Friday, January 6, 2017

American Friends of Versailles' Visit to Sicily

Paint flaking from the ceiling of the Queen's Guards Room in Versailles.
by Sharon Hoge
Photographs by Faith Coolidge & Sharon King Hoge


A new year's resolution of the American Friends of Versailles is to raise funds necessary to complete restoration of the flaking ceiling of the Guards Room in Marie Antoinette's apartment suite in the chateau. To that end they are planning two exclusive events in 2017, a tour of Portugal in September and a gala November weekend in Sarasota, Florida. Those excursions will be patterned on prior balls and tours, such as this past year's a trip through Sicily in September arranged by Princess Beatrice de Bourbon des Deux Siciles, a direct descendant of Marie Antoinette's sister Maria Caroline and great grandaughter of Sicily's last king. The sister of Charles, Duke of Castro, the current head of the royal house, she is warmly received throughout the country by noble families and officials who graciously opened their historic palazzos, villas, and monuments to the group.
Trinacria is the historic name of the island often represented as a triangle with legs designating its three historic harbors: Messina, Siracuse, and Palermo Princess Beatrice presented welcome gifts: a Sicilian cookbook, the island's fabled marzipan, Zagara di Siccilia cologne, and a Michelin Guide inscribed "Benvenuti in Sicilia"
Just over two dozen of us traveled from Chicago, Texas, Florida, New York, Washington D.C., and France to meet up in Palermo at the historic Grande Hotel et Des Palmes, the monumental lodging where Wagner is said to have completed "Parsifal." Walking to Ristorante A' Cuccagna we were introduced to Sicilian cuisine featuring eggplant dishes, pasta, and craft cheeses brilliantly and deliciously executed by the restaurant maestros Sammarco. While musicians strummed we were welcomed by American Friends of Versailles Founder and President Catharine Hamilton and Princess Beatrice, who summarized the excursions we had in store.
The American Friends of Versailles gathered in Palermo's 5-star Grand Hotel et Des Palmes to begin their journey.
Clockwise from top left: Adjourning to an en plein air dinner at Ristorante A'Cuccagna, the AFV group was welcomed by Princess Beatrice; Ristorante A'Cuccagna's renowned chefs served a buffet of Sicilian specialties; Strolling musicians serenaded during dinner.
Princess Beatrice introduced Marquise Anna, who welcomed the group.
Highlights of the week were visits to private homes where noble families, honored to host the princess, welcomed us as guests.

We had the chance to view their collections and belongings and enjoyed seated meals served in a variety of historic homes. While shown around the residences, we were allowed to take pictures but many of the hosts asked us not to post or publish them.

Cautioning that the march of history threatens many of these villas and the lifestyle they embody we were grateful for the opportunity to experience the gracious hospitality and legacy they represent.

