One night in 1962, people living opposite the Villino Florio, a house that is often said to be one of the finest examples of Palermo’s famous Liberty architecture, were woken by the sound of crackling as flames tore through the building, destroying most of the interior and some of the external walls.  The fire had been deliberately lit. 

Over the next few years, many of the grand Liberty villas that lined Via Liberta’, the boulevard leading into the city from the north-west, were to meet a similar fate in what has come be known as the ‘sack of Palermo’.   Unlike them, and somewhat miraculously, Villino Florio has survived.  

Recently, nearly fifty years later and after a meticulous restoration, the house was opened to the public for the first time – but only for a limited period.  I managed to visit on the last day, and found both the building and the renovation so interesting that, as I left, I asked the attendant why the house wasn’t going to remain open.   He simply smiled and shrugged his shoulders in a typically Sicilian way that signifies “Who could possibly know?”.   The garden, however, will be open and it is well worth visiting to see the exterior of the house:  a fantasy of turrets, dormer windows and ashlar stonework.  Read the rest of this entry »

Indispensable and enjoyable as they are in many ways, travel guides, books and documentaries often deprive us of a sense of discovery.  The path is laid out for us – we may ultimately be surprised at what we find, but we know, more or less, what to expect. 

Nevertheless, twice recently, I have had a great sense of discovery – not due to any great enterprise on my part, but simply because the books I happened to be reading had been written 30 or 40 years ago.  The first of my  ‘discoveries’ was a 12th century Norman bridge;  the second, the remains of Palazzo Lampedusa, birthplace and home of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of the  great 20th century Italian novel, The Leopard. 

Ponte dell’Ammiraglio.  On one of my visits to London I had picked up a copy of The Travellers’ Guide to Sicily in the Oxfam bookshop in Marylebone High Street.   Even though last revised in 1972, the book contained a lot of information that was still relevant and seemed to me well worth the asking price of £2.    Read the rest of this entry »