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Here’s why I think Sicily is a great holiday destination

by Staff

One of my favourite Sicilians is a man in his 80s named Franco Valone, who lives on a farm near the town of Alcamo. One Easter he brought me to the ricotta cheese maker in the hills beyond his house, then on to the butcher where Franco’s name was inscribed on a tag on half a lamb hanging in the cool room. Later he took me to the fish shop that he described as a jewellery shop and then to the growers of the artichokes that I helped him prepare for the barbeque. 

Licked with herbs, garlic and olive oil together with the wild asparagus his wife, Enza, picked around their house, this was only the start of the feasting that lasted for days on end in Alcamo. Along with these endless dishes, Franco imparted a philosophical gem that has stayed with me: “never underestimate the power of giving.”

Along with cooking, the Sicilians are very good at giving and the table is their preferred expression of generosity. Proud of their beautiful island and the life it affords them, they want the traveller to experience the best of everything they can offer. On my most recent trip to Sicily, I feel this remarkable sentiment extended to me once again.

I am staying at the Neo-Gothic Villa Igiea, where the city meets the sea, about 15-minutes’ drive outside the capital, Palermo. A magnificent art nouveau villa, it was built in 1899 as a home for the noble Florio family who made their fortunes from ship building and the famous Florio Marsala.

The original intention was to build a sanatorium for their daughter, who had tuberculosis but instead they turned it into a hotel, hosting dignitaries, royals and celebrities. It was requisitioned as a hospital during the war, before returning to its business as a hotel, which gradually fell into disrepair until the Forte Hotel group swept in to rescue it in 2019.

Villa Iglea in Sicily

Designed by architect Ernesto Basile, Villa Igiea is a fine example of Art Nouveau style, much of it rescued and renovated by the Forte hotelier family, with fine examples of floral frescos in its salons and beautifully curved wooden furniture including its magnificent staircase. It has an understated Belle Epoque beauty and a warm, welcoming hotel team providing a tranquil refuge from the slightly frenetic Palermo.

Positioned in the middle of the Mediterranean, 9km off mainland Italy and just 200km from north Africa, Sicily’s architecture, food and culture is testament to centuries of influence of settlers and invaders, from the Phoenicians, Ancient Greeks and Arab dynasties and, more recently fanatical fans of the White Lotus Netflix series. The resulting cultural cauldron is a dizzying and heady sensory experience and nowhere is it more visible than in Palermo, particularly in its historic district of Kalsa.

The Sicilian sense of pride and generosity is immediately evident in the noble palace of Palazzo Butera in the Kalsa district, now owned and renovated by Francesca and Massimo Valsecchi where they live amongst their astounding art collection. Open and welcoming, the palazzo offers an immersive cultural experience.

“You will notice that there are no exhibit labels,” says Claudio Gulli, art historian and the palazzo’s curator. “This is because we invite you to engage with the web of associations [salons, frescoes, furniture, pictures, displays, and objects] on show. We invite you not to give in to the temptation to search out the most famous works but ask you to enjoy, above all, the fruits of your own intuitive gaze.”

Palermo, Sicily
Palermo, Sicily

There is a myriad of rooms, often painted in spectacular colours, that extend from one to the next without corridor. In one, the ceiling has been left unfinished to show the craftsmanship in the buttresses and curved plaster.

On the staircase I encounter an unassuming, elegant lady with flowing blond white hair quietly greeting people as she descends. Claudio introduces me to Francesca Valsecchi, the chatelaine whose presence brings an intimacy to this palazzo visit. It’s exquisite here, and all to be enjoyed for a mere €9.

Just around the corner I encounter another little treasure, Atelier Manima. Born out of a desire to protect the local hand-embroidered tradition typically practiced by women female for over a millennium, Carolina Guthmann, a former Merck executive and her husband, former journalist Piero di Pasquale, have created a platform that has brought together individual, highly skilled embroiderers. Usually working on their own at home on the mountainside or in tiny villages, the atelier allows them to connect with designers and one another.

The aim is to preserve this heritage while tackling the high rate of female unemployment in Italy by drawing on skills that have been hiding in rural communities. Carolina and Pietro use digital technology to enable the process which they are extending to the whole of Italy and then worldwide. Displaying intricate pieces of clothing, cushions and table wear as well as art, I stand and watch two embroiderers immersed in their needlework.

The relaxed and colourful Liola restaurant at Verdura Resort
The relaxed and colourful Liola restaurant at Verdura Resort

Next day I head southwest to the Mediterranean coastline for some sun at Verdura Resort, near the seaside town of Sciacca. Also in the Forte portfolio, this thoughtfully built hotel sits on 230 hectares of coastline. My large sea view room (they all have sea views and some have private pools) is grouped with others in smaller, separate buildings each named, after plants with fruit-bearing orange trees outside.

A change of pace from Villa Igiea, it offers all you’d expect from a luxury resort while retaining a cohesive and curated sensibility. There’s a happy mix of families, golfers, spa and sun seekers, trekkers, and gourmands alike with lots of space for everyone. Two golf courses, including their award-winning links course with the sea on one side and olive groves on the other, are complemented by tennis courts, water sports and loungers at the beach away from the infinity pool bathers.

Rocco Forte’s daughter, Irene, has designed an eponymous Spa concept for their hotels. Stylishly conceived, there are four thalassotherapy pools of varying salt density and temperatures, an indoor pool, fitness suite, and impressive double height steam room as well as lots of glorious treatments. If you are not the spa-going type the rooms are stocked with Irene Forte’s natural skincare products. Simply showering in your spacious bathroom is a real treat, I would return just for the apricot shower gel alone.

Valley of the Temples
Valley of the Temples

The area is home to Scala Dei Turchi, a gleaming marl cliff formation dropping to a white sandy beach. Near the historic town of Agrigento, the Valley of the Temples enthrals with its Hellenic temples dating from before 400BC.

The Temple of Concordia is the finest example of a Greek temple in the world and features as the UNESCO logo. Remarkable and impressive, it’s a striking reminder of Sicily’s rich history.

At Verdura, the Sicilian hospitality is warm and authentic, expressed in the friendliness of the people, staff who are sincerely interested in having a conversation rather than a reeled off greeting. I dine like a bona fide Contessa at all three restaurants; fine dining Zagra, Amare serving exquisite fresh seafood and at Liola, a relaxed, colourful restaurant with traditional Sicilian food and on the sun-dappled terrace which serves an exceptional breakfast.

With a warm embrace, Sicily has once again enveloped me, taking me into its folds like a much-loved member of the family that must be nourished and cared for.

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