Marquise Anna Monroy di Giamipileri Paterno di Spedalotto presented a luncheon at her family's "country house," neo-classical Villa Spedalotto perched high over a spectacular view of the sea at Bagheria, the aristocracy's favorite 18th-century resort.
The country villa of Marquise Anna di Giamipileri Paterno di Spedalotto is set amidst olive groves in the village of Bagheria outside Palermo.
New Yorker Vincent Viola greeted the Marquise.
The terrace provided spectacular views out to sea and the neighboring village of Bagheria.
Susan and Harlow Higinbotham admired the terrace's views out to the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Texas banker Richard Ware scanned the view from the terrace. Jerome Fouan.
Fanciful planters embellish the terrace railing.
Luncheon was served in the formal dining room.
A trompe l'oeil pooch guards the door.
Later we were hosted by her attractive son Vincenzo Paterno di Spedalotto who has returned from Europe with his bride to Domus Olivae to farm olives and produce Tondo degli Oliveti di Mortilla, an exclusive olive oil from a variety of olives which thrive only in a very small, exclusive part of this Chiaramonte region; merely a few kilometers beyond Domus Olivae the special olives won't grow.
Vincenzo Spedalotto welcomed us as his first guests to be entertained at his newly renovated villa.
Vincenzo and his Moldavian wife only recently returned from Europe to reside in Sicily.
The young couple has recently restored Domus Olivae.
Local cheeses and olives set the scene for lunch at Domus Olivae. Sicilian dishes in the luncheon buffet.
Bonnie Deutsch near the infinity pool. New Yorkers Vincent and Theresa Viola.
Princess Beatrice, the Spedalottos, and John Viola with the Domus Olivae's special Tondo olive oil.
In Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco, one of the country's most beautiful palaces facing the main square in Syracuse's ancient settlement Ortygia, Baron Beneventano told us how pleased he was to have as a guest Princess Beatrice whose ancestors had often sought refuge in the Palazzo which is built into the city fortifications, its paved inner court one of the only surviving lava and river stone courtyards in the Baroque style. The family's legacy of wine production stems from the early 18th-century, and after sampling their latest vintages, we moved along to luncheon served at one long table decorated with pink-edged white lisianthi blossoms which the Baroness had arranged.
Baron Beneventano welcomes David Hamilton.
Palazzo Beneventano's imposing arches have welcomed Lord Nelson and King Ferdinand III.
Balconies of Palazzo Beneventano overlook Ortygia's main plaza.
David Hamilton and former AFV President Baron Roland de l'Espee admire the view.
AFV Executive Director Kristen Smith. Garden expert Didier Wirth joined the group for part of the trip.
New Yorker Suzanne McDonough.
Generations of family photos on the piano in Palazzo Beneventano.
L. to r.: Luncheon was served at one long table; A bottle of Beneventano wine; Floral centerpieces were selected by the Baroness.
AFV Founder and President Catharine Hamilton presents a Versailles medallion to the Baron and Baroness. Inset: Versailles medallions were presented to our hosts in appreciation.
At Palazzo Arezzo di Trifiletti with its windows framing dramatic views across the Piazza to Ragusa's imposing Baroque Duomo which is dedicated to St. George, we sipped cocktails and sampled local cheeses. As we entered, we passed, a century-old photo taken from the balcony showing one of the Barone di Trifiletti's ancestors, aged 10, at the front of the crowd in the annual procession honoring the saint.
A sightseeing train took us through Ragusa.
Ragusa's imposing Baroque Duomo is dedicated to St. George.
An unimposing doorway leads to Palazzo Arezzo di Trifiletti. Ribbons decorated the Trifiletti Palazzo for a family wedding.
Princess Beatrice with Barone Arezzo di Trifiletti, his wife, and son.
Triviletti windows overlook the Duomo.
View of the Duomo from a Trifiletti balcony. A century-old photo shows the procession seen from the balcony.
Sampling local cheeses at the cocktail reception.
Departing Palazzo Arezo di Trifiletti: Dr. Susan Kendall, Michele Fouan, Pricess Beatrice, Faith Coolidge, and Sharon Hoge. Behind: Jerome Fouan and Philip Hartung.
Princess Carine Vanni Calvello Mantegna di Gangi guided us through her family's loving and painstaking restoration of Palazzo Gangi with its magnificent double-ceiling hall of mirrors and the ballroom where Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale danced in the film "The Leopard." The local pastries oozing cream served at a reception in that ballroom were every bit -- every bite -- as memorable as scenes from the film which we screened one day during a transfer on our bus.
AFV President and Founder Catharine Hamilton. Princess Carine has spent over a decade restoring Palazzo Gangi.
John Parkerson on the terrace adjoining the Leopard ballroom.
Reception in Gangi's Leopard ballroom.
Palermo's very colorful Mayor Leoluca Orlando -- a German film star, former member of the EU parliament, president of the Italian Federation of American Football, once a Nobel Prize short-list candidate for his anti-Mafia efforts -- served luncheon and showed us around Villa Niscemi which he purchased 30 year ago for official city functions. Previously a family home of the Verdura family, it includes a small red bedroom, where he told us, the great jeweler Fulco Verdura was born.
Approaching Villa Niscemi, once a home of Fulco Verdura.
Buffet luncheon on the terrace of Villa Niscemi.
Mayor Leoluca Orlando is flanked by Catharine Hamilton and Princess Beatrice.
John and Theresa Viola. Faith Coolidge on the balcony overlooking Parco della Favorita.
Mayor Leoluca Orlando guides the group through Villa Niscemi. Suzanne McDonough, Catharine Hamilton, and Mayor Leoluca Orlando.
Engaged couple Philip Hartung and Bonnie Deutsch.
Fruit desserts at Villa Niscemi.
Candlelit dinners were preceded by commentary showing us around the noble family homes. At Palermo's Palazzo Raffadali spunky Princess Stefania pointed out a portrait of a portly ancestor she described as resembling "a potato." Baron Calefati di Canalotti hosted dinner in the sumptuous red dining room of 15th-century Palazzo Ajutamiscristo. Before our closing night dinner when we each received an "official" Royal Passport to Sicily prepared by Princess Beatrice. Prince Ruggero Moncado served cocktails in what had been his grandmother's overwhelming bathroom. We spent one evening admiring the extensive gardens and modern artworks in the Catania home of entrepreneur/artist Rossella Pezzino de Geronimo whose books of photographs engrossed us all.
Approaching the Gothic portal of Palazzo Raffadali.
Princess Stefania greeted us at Palazzo Raffadali.
Pink candles and roses at Palazzo Raffadali. Curry Glassell.
Baron Calefati greets AFV President and Founder Catharine Hamilton.
William Maroney with Baron Calefati's daughter Anna.
Pet pillow pooches on a sofa.
Canapes and cocktails preceded dinner.
Dinner at Palazzo Ajutamicristo. Inset: After dinner coffee and sweets were served on the terrace.
Prince Ruggero Moncada and his wife Nicolleta were the hosts at Palazzo Biscari. Admiring Palazzo Biscari's elaborate staