Seated together outside a bedroom door were the Queen of Denmark and the King of Sweden and further up the corridor was Queen Maria of Romania – each, caught in the eye of the photographic lens, indicating the type of clientele who once frequented Grand Hotel Villa Igiea on the outskirts of Palermo, Sicily.
Steeped in history, this grand dame of Sicilian hotel properties has hosted high financiers and Royalty alike during its century-long, illustrious career. And it’s not difficult to understand why.
Reached along a looping road on the city’s outskirts, access to Villa Igiea is through tall black and gold wrought iron gates and along a short, narrow driveway lined with potted bushes and trees. Several carpeted steps under stone arches bring one to two separate, elongated desks, the reception area and the concierge. Long carpeted corridors under high ceilings and arches either side lead into the villa proper while one in front ends at an elevator.
Located at the water’s edge overlooking a luxury yacht harbor, the hotel’s facade is sandstone with marble and stone porticoes, a horizontal line of Moorish-like ceramics and mock battlements embellishing the top of the building.
During its infancy in the early 1900s, the three-story building was home to those rich enough to pay for the habitual ‘taking the air’ sojourn in southern Italy, a time when tuberculosis was rampant. Built by the entrepreneurial Floria family, it was initially meant to be a sanatorium, but with the erection of luxury hotels elsewhere in Europe and the US on the occasion of the World Exhibitions, family members decided a top-class hotel would be much more profitable and prestigious, akin to the already existing Grand Hotel de Palmes in the capital and Grand Hotel in Taormina.
While undergoing various stages of renovation, Grand Hotel Villa Igiea retains much of its period glamour, leading one to believe one has stepped back in time, or at least through the door of a living museum.
Take, for example, the Basile Room. Situated off one of the long, carpeted corridors off the main reception desk, whose walls are bedecked with framed photos of well-known international guests, the room is spectacular in terms of rich art nouveau decorations, with intricate frescoes on the walls representing various periods of a day – sunrise on the east wall; sunset on the central wall; and night on the north wall. The room is lighted by an impressive chandelier made from Murano glass with intricately-carved art nouveau furniture everywhere.
A short walk into the heart of the villa one comes upon ‘the room of mirrors’ or ‘Donna Franca Florio Room’ named after the wife of the owner. With floor-to-ceiling windows facing the sea and mirrors of various sizes located around the room, it offers a gracious atmosphere for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Extending from it is a series of interlinking rooms with a wide balustrade leading to higher floors. One room is a long banqueting hall richly decorated with hanging chandeliers, private alcoves along the wall, a standing piano, painted walls – some featuring Oriental themes, a painted ceiling, art nouveau wall lamps, potted palm bushes, tall pillars, and large wall of filigree mirrors reflecting the verdant greenery, flowers and trees of the garden beyond.
Breakfast is served outside during warm weather on a wide, stone-tiled patio, at stained aqua-marine rattan tables and chairs. The patio faces a lush garden crisscrossed with pathways and filled with decorative bushes; hisbiscus; cacti; overhanging pine; tall, slender palm; false pepper trees – their branches drooping willow-like – and orange, pompelmo, banana and mandarin.
Decorative lamps at night add a sense of romance to the whole. There is also a small swimming pool, a fountain and bronze statue of the beautiful Franca Florio.
A framed photograph on a nearby wall of England’s King Edward VII seated here entertaining guests indicates the prestige with which Villa Igiea was held in the early years of the 20th century. Beyond the harbor crowded with yachts, Palermo spreads itself along the coast with a range of mountains behind it, making a perfect backdrop.
Dining at Grand Hotel Villa Igiea takes place in one of two rooms lying opposite each other – Donna Franca Florio or the expansive bar area, Cuvée du Jour. With a high-vaulted, sandstone ceiling, a marble fireplace, painted frescoes covering the end-walls depicting the history, everyday life and historical monuments of Sicily including its patron saint, Rosalia, the Norman Palace, the Cathedral and Puerto Nuevo, the ancient entrance door to the city, the room presents an intriguing and enjoyable ambiance.
In addition to a la carte choices, tasting menus – from both land and sea – are available, making for more interesting dining experience, especially so the latter when paired with local wines such as Principe de Corleone Chardonnay. Dishes emanate a sense of authentic Sicilian cuisine by using ingredients such as ricotta, locally grown tomatoes, dried fava beans and pine nuts and are presented in a modern, but simple way, incorporating fresh produce such as cernia (a smaller grouper genre of fish), clams, mussels, shrimp and cuttlefish or sepia. Desserts make for memorable sharing moments with basil ice cream, Sicilian cassata (a pudding of sponge cake, ricotta and marzipan) and pistachio parfait served with candied olives and wild strawberries well worth trying.
If you’re looking for a hotel filled with Italian grandeur and historical intrigue, quietly tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Sicilian city life behind perfumed gardens, Grand Hotel Villa Igiea is for you.