“To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily,” wrote Goethe, “is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.” Sitting off the toe of the Italian boot, the island is a place of extremes–rugged mountains and fertile hills, an arid interior and a lush coastline. The slopes of Mount Etna in the province of Catania are heady with the scent of zagare, orange and lemon blossom; in Palermo, the capital, the sprawling La Vucciria market is a living museum of the great Mediterranean food cultures.
Here, every recipe, every ingredient, says something about the island’s history. The Greeks left a taste for honey and sesame seeds; the Moors bequeathed rice and sorbets; the French Angevins brought sweet short-crust pastry; the Spanish imported tomatoes, potatoes, chilies and chocolate from the Americas. There’s also a British legacy–Marsala wine. The architectural inheritance is just as rich: the Greek ruins of the Valle dei Templi, on the edge of Agrigento, and nearby Selinunte, the Roman theatre in Catania, the great Norman cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale. The southeast corner of the island, including Modica, Ragusa and especially Noto—with its baroque buildings as elaborate as the island’s famous sweets—has been luring a discerning international crowd of homeowners to put down roots in striking new builds amidst the gently crumbling masserie.
These four historic retreats are experiences in themselves, whether you want views of smoldering Mount Etna or a hands-on stay at a working farm.
Depending on where you are on the island, we can organize a private evening aperitivo within the gilt halls of Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi in Palermo, the backdrop for Luchino Visconti’s iconic film, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). For those looking to explore Sicily’s quieter corners, we can arrange a visit with a local expert to the lesser-known baroque towns of eastern Sicily, or a private boat trip to the volcanic Aeolian Islands off the coast.
Facing the blue horizon of the Ionian Sea, with the active volcano of Etna looming in the backdrop, this 19th-century villa completes the cinematic surroundings with its breezy and informal vibe. The two-story property’s recent refurbishment is the work of local artisans, who crafted the ferro battuto cast-iron bed frames and the wood furnishings in the five bedrooms, where French doors let in sea breezes.
In the fireplace-focused main living area, the dark pietra pece flooring was sourced from the province of Ragusa to the south. On the sea-facing side of the house, a colonnaded walkway, terraced verandas and a large lap pool sit 500 feet from the water’s edge. The villa is located near some of Mount Etna’s most notable vineyards and is situated between the baroque city of Catania and cobblestoned Taormina—both just 30 minutes away by car.
Sicilian Family Estate
In the 16th century, a noble family from Normandy came across the remains of a 9th-century church on Sicily’s southeastern coast and reimagined the site as a private estate. Not too long afterwards, the owners returned to Normandy and left the property to a local aristocratic family, who after many generations still owns it today. About a decade ago, the Naples-based owner, an architect, finished an eight-year refurbishment of his family retreat.
In the 12 bedrooms and high-ceilinged salons, original details abound: wood-beam ceilings, terracotta floors, exposed stone arches and lintels. The ground’s 110 acres are dotted with olive and orange groves, manicured Italian gardens with fountains and a swimming pool surrounded by flowering trees. The property puts you within easy reach of the area’s baroque towns and a 15-minute drive of Siracusa, while the serene coastline lies just a couple of miles beyond the villa’s blue gates.
The Farm Stay
This azienda agricola—a working farm—offers a glimpse of agricultural life in southeastern Sicily’s interior. The 300 acres of land are fertile with produce, from tomato plants to orange and olive groves; at the right time of year, you can join in on the picking of oranges or the pressing of olives, often alongside the German-Italian estate owner, whose family has owned the property since the 15th century.
Inside the grand villa, 10 bedrooms are individually furnished with Sicilian ceramics and ornithology prints and antique pieces the owners collected from around the world. The large swimming pool, flanked by chaises longues, lies within short walking distance of the private gardens, which are filled with pines, oleanders and acacias. The villa puts guests within a 30-minute drive of Catania and the regional airport, and Taormina, Siracusa and Ragusa are an hour away.
A Noble Retreat
For centuries in Sicily, most towns had their own signore, a feudal lord who oversaw the surrounding territories. This 19th-century villa, located in the island’s interior about a 20-minute drive from Ragusa, is a vestige of that tradition: the piano nobile, or the noble floor, with its soaring ceiling, was built so that the palermitano owners could receive the signore.
The stone walls are characteristic of Sicilian farmhouses and the layout—six bedrooms surrounding a main inner courtyard—is also typical of this area. Even on the heels of a renovation by a member of the youngest generation of that same Palermo family, who added a new pool, the retreat retains its historic flavor: artisans from nearby towns are responsible for the patterned majolica ceramic tiles that line the kitchen and bathrooms, and local nonnas handcrafted the lace on the bed covers.
PRIOR’s Bespoke team can design a trip for your group based at any one of these houses, safely helping you explore the surroundings when you are ready to travel again. Inquire at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At Home in Sicily