Palermo Grande: Stunning Hotel Renovation Unveils a Hidden Gem of Sicily

Seaside house in Sicily: it’s the real estate ambition of the ages. For thousands of years, they came from all corners of Marie Nostrum to conquer – the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans – and were conquered by themselves, establishing colonies and erecting temples along its coast. In subsequent centuries, artists and great tourists faced the same difficulty in the clear bays and bays of Sicily and its unique history, assuming the dominion over the dominion in the form of a wonderful cultural collage. But no one lived on the seashore like the Sicilians themselves: see the outskirts of Palermo, the capital – its suburbs are now somewhat reduced to seed, but in the eighteenth century, a utopia of citrus groves and stunning aristocratic estates shriveled into the once-magnificent Tyrrhenian. The villas still adorn the landscape.

A century later, the mobile Florio family—owners of shipping, fisheries, and packaging interests (we owe the existence of canned tuna for their adventurous vision) and Marsala wine producers that is probably best known by their name—acquired a home on a bump north of the port of Palermo, in the shadow of Monte Pellegrino. Ignazio Florio Sr. called it Villa Florio, which helped solidify the family’s social goodwill; A few decades later, his son, Ignazio Jr., decided to tap his potential as a destination. In 1899, his aristocratic wife Franca – one of the community’s beauties and salon that Kaiser Wilhelm II called “the Star of Italy” – enlisted famed Ballermitan architect Filippo Ernesto Basile to expand the villa into a luxury full-service hotel.

Over the next two decades, it has been Grand Villa Asia Hotel (renamed after daughter of Florios) made history. Palermo emerged as a place to be; Florios was her folks who should know. Seen as a sort of sprawling preeminence for their illustrious friends, the hotel was immediately a dense person of international royalty, industry, and celebrities. Its early patrons were Nicholas II of Russia, Edward VII, George V of Great Britain, Chulalongkorn of Siam, and Duke Durlian. First Baron Rothschild and John Pierpont Morgan rocked on yachts. Some have visited the cathedral in Monreale or Palazzo dei Normanni, with its 900-year-old mosaics. Some are made for the nearby Bagni della Regina grotto for a swim and escape in privacy. But most of them were content to enjoy themselves in the hotel building, which was one of the centers of society in Europe.

1950s mural in the bar by Sicilian artist Eugenio Morrissey © Lea Anouchinsky

The exterior of the villa Igea

The exterior of Villa Igiea © Lea Anouchinsky

Riches turned, as they do. Villa Igea fell out of the hands of Florios before World War II; By the end of the 20th century, it was in a slow decline for years. While the grandeur of the place and the Basile building never waned, its character seemed to be strongly connected to the past. And it is probably fair to say that the town, which experienced a decline of its own around the same time, has lacked a truly exceptional hotel somewhat since then.

Enter Rocco Forte, chairman of the eponymous hospitality group whose properties are among the most elegant in Europe. Forte and his sister Vice President and Design Director Olga Polizi, they set their sights on Villa Igiea after the opening of the resort Verdura, on the southwest coast of Sicily, a decade ago. She had enormous potential, but she was not without complications. Besides the hurdles of acquisition and renovation (the entire hotel is fairly heavily underrated), there was the question of desirability of Palermo itself: there are those in love with the city and its surroundings – its edges sparkle, its shadows shine in Buenos Aires and Marrakech amid Baroque froth and Norman austerity. But many Britons get it wrong completely; Instead, they make for Taormina, or Val de Noto each year, down Syracuse. Palermo has never stopped loving Villa Igea – will she make Villa Igea reborn again?

Baroque ceiling in the Basilica of Santa Caterina in Palermo
Baroque ceiling in the Basilica of Santa Caterina in Palermo © Lea Anouchinsky

Postcard from 1912 of Villa Igea

1912 postcard of Villa Igea © Archivio GBB / Alamy Stock Photo

Among the guests during the heyday of Igea Bell Epoque were Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, as seen here (front, second and third row from left) in 1907

Among the guests during the heyday of Igea Bell Epoque were Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, as seen here (front, second and third row from left) in 1907

After several years and around 30 million euros, Forte is about to get his answer. The hotel is reopening this month, after an extensive renovation overseen by Paolo Moschino and Philip Vergelin, co-owners/creative directors of Nicholas Haslam in London, along with Polizzi. The famous red facade. castles a lozenge-shaped pool, flanked by its ancient temple “The Ruin” (Florio’s Folly); The garden with palms, hibiscus, and cacti: all pruned and trimmed, but much the same.

The interior is where meticulous preservation efforts meet creative renewal. “Basilii is practically unknown in England,” says Polizzi. “His love for the Middle Ages and freedom [Italian art nouveau]- Both styles are evident via Villa Igea – ‘A strange combination, but so highly prized in Palermo. The double-height Sala Basile, with frescoes by Ettore de Maria Bergler and the light of the huge flowered glass center, is an architect’s model. “Fortunately, it’s so well preserved, we just had to gently restore it,” says Polizzi. When I arrived, graduates of the local Belle Arti Academy, tattooed and draped in paint-scattered overalls, stood on stairs, meticulously cleaning the last sections of the awe-inspiring scenes: frail maids in sheer white and gold dresses; fields of iris and halberd poppies; peacocks unfurling teal tail feathers and abundant rubies .

