Return to Sicily

By Michael Keyser

Having worked for a year on a book entitled Racing Demons – Porsche and the Targa Florio, which was published in September, I decided the most appropriate place to throw a small introduction party was at the “scene of the crime,” so to speak, which was Cefalu, Sicily.

In Collesano, the same view as the cover of Racing Demons

In Collesano, the same view as the cover of Racing Demons

Situated on the northern coast of the Island, an hour east of Palermo, Cefalu was an ideal spot to hold the party for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that it’s a beautiful town situated smack dab on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea. During the ‘50s and ‘60s the Porsche team was headquartered at the Hotel Santa Lucia in Cefalu, just a stone’s throw from the 44-mile Piccolo Madonie circuit where the original event was held.

Looking at the old pits from the grandstands

Looking at the old pits from the grandstands

The date I chose for the party, October 12, would coincide with the Targa Florio Classic which was being held during the weekend of October 11-13. The event was not an actual race, but a “regularity run.” The Porsche factory in Stuttgart was “allegedly” sending down a small armada of 911s, including the 1973 race-winning Martini RSR. Gerard Larrousse and Gijs van Lennep were “rumored” to be attending. So it seemed like the perfect time and place for an introduction party.

One of my co-authors, Enzo Manzo comes from Palermo and my other co-author Mark Koense is Dutch, living in The Netherlands. It would be easier for them to get to Cefalu than it would for me, living in Butler Maryland, but such is life.

Enzo Manzo and Michael Keyser at Bivio Caltavuturo

Enzo Manzo and Michael Keyser at Bivio Caltavuturo

Although I’d never met him, for many years I’d been friends by phone and through e-mail with a unique individual living in Cefalu named Francesco Liberto, better known by his nickname “Ciccio.” In his late 70s, Ciccio is a shoemaker par excellence, specializing in crafting handmade driver’s shoes. Among his clientele are such names as Andretti, Arnoux, Elford, Ickx, Laffite, Lauda, Merzario, Reggazoni, Siffert, Vaccarella, etc., etc. Need we say more. However, what Ciccio makes are more than shoes. They’re works of art, many in two-tone leather with elaborate airbrushed graphics. Cheap, they’re not. He recommended we stay at the Sea Palace, a hotel just a short jog from his store on the Lungomare G. Giardina, the street that fronts the sea.

The Sea Palace where my wife Beth and I were assigned the best suite in the hotel.

The Sea Palace where my wife Beth and I were assigned the best suite in the hotel.

I pulled up the Sea Palace web site which had dozens of photos showing the hotel, inside and out, from top to bottom. It was a very modern, four-story white structure with a pool and a beach, and appeared, from what I saw and read, to have the capability to host a party. In short, it looked perfect.

My initial e-mail inquiry to the Sea Palace was returned quickly, answering all my questions. Yes, they had rooms on the dates specified, and yes they could cater a party on their roof terrace. Great! They would provide the food and drink at a per-person cost, and sent what sounded like a sumptuous feast of Sicilian delicacies and wines. Excellent! I told them there’d probably be about 50 people, but that number might increase. No “problemo,” they assured me. With the party all but arranged after no more than a few key strokes, I needed to book rooms.

Enzo Manzo was from Palermo, so he wouldn’t need one, but in addition to myself and my wife Beth, my co-author Mark Koense from The Netherlands was planning to attend with his wife and three young children, and my friend Jonathan Williams, with whom I’d written A French Kiss With Death in 1999, was coming from the south of Spain with his friend Linda Shelley. Jonathan had driven in the Targa four times, in four different marques, and finished each year, his highest placing being 4th in 1967 in a Ferrari Dino 206 S. Finally, Daniel Munarriz a talented artist and a longtime friend, was flying down to join us from Germany.

Working with Ciccio and Enzo, I compiled a list of people who we felt should be invited to the party. Aside from Ciccio and Enzo, I didn’t really know anybody in Sicily. I hadn’t been there since 1972, more than forty years ago, when I raced in the penultimate Targa Florio. So the list consisted mainly of their friends and acquaintances, as well as people who’d contributed photographs for the book who lived in the area, a group of Sicilians who’d driven Porsches “back in the day,” several journalists and artists, and most important of all, Nino Vaccarella the local hero and two time winner of the event, who lived in Palermo. Invitations were sent out, and over a period of weeks the estimated number of 50 grew until it was approaching 100. Also on board was an Englishman named John Philips and a dozen of his friends. John had supplied some photos for the book and his group was planning to attend the Targa Florio Classic. Several of them had raced at the event in the 60s and 70s. The more the merrier.

