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Thursday, 29 March 2007

Live like a Princess in Palermo

"Don't go to Palermo with an itinerary only, go with an open heart," pleads fashion designer Domenico Dolce. The co-founder of Dolce & Gabbana speaks of his home town with a passion shared by its patrician residents. Since the recent revival of Palermo as a tourist mecca, many leading families have decided to open their ancestral homes - and even their hearts - to the public. While most palaces are willing to hold wedding receptions and grand dinners, a select number now welcome paying guests. Even prestigious princes need to keep a (regularly restored) roof over their heads, and have to count the cost of cleaning priceless chandeliers and portable altars.
Sicily nurtures the seductive illusion that you are a treasured guest rather than a common tourist. But it may not be an illusion: Sicilian hospitality is legendary, as suffocatingly sweet as the local cassata sponge cake. These sumptuous palaces are genuine homes, even if it is a gothic pile with a baroque ballroom and medieval kitchen. As such, the pleasures are deeply domestic, with the chance to saunter from one scene to another, from balconies as private as boudoirs to the bustling market beyond the portals. Set amidst a jumble of eastern-style souks, tiny squares and scented gardens, these noble palaces present secret snapshots of the city.
The families are a delightful mixture of the imperious and the genuinely imperial, of desiccated old fogeys and dynamic entrepreneurs. Among the charming princesses and courtly, tweed-clad princes lurk occasional crashing snobs bound to their family tree. Rivalry is rife, if expressed in genteel terms, with gentle shrugs laced with wicked asides. Some nobles manage to move with the times while others are mired in the past, living off splendid memories when the Sicilian nobility was awash with servile retainers. But nowadays, even princesses remember to turn out the lights and turn down the bed-covers. Fortunately, Sicilian hospitality and family pride succeed in making duty seem like pleasure rather than an irksome chore. Life has moved on, and the liveried footmen may be borrowed, but the generous city spirit stays the same.
In Palermo's palaces, it may be a case of taking in lodgers in order to restore crumbling loggias. But, given a sultry night, swaying palms and a princely bedroom, the city works its seductive spell. Palermo then becomes a playground for the senses - possibly with a Gothic en-suite bathroom attached.

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