There’s a massive walnut staircase, its ornately designed balustrade camouflaging an interlocking B and E (Basile was known for his clever subtle signatures), and—coincidentally, Polizzi notes—many pieces of furniture designed by the hotel’s architect, which have been restored and erected throughout time. The original doorman seats have been removed, cleaned and reinstalled. (Also in Greater Budapest: the huge tasseled room keys – not cards, not digital bonds; real keys – dangling in neat closets behind.)

The bar at Villa Igiea

The bar at Villa Igiea © Lea Anouchinsky

Detail from the mural at Sala Basile

Detail from a mural at the Sala Basile © Lea Anouchinsky

The renovation, which lasted for two years – one while the epidemic stopped – was a daunting affair (“it should have been the most wonderful work, in beautiful Palermo, but at times it was a bit of a nightmare,” admits Polizzi). Every last detail had to be approved – sometimes via Zoom – by the local Ministry of Cultural Oversight. Even the color schemes, Vergeylen says, “made the process easier” by basing them all on the Sala Basile murals, so no one can say it’s really illegitimate.

Entire floors of rooms were dismantled and remodeled, reducing the number from 120 to 100. The old baths were sometimes small; Linked wings were not the desired configuration as they are today. “We had to completely rethink the layouts for the modern comfort factor,” Virgilian told me. “But also keep in mind that when the people who know Villa Igea come back”—and there, he says, a small army of special people very attached to the hotel—“the response we want is not ‘Oh, it feels so different’; it’s, ‘Oh, I made it back’. to life.”

“The way to do that was to respect the fact that it was considered a kind of private residence,” Moschino adds. “After all, before it was a hotel it was the Villa Florio. We kept small libraries and sitting rooms”—which could have been incorporated into larger (and better income-generating) spaces.” Buildings have characters, they evolve; I don’t believe in canceling that outright.”

Palermo Botanical Gardens
Palermo Botanical Gardens | © Lea Anouchinsky

Celebration at the villa in 1910 - Franca Florio among the guests

Celebration at the villa in 1910 – Franca Florio among the guests

villain crap

villain crap

However, Vergeylen notes that Forte was partial to reminding the design team that “Villa Igiea” is still prefixed with the words “Grand Hotel.” Outside, then, with no hints of a remotely beachy or casual design scheme. The goal was “the perfect place for a great weekend getaway in a big house,” says Vergelin. Even the smallest rooms (about 35 square metres, not small) have high ceilings, tapestry beds, and walls covered in rich blue, gold, and sage wood, or other wallpapers produced by the Design Lab in San PatrignanoRecently, the rehab community became popular with the documentary series SanPa: Sins of the Savior on Netflix. (A chronicle of its controversial founder, the series doesn’t delve into the unusual craft workshops that flourished here after his death in 1995 — sponsored, among others, by Renzo Mongiardino, who left it for several archival designs, some of which were Moschino and Vergeylen. ).

Every last majolica tiles in the unreclaimed building are specially designed by Weather in Siana Ceramic, the oldest artisanal product in Bagheria, east of Palermo. “You wouldn’t think of moving materials from Mexico or Japan to do that kind of work,” Vergelin says. “He wanted sustainability in the truest sense of that word – supporting local projects and knowing the artisans she works with.”

The salon, which has been restored to the glory of the Belle Epoque

Salon, restored to the glory of Belle Epoque © Lea Anouchinsky

One of the suites at Villa Igiea

One of the suites at Villa Igiea © Lea Anouchinsky

Being a Rocco Forte Hotel, wellness has always been a highlight; Forte’s daughter, Irene, who sits on the board of Global Wellness Summit (and runs all of the hotel’s wellness programs), weighed in on the spa and fitness rooms, which occupies her outhouse at the bottom of the garden—all in light wood, cheery green tiles and light Which runs through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The skincare line, which was formulated three years ago with Verdura-grown products and sourced from across the island (hibiscus, apricot, pistachio, and orange flower oils) really fits the bill.

The hotel is currently in the opening phase. Design details are disabled, menus are decorated and modified. But when the hotel is fully completed, it’s safe to say there won’t be anything relatively splendid in the Sicilian capital. As for Palermo itself: success Shows, the Biennial of Contemporary Bedouin Art hosted here in 2018, along with the opening of Butera PalaceMassimo and Francesca Falsechi’s private museum in the Calsa district appears to have begun a small renaissance. There is a growing number of wine and cocktail bars and young chefs. There is very worthy Modern Art Gallery, in the complex of Santana Monastery, and lively concerts and exhibitions at Santa Maria dello Spasimo, an unfinished 16th-century roofless chapel in Calsa.

And there is, predictably, competition looming, including the ambitious renovation of another historic landmark of the city, Grand Hotel and Des Palmes, which opened with a rooftop restaurant and bar run by star Italian (and original Sicilian) chef Filippo La Mantia. May Palermo finally be good and true; A new disguised home by the sea awaits those who are curious to discover it for themselves.; from 420 euros

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