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Thursday, 29 March 2007

Seduced By Sicily

Sicily becomes the latest target for Brits seeking the new Tuscany.

The young architect and broadcaster Charlie Luxton is feeling smug. There are few places greyer and chillier than London in February — but he and his wife, Kate, manager for an architectural salvage firm, are basking in Sicilian sunshine and Charlie is towelling off after a vigorous swim at the beach near their home. The couple, who are expecting a baby this summer, are part of a group of trendsetting young Brits who have discovered a hot spot they reckon is “the next Tuscany”: an “uncorrupted” area around the baroque cities of Noto and Syracuse, in southeast Sicily.

The advent of direct flights to the city of Catania, an hour’s drive from Noto, has helped this stretch of the island, rich in ruins for renovation, become a property magnet for British buyers, who have snapped up houses for as little as £30,000 in recent years.

David Harber, a sundial maker from Oxfordshire, spent £40,000 on 13 acres of olive, lemon and almond groves and a farm building outside Noto which he plans to convert into a holiday home for his family of six.

He sums up the appeal: “It is a romantic corner of Europe. We have friends buying in the southeast corner of Spain and we find visiting them depressing. There is no tourist developments to cater for northern Europeans. You don’t pay through your nose for a cup of coffee like you do in St Tropez. It’s an exquisite, simple, local culture.”

When they visited this part of Sicily three years ago, they fell in love with it. Despite both working in London, they couldn’t find a property “with potential” for a price they could afford, so instead plumped for Noto.

How much would a house like this have cost in Tuscany? “Maybe five times more,” says Charlie.

“Noto is just three hours away but it feels like it’s on the edge of Europe. It’s a Unesco world heritage site so there can’t be any modern tourist development. Architecturally, it’s stunning, baroque buildings in a soft sandstone that glows under the Sicilian sun. The 17th-century cathedral is being renovated and everything is looking better and better.” And at Vendicari, 10 minutes away, there’s a five-mile long nature reserve with an untouched strip of beach.

“It’s the stuff of dreams,” says Charlie, whose next BBC television project, A House in Time, to be shown later this year, follows the fortunes of seven homeowners who are renovating their homes.

Local estate agents confirm that in the past few years English buyers have followed in the footsteps of the Germans and Italians, who have been buying property on Sicily for several years. Pop star Mick Hucknall produces wine, known by the locals as Simply Red, from an 18th-century estate on the slopes of Mount Etna — but most are just looking for a holiday home or a renovation project.

Sicily is no longer a byword for backwardness and Mafia movies – the stars are backing Sicily by buying on these islands, says Lisa Gerard-Sharp, travel writer and author of "Insight Guide Sicily"

Living on top of an active volcano might not seem an obvious celebrity career move, but the explosive setting draws surprisingly mellow singers. Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall relishes his 18th-century wine estate on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna. As for Madonna and Sting Pantelleria may be the singers favourite Sicilian island, to Giorgio Armani and GĂ©rard Depardieu. As a passionate wine-maker, the French screen legend produces fine Passito wine on Pantelleria.

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