Jonathan Williams, Nicholas Koense and Nino Vaccarella. Nino holds a model of the Ferrari P330 he drove in 1967.

Jonathan Williams, Nicholas Koense and Nino Vaccarella. Nino holds a model of the Ferrari P330 he drove in 1967.

I’d made the decision to give the party about a month and a half before the event, but in the interim the MAC Group, the outfit organizing the Targa Florio Classic, had encountered “financial difficulties,” for lack of a better phrase. Some hotels and suppliers from the previous year’s event had yet to receive payment, it seemed. I won’t go into the sordid details. To make a long story short, the event never happened. As it turned out, this didn’t affect our party one bit. A run around the circuit on Saturday was organized by the Automobile de Palermo at the last minute for those entrants who’d shown up wondering “what the hell was going on and how do we get refunds on our entry fees?” Threats of law suits were rumored. The only trace I saw of any event was a maroon, pre-war Alfa Romeo with decals and number circles parked outside our hotel late Saturday afternoon.

Beth and I left Baltimore on Tuesday, October 8, and some 22 hours later, on Wednesday afternoon, we arrived at the Sea Palace in Cefalu. Jonathan Williams and Linda Shelley made it in from Spain that evening, and the following afternoon Daniel Munarriz, and Mark Koense, with his tribe in tow, completed our group. None of us had arrived at the same time, so MediTravel, the Cefalu-based car service, was coining money during these airport-to-hotel trips. I’d rented an 8-passenger Mercedes Vito van from MediTravel, and on Friday morning Enzo Manzo met us at the hotel in his car, and in two vehicles our group of eleven set out for a lap of the old circuit.

A short distance west of Cefalu, just below Campofelice, the road branches off onto highway 113, or what was known as the Buonfornello Straight back in the day. The road hadn’t changed much over 40 years as there’s now a new four lane highway that runs parallel to this stretch of the old circuit along the sea. I can’t say I remember much about the Buonfornello Straight from 1972. It’s still long and straight and narrow, with a series of diabolically fast weaving curves at the end. I DO remember those.

Enzo Manzo and Jonathan Williams with the statue of Vincenzo Florio

Enzo Manzo and Jonathan Williams with the statue of Vincenzo Florio

We stopped at the old pit and grandstand complex below Cerda and took a massive number of photos. Daniel, Mark and I all had cameras. What was known as Floriopolis years ago is now in a sad state of disrepair, with the stucco crumbling off the cement buildings and trash scattered everywhere. I was disappointed to see that the statue of Vincenzo Florio in the grandstand area that I’d assumed was solid bronze was in fact made from some sort of hollow metal, possibly tin. To add insult to injury, it was splattered with bird droppings. From what Enzo told me, there’s neither money nor enthusiasm to clean things up, which is rather sad.

We continued on to Cerda, where we found the Targa Florio museum, one of three on the circuit, closed. The town looked vaguely familiar, although the main street, which was taken almost flat by those who dared, as I recall, seemed ridiculously narrow. After Cerda, the road climbs and dives through endless switchbacks, which rang a distant bell. In many places the asphalt was in terrible shape with sections collapsed or missing as a result of heavy rain and land slides. It was in far better condition forty years ago, and a race certainly couldn’t be staged on it today without extensive work. It was in this section that I recall catching a 911 that had started 30 seconds in front of me. I remember it had a Liqui Moly sticker on the rear bumper.

The main street in Cerda

The main street in Cerda

We stopped again at Bivio Caltavuturo, which I distinctly remember. I’d been on the tail of the Liqui Moly 911 for some time, and I think at this point he was looking in his rearview mirror when he should have been looking ahead. The circuit takes a sharp left here, and he must have braked too late, as he spun in front of me and disappeared into a field. I tuned left and continued on my merry way.

From this point, until the town of Collesano, I drew almost a complete blank. I know I’d driven the road in 1972, but nothing looked familiar. I did remember the famous horseshoe turn in Collesano, where the steep hill to the right was crawling with spectators during the race. A short distance after the horseshoe, we stopped and I took a shot of the same turn in the town with the high wall on the right that is on the cover of Racing Demons. Not much had changed.

