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The Villa Igiea - A Hotel in Its Time and Place

 

“This is more than a normal hotel. Every piece here is very personal. Each has a history,” says Philip Kamel. It’s only a few hours since we checked into the Villa Igiea, but already – having stepped out onto the tiny balcony of our room and looked down to the terraces and gardens below, indulged in a brief stroll through wide, gleaming hallways, descended an equally wide and elegantly carpeted  stairway, and peeked into a large ballroom/meeting space (the famed Sala Basile, we were soon to learn) with frescoed walls and curved wooden furniture in the Art Nouveau style --  we think we  have some sense of what the charismatic concierge is talking about. A tentative  impression, but one that over the next few days would merge with others into a context, a stage for the story of both the hotel and the city of which it is a part.

The city being legendary and mysterious Palermo, capital of the island and, according to some, the continent of Sicily. Through its millennia-long history, it has been  invaded and dominated by the  Phoenicians, Normans, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Carthaginians, Swabians, Arabs and Spaniards, and – most recently – Americans  (a photograph of a U.S. Army jeep in front of the Villa Igiea, where American servicemen were quartered after the defeat of the Italian army in 1943, documents this latest invasion), leaving behind a dazzling fusion of architectural styles and materials.

Among the oldest masterpieces is the ninth-century Norman Palace which, three centuries later, incorporated the Palace Chapel with its walls of gold, Byzantine mosaics, Corinthian-rimmed pillars, and Arab arches.  That same century, the magisterial Palermo Cathedral was built (in 1185) on the site of a mosque built on the site of a Christian basilica.  Ultimately becoming a mélange of  Norman, baroque, and early neo-classical design, it is often compared – favorably at that -- to the famed Cathedral of Seville.

Next to these, the Villa Igiea, a product of the Belle Époque, is a newcomer. But even here, Palermo’s ancient past proves a compelling presence. A direct view of the edifice evokes  the stately power of a Norman castle. The hexagon-shaped bell tower with pointed roof and arched windows bespeak an Arab/Moorish influence. On the edge of the sizeable waterfront patio that houses the hotel’s swimming pool and lounge area, a broken ring of classical pillars stands in solitary drama against the background of the sea, a mute testimony to the era of Greek domination.

But the hotel’s dominating theme is Art Nouveau, and this is where the story of the Villa Igiea begins some time in the 1890’s when Ignazio Florio,a wealthy industrialist and heir to a great business dynasty, buys a waterfront villa in Palermo that had housed a clinic. He hires Ernesto Basile, architect, designer and pioneer of modernism,  to convert it into a luxurious hotel.

Florio is a patron of the arts (he signed the young and relatively unknown Enrico Caruso), and a significant player in efforts to modernize his native city which lead to the construction of impressive villas, Art Nouveau buildings and the remarkable Teatro Massimo (the opera house with perfect acoustics which is still regarded as one of of Europe’s finest). But the Villa Igiea is his crown jewel and that of his wife, the beautiful and widely admired Donna Franca.

It seems a paradisiacal  setting. The landscape painter  Ettore de Maria Bergler frescoes hallways and the Sala Basile with luscious floral themes and feminine figures in the Mucha-inspired mode. The cabinet maker Ducrot supplies the fancifully curved wooden furniture and Sicilian handicrafts that typify the period. And the Villa Igiea becomes a coveted destination for the rich and famous where Donna Franca, wearing her trademark rope of 365 pearls, hosts extravagant parties for members of international high society.

And then things change. “It was like the Fiat family,” says Alessio Candiloro, director of sales for the Villa Igiea who, along with Gianluca Ferraro (operator of the tour company SicilySide), had shown us around Palermo’s historic sites. “Everything falls apart. The Florios’ daughter dies  inexplicably; their son dies at the age of eight. Their economic situation deteriorates to the point of financial ruin. The  fortune of this family, one of the wealthiest in all of Sicily, is lost.”

After a series of failed attempts to maintain the property, the hotel is auctioned off. A bank takes it over. It is purchased by a small Italian chain.  In the late 1980’s, it becomes an AMT property and undergoes a major renovation.

On a morning in the spring of 2013, we check into a stunning 122-room, five-star hotel on a rise facing the Bay of Palermo. At its base, a broad terrace descends along winding paths that border intimate gardened retreats, alcoves for private parties, a swimming pool complex, tennis courts, and a seasonal bar and grill with  pasta and barbeque stations. They end at the ancient harbor where sailboats, their masts neatly arranged like a row of poles, and cruisers for day-long excursions are docked.

We meet the general manager, Vito Giglio, for lunch on the terrace. He is a dark-haired man with a sensitive mien who comes from a small town in Sicily.

“I had known about the Villa Igiea -- everyone in Sicily has heard of it – but it was only when I was interviewed for a position here about five years ago that I saw it for the first time,” he tells us. “The manager and I sat down right where we are sitting now. It was raining; a great awning covered the terrace. I could hear the wind. I inhaled the breeze coming up from the sea; it was so fresh. I loved the atmosphere. I felt that, as a Sicilian, I was coming home. ‘I don’t care how much you pay me,’ I said to him. ‘This is where I want to work.’

“I was hired as F&B manager. It was part of  my background, but it’s not in my blood.  I oversaw the renovation of the kitchen which was very, very old, an enormous job. During my first year, the manager moved to a hotel in Catania. Some months later, his replacement left. About a year and a half after I first came here, I was the  manager of the Villa Igiea.”

He continues, “We’ve made a lot of changes. One of the biggest ones was in 2011 when I brought in a new chef. He had been a school friend of mine years ago. We were roommates all during that time. But after we graduated, he went to France, I to the U.K., and we lost touch.

“Then one day, I was speaking to someone who had just returned from a visit to Verona. He was telling me about the restaurant where he had dinner, and he mentioned the chef’s name.  

“‘Camelo Trentacosti?’” I cried. “That was the name of my old friend! I called the restaurant and asked to speak to Chef Trentacosti, ‘Carmelo, listen Carmelo, I want you here as the chef of the Villa Igiea.’

“He said he couldn’t do it; he wouldn’t be able to move his family. But he surprised me.

“We are still friends. But at work, we focus on our professional relationship. He is from a little town in Sicily and that influences his cooking greatly. It is very simple. ‘My kitchen has to speak, not me,’ he says.”

And speak it does, as we discovered, that evening at dinner when we sampled Chef Trentacosti’s culinary creations served in the splendor of Donna Franco Florio, the Villa Igiea’s flagship restaurant. A land menu, a sea menu, and tasting menus of both presented a range of tantalizing options, all of which married a Sicilian sensibility to fresh and local quality products. For us that meant a salty amuse bouche of tiny strips of cuttlefish on a cherry tomato; Sicilian caponata made with tiny pieces of carrots and zucchini; aubergine with ricotta and zucchini blossoms; risotto with parmesan cheese  and  caramelized breadcrumbs in a Pantelleria wine reduction; ricotta- and broccoli-stuffed ravioli in a sauce of cherry tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella;  thinly-sliced poached chicken breasts with herbs and slithers of carrots; pasta with tomatoes, garlic and clams out of the shell. We drank a red Val Cerasa (2007) which comes from a small vineyard near Etna and relished the strong mineral taste that is typically found in grapes grown in volcanic soil. And to accompany desserts of crème brulee and apple tart, we ended with glasses of sweet Passeto made from very mature grapes on a little island off the coast of Sicily.


Concierge Philip Kamel

General Manager Vito Giglio

Maitre d’ Rosario La Rosa

It was a memorable dinner in a setting born of Belle Époque memory. The dining room is big as a ballroom, a fantasy of  yellow and white with glittering chandeliers hanging from soaring ceilings and sconces illuminating walls paneled with tall mirrors – medallions in the  Art Nouveau style at their tops. But attention inevitably is drawn to the full-length portrait hanging in the center of the rear wall of Donna Franco Florio. Painted by the great Italian artist Giovanni Boldini, it pictures the glamorous hostess at the height of her fame and glory dressed in a sweeping burgundy-colored gown, the famous pearls draped around her neck, looking down the length of the room she once ruled over.

In this second decade of the twenty-first century, the Villa Igiea is one of the great hotels in the world, a prime tourist destination with all the elements that contribute to its five-star rating. At the same time, it is the embodiment of a history whose elements Concierge Philip Kamel, we now understand, was referring to when first we met. What happened here at the turn of the last century and into its early decades is part of a larger story of a particular moment in the history of one of the great cities in the world. It is too recent to be ancient history, it may be just past the point of living history, but history it is nevertheless. And the Villa Igiea is its repository.

Villa Igiea
Salita Belmonte, 43
90142, Palermo Italy

Phone: +39 091 6312111
Web:  http://www.amthotels.it/villaigiea

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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