewardship of Renato and his wife, Patrizia. With 50 villas on their books, they are opening up this north-eastern area of Sicily to family holidays.

Local life: Hire a Sicilian family's home, such as the Baglio Marausa villa (pictured)

Local life: Hire a Sicilian family’s home, such as the Baglio Marausa villa (pictured)

Thanks to its rich cultural heritage, attractive landscape, vineyards famous for the sweet dessert Marsala wine, and blue-flag sandy beaches, we are bound to hear more of it in the next few years.

The villas are generally owned by Sicilian families who move out in the holiday season, so their homes are stuffed with furniture, photos, memorabilia and quirky collections. For some, the idea of living among personal possessions can be a turn-off. For others, it is part of the appeal. What could feel more Sicilian than living in a real Sicilian home?

Spring starts early in Sicily and it’s still warm enough to swim in November. Holiday bookends well worth remembering.

Travel Facts: Get feasting in Sicily 

Ryanair (, 0871 246 0000) flies from Stansted to Palermo from £29 return.

Scent Of Sicily (, 0039 0923 1963001) offers a week in the ten-person Baglio Marausa villa near Marsala from £1,768.