From Collesano to Campofelice I drew another blank, and before we knew it we were back on the Buonfornello Straight. Enzo had made a reservation at a restaurant called the Baglio Himera (no idea what that means) that was located along this section of the circuit. Next to the restaurant, was a small unassuming building on which a fancy brass plaque had been affixed. The wording on the plaque read, “BENE CONFISCATO ALLA MAFIA” or “WELL CONFISCATED FROM THE MAFIA.” A message from the powers that be to the other powers that be that crime doesn’t pay. The food and wine at Baglio Himera were excellent and the walls were covered with photos of the Targa from years past, a perfect backdrop for our meal.

The weather had been all but perfect since we arrived, with only an occasional rain shower to clear the air. The rest of the time it was sunny and warm. We took a walking tour of the town on Saturday and spent some time at the beach and pool and then it was time for the party.

Mauro Lombardo, the owner of the Sea Palace, was a friend of Ciccio’s and a car enthusiast, and from the moment we walked through the door we’d been treated like royalty. Beth and I had been assigned the best suite in the house on the top floor of the hotel with a fantastic view of Cefalu, dominated by its twin-spired cathedral. The entire staff couldn’t have been nicer and more helpful, and everything ran like a well-tuned Ferrari.

The view of downtown Cefalu from our room

The view of “downtown” Cefalu from our room

The party was held on the beautiful roof terrace atop the hotel and I literally didn’t have to lift a finger with regard to organization. They’d obviously done this many times before. I’d arranged for 50 books to be shipped to Cefalu by our European distributor, Chaters, and thankfully they all arrived unscathed. In addition, Brumm Models, an Italian company I did consulting work for had sent a large box of 1:43 scale models of the Porsche 550 Umberto Maglioli had driven to victory in 1956 and the Ferrari P330 Nino Vaccarella raced in 1967. My friend Daniel Munarriz had also designed a special poster celebrating the eleven Porsche victories at the Targa. All these goodies were laid out and waiting when the first guests arrived at 7:30. For me the party was pretty much a blur.

Michael Keyser with Nino Vaccarella

Michael Keyser with Nino Vaccarella

Although I did my best to keep track of names and faces, that was impossible. I’m sure I introduced myself to the same people more than once. At one point, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk at length with Nino Vaccarella, and as I’d spent a good bit of my youth in Italy, I spoke Italian fluently, so language was not a problem. During our conversation, he mentioned that he just happened to have a house for sale in the area and that he’d give me a special “friendly” discount. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted.

Michael Keyser cuts the #23 Porsche 911 cake

Michael Keyser cuts the #23 Porsche 911 cake

Mark, Enzo and I gave short speeches, waxing poetic about the Targa and thanking all those who’d helped with the book. Having worked in Italy for Ferrari at one time, Mark spoke Italian as well. Nino gave a very nice speech, thanking us for producing the book which he said was important as it helped keep the memory of the Targa alive. To cap things off, the chef at the hotel made a large cake in the shape of my yellow #23 Porsche 911 from 1972 in which Jurgen Barth and I had finished 10th. I was told a good time was had by all, which appears to be the case from several film clips of the party that were posted on YouTube. As I said, it all went by in a blur.

On Sunday, we paid a visit to Ciccio’s store where he pulled autographed shoes of one famous driver after another out to show us. Particularly impressive were a pair of red ones made from python skin for Arturo Merzaio!

Francesco Liberto (Ciccio) holds a pair of shoes he made for Arture Merzario, winner of the 1972 Targa Florio.

Francesco Liberto (Ciccio) holds a pair of shoes he made for Arture Merzario, winner of the 1972 Targa Florio.

He also gave me a bottle of Marsala wine, the same type made by Vincenzo Florio’s family many years ago. “Drink some of this before you have sex,” he told me. “You’ll erupt like Mt. Etna.” I haven’t tried it yet. Coincidentally, Mt. Etna began spewing ash and lava a few days after we left!!

On Monday, Jonathan, Linda, and Daniel left and, at the crack of dawn (4 a.m.) on Tuesday, Beth and I were taken by MediTravel (again) to the Palermo airport. Mark and his family departed the same day at a more reasonable hour.

Our week in Cefalu had flown by in what seems an instant. At least we have many photos of our brief time there to help us remember what a memorable time it was.

An array of drivers shoes hand made by the famous Cicciro.

An array of drivers shoes hand made by the famous Cicciro.