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Anne's Travel Notes - Palermo's Welcoming Nobility
This year the weather was unseasonably cool during our annual visit to my husband Pino's family in Palermo, Sicily, so we combined time at the seaside with visits to a few of Palermo's "hidden" artistic treasures: privately-owned Noble Palazzi (palaces). An article in an Italian art magazine had caught my eye: a couple of Palermo's privately-owned palaces are open for visits by appointment only, two others on a few set dates. I made some calls, even speaking directly with a young Baroness and a delightful Count. I said that I was an Americana married for many years to a Palmeritano and long-fascinated with the art and history of bellissima Palermo. The doors opened graciously in each case: an invitation to visit.
Our first visit was to Palazzo Aiutamicristo where we were warmly welcomed by charming Baronessa Maria (28 years old), standing in for her vacationing parents, Baron and Baroness Calefati di Canalotti. Their family has owned the palace since the 18th century.
The late 15th century Palazzo has hosted nobility for centuries. The vast and magnificent frescoed ballroom must have been the setting for many a sumptuous event. Appropriately, the 200 square meter room (about 2000 square feet) is crowned with a ceiling fresco called "The Glory of the Virtuous Prince". The ballroom opens on to a flowered terrace and here breakfast is served to guests of the palace B&B: the Baron and Baroness have transformed two rooms of the palace for visitors. Small rooms of simple charm with low wooden-beamed ceilings: certainly once the servants' quarters (high ceilings and frescoes are not in that part of the palazzo!).
At Villa Tasca, not just a couple rooms, but an entire floor of the sumptuous residence may be rented. The elegant spacious rooms look out over the splendid botanical garden of rare plants which grace the contours of the pool.
We toured the home and grounds thanks to the kindness of the villa director, Signor De Grandi, who has been right-hand man to Count Lucio Tasca D'Almerita for some years (all of the Tasca family was involved that day in preparation for the grape harvest at their famous vineyards, Regaleali, in the hills about an hour from Palermo). Pino enjoyed De Grandi's stories and reminisces as much as our fascinating tour of the Villa and grounds: De Grandi (in his late 80's and still in top form) had played for the Palermo and Milan soccer teams!
Pino's sister Marilena and her husband Filippo joined us the next day for our visit to Palazzo Gangi-Valguarnera. In the mid-18th century, the prince and princess of Gangi, Pietro and Marianna Valguarnera (ancestors of the present owners), commissioned the most famous artists in Sicily to transform their 15th century home into a showpiece of splendor and elegance.
Here in 1882, guest Richard Wagner composed the first bars of "Parsifal" and wrote in his farewell letter to his hosts, "I shall not think of leaving Sicily, dear Prince, until I have thanked and ensured you that I shall take with me the most precious memory of your kindness and of Palazzo Gangi".
In 1963, Luchino Visconit decided to film the magnificent ballroom scene of "Il Gattopardo" here, in the Hall of Mirrors, described by Louis Bertrand, "..a vast room ... Rococo style: a masterpiece of Baroque design with golden fittings and doors entirely painted ... with fresh flowers ... The ceiling is hung, like a forest of stalactites, with splendid Murano chandeliers, the like of which I have never seen before" (nor had we!).
Palazzo Conte Federico
When I called Palazzo Conte Federico, the Count himself answered the phone and invited us to come the next day to join in the guided visit and reception that he and the Countess were offering for a group. Our nephew, Tommaso, native Palermitano and passionate about the history and art of Palermo, joined us. Tommaso is well-acquainted with the history of the 17th and 18th noble palaces of his city and was pleased to have the chance for an "inside look" (literally!).
When we arrived, Countess Alwine (stately young Austrian and champion swimmer) was offering the group an introduction to the history of the family and the palace, first in Italian and then in English. The group then divided into two parts and one group toured with Countess Alwine and one with Count Federico, each one graciously and most personably sharing the wonders of their palazzo, one of the oldest in Palermo. Its foundations are built on the Punic-Roman city walls that once surrounded ancient Panormus. The 12th century south tower is of Norman-Arab origins.
Architectural details of the palace incorporate various periods: from a medieval bipartite window, to the Renaissance coffered wooden ceiling, to the grand inlaid red marble Baroque staircase. Our hosts showed us fascinating collections of antique ceramics, of armor and even of the staff livery of centuries ago.
After our tour, we all gathered for a refreshment of fine local wines and typical Palermitano savories and sweets. Serving us professionally and in uniform were young students from the nearby catering school where Countess Aldwine teaches German.
After the group left, Pino, Tommaso and I joined Alwine (the title drops when the groups leave!) and the Count in their study lined with the Count's racing memorabilia. Conte Federico races vintage cars and has participated numerous times in the Targa Florio, the oldest car race in the world. The three men talked enthusiastically about races while Alwine showed me the three charming rooms which are now used for an "in-Palace" B&B. A stay there would be the perfect fusion of elegant surroundings with warm, familial hospitality.
www.annesitaly.com: Read Anne's article "Tasting Sicily" for more on Sicilian culinary traditions
www.regione.sicilia.it/turismo/: Sicily for Tourists, from the Sicily Tourist Office
www.cntraveller.co.uk/Guides/Italy/Palermo/: Conde Naste Traveller guide to Palermo
www.grifasi-sicilia.com: Palaces, Castles and Villas of Sicily
www.entasis.it: Photos of Palazzo Aiutamicristo
www.luxuryretreats.com: You can rent the sumptuous apartment in Villa Tasca for a sumptuous price.
www.contefederico.com: Palazzo Conte Federico
© Anne Robichaud, 2005. Do not republish without permission.
This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.
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