Palermo, as the capital of the Mediterranean’s largest island, with its compelling cross-cultural history, is the ideal setting for Palermo’s grand hotel, Villa Igiea. It was the place to see and be seen; a magnet for celebrities, royalty, and heads of state. Unveiled in 1899 by the Florio family whose interests embraced virtually every aspect of Sicilian social and commercial endeavour, their dynastic dominance throughout the Belle Epoque conferred on Villa Igiea, an enduring mythical presence.
The Florio family was a prominent entrepreneurial Italian family who started many lucrative activities in Sicily involving above all the exportation of Sicilian products (such as Marsala wine) in the nineteenth century, in some ways redeeming Sicily from feudal immobility. Once described by the New York Times as “the merchant princes of Europe”, suffered however a rapid decline in their fortunes. As with Teatro Massimo, by the latter part of the 20th century, Villa Igiea, which had long since slipped from their grasp, languished in considerable disrepair. In 2019, Rocco Forte Hotels incorporated the property into their international emporium of exclusive hospitality and assumed the daunting task of guiding Palermo’s dishevelled grand dame toward a 21st century renaissance.
With spectacular views across the Gulf of Palermo to the mountains and the Villa still offers a sanctuary of exclusivity and privacy from the mayhem of the city center of Palermo. Its recent $35m restoration, during the pandemic, following strict heritage oversight rules, the Villa reflects past glories, but combined with 5 Star Luxury. The 120 rooms of the Grand Hotel, which used to host celebrities from The Kaiser to Claudia Cardinale, who stayed there while filming The Leopard with Burt Lancaster, are all enveloped by refined opulence. Large, beautifully restored spaces such as the expansive Salon, the scene of exotic gala balls, the exquisite double-height Art Nouveau Sala Basile, and original features such as the voluminous guest cloakrooms and walnut grand staircase, contribute to an all-pervasive aura of timeless grandeur. Wellness, in the form of the spa hidden in the gardens, is overseen by Sir Rocco’s daughter, Irene Forte. She heads up an award-winning skincare brand using plant-based products from the organic farm at RFH’s other Sicilian property, Verdura Resort.
The Florio restaurant, with majestic floor-to-ceiling windows, is eased back into its original Louis XVI Hall, whilst the Igiea Terrazza Bar unfolds out onto a spectacular setting overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Much here, including the property’s castellated blush-coloured exterior, and its palm and hibiscus stuffed gardens, remains as it was. Early diners may be fortunate enough to encounter one of the most exalted practitioners of the Italian culinary arts; Fulvio Pierangelini, RFH’s creative director of food. Many of the ingredients are harvested right in the Villa gardens and orchards of Villa Igiea and Verdura. Their local produce includes sea-fresh fish and raw crustaceans, oven baked fish, grilled catch of the day, as well as traditional fresh Sicilian pastas, fritti and arancini accompanied by local vegetables, fruits, oils, cheeses and fresh herbs.