La Cosa Nostra’s move into lucrative wind farm projects has transformed the island’s primitive landscape, writes Phil Stafford
“Sicily is blessed with sun and wind, but it is also cursed by the Mafia.”
So said one magistrate tasked with trying to keep track of organised crime’s recent moves into mainstream business in Italy.
With its traditional avenues of illicit income all but exhausted, the Sicilian Mafia has had to adapt.
But if you’re looking for tourist trinkets celebrating La Cosa Nostra (“our thing”) in Sicily, you’ll be disappointed. There are no black T-shirts with Mafia slogans, and to wear one would be asking for trouble.
Even so, evidence of the Mob is thin on the ground. You could say it’s as invisible as the wind.
On an island notable for its food, wine, olive oil and agriculture generally, green principles are even more in evidence when you look to the hills. Perched on mountains largely devoid of vegetation are more than a thousand wind turbines, with many more under construction – “even where there is not enough wind to turn them”, according to the Italian press.
Investing in wind farms is “the new business plan of La Cosa Nostra”, one magazine reported in 2009. Since then, the Sicilian Mafia has become a leading player in the island’s green economy, lured by Europe’s most generous incentives for sustainable industry.
Rossana Interlandi, head of Sicily’s environment department, says speculators are also exploiting a law that obliges Italy’s national grid operator to pay wind farm owners even when they are not producing electricity.
Now that the market for wind farms in Sicily approaches saturation, developers are eyeing solar power. But the regional government has responded by promoting microprojects for the island’s population of five million, so that individual households and companies can generate their own wind and solar power. Part of the logic of the strategy is to minimise Mafia involvement.
But there’s more than one reason to think small while in Sicily. If taking a driving holiday on the island, for example, make sure you hire the tiniest car possible.
You’ll find out why as soon as you exit the autostrada en route to Sciacca, a town of 40,000 snuggled along the island’s southwest coast. Suddenly you’ve been funnelled from four-lane highway into a thin ribbon of two-way blacktop, though remembering to keep right is not your only concern.
As you hit the fringes of Sciacca, a Mediterranean fishing port dating back to the 5th century BC, you soon realise the streets were never intended for motorised transport. To describe them as narrow is to overstate their size, as they’re barely wide enough for two small cars to pass safely.
While car rental companies recommend tucking in your side mirrors when parking, at least once I managed to click wings with a passing car while driving.
The Sciacca city grid was designed and built more than a thousand years ago by the Saracens with only pedestrians in mind – and it’s people on foot you need to be constantly aware of even now, as the absence of anything resembling footpaths means they will constantly step out in traffic, still believing shanks’s pony has unlimited right of way.
Women in black pushing prams display a particularly blithe disregard for traffic, and woe betide the driver who fails to observe the unwritten rules of passage. Always brake for those on the hoof, and never mind the chorus of tooting horns behind you as you do so.
Having survived the drive through town, head for the hills where various agriturismo (farm stay) operations are located. These are basically selfcatered apartments on rural properties serving as the ideal base for exploring what’s known as “African” Sicily, so named for its dry, sunny climate and proximity to the Tunisian coast.
Confusingly, on an island that has at varying times in its history been colonised by the Saracens, Arabs, Byzantines, Carthaginians, Phoenicians and Normans, the pervasive influence in this part of Sicily is actually Greek. Within easy reach of Sciacca are two breathtaking archeological sites, Selinunte and Agrigento, both of which date back beyond 500BC when the Greeks ruled much of the island.
Here you will find magnificent temples, Doric columns, tombs and amphitheatres in states of preservation that belie the passing of two-and-a-half millennia. Allow the better part of a day to explore each, though the far-flung ancient city of Selinunte is best seen by hiring a golf cart-like conveyance with a driver (some of these seat up to 12) at very reasonable cost, meaning the site can be covered in an afternoon.
The ruins here are spread across a far wider area than those of Agrigento, which can be appreciated entirely on foot. Recognise a pattern here, where pedestrians are king?
Our base for exploration was an agriturismo just five minutes’ drive from Sciacca on Via Monte Kronio. Known as Verdetecnica (“green way”), it’s a gated nest of six freestanding cottages and apartments on a rural property owned by the same family since 1830. Each accommodation option has its own entrance and private outdoor eating area with charcoal-fired barbecue, essential for cooking up the catch of the day from local Sciacca fishermen, sold from mobile outlets downtown.
There is a common garden with herbs, olive and citrus trees (the owners are landscape gardeners), mountain bikes to borrow and a communal room with espresso machine, internet access and a library of books, magazines, DVDs and CDs.
All digs are fully furnished and selfcontained, with a supermarket less than a kilometre down the road.
Sciacca, on the original archeological road that links Selinunte and Agrigento, is one of the oldest towns in Sicily, known for its restorative thermal spas, fishing, scuba diving, biking, trekking and ceramics.
Just 90km from the island’s largest airport in the capital, Palermo, Sciacca is relatively untouched by mass tourism – yet its 30km of coastline offers an array of marine environments, wide, sandy beaches, sheer cliffs and secluded coves.
Swimming, snorkelling, sailing and windsurfing can be enjoyed virtually year-round, and a central bagno (serviced) beach provides deckchairs, umbrellas, sunbeds and changing facilities.
A network of affordable restaurants laces the town, many of them trattorie (informal) or, even cheaper, osterie, basically home kitchen/diners open to the public. While an osteria menu is often restricted to whatever the chef/ owner has on hand, in a town rich with local seafood you’ll most likely be served fish fresh from the trawlers.
At establishments such as Osteria il Grappolo, where we dined on our last night in Sciacca, we were able to choose from a trolley laden with sardines, langoustines, swordfish, red snapper and tuna.
Unsurprisingly for a town that has long relied on its fishing industry and was founded in the 5th century BC as a thermal spa, the name Sciacca is thought to be derived from the Arabic “xacca”, meaning “water”.
The Saracens built the city walls and laid out the streets (read: footpaths), with the Normans later expanding the infrastructure grid.
Mirroring many other Italian cities throughout history, Sciacca was the centre of a bloody feud between rival baronial clans in the Middle Ages. It’s this kind of interfamilial conflict that gave birth to the Mafia.
Two years ago, Italian police descended on the western Sicilian city of Trapani, 100km from Sciacca, and arrested mobsters, businessmen and politicians who allegedly used corrupt practices and bribes to gain control of a project to build wind farms in Sicily.
Operation Aeolus, named after the ancient Greek god of winds, netted eight suspects from Trapani, the Italian mainland city of Salerno and Trento, a city in the country’s north. Investigators found that luxury cars and cash bribes had been offered to politicians to ensure a Mafia-backed company won the lucrative public contract to build the wind farms. These arrests were among several that have hurt the Sicilian Mafia and helped drive it further underground. And growing rebellion by the island’s businessmen against systematic extortion has made the activities of La Cosa Nostra even less visible.
What you can’t see probably won’t threaten you in today’s Sicily.
But what you can see, in places like Sciacca, Selinunte and Agrigento, will be the source of endless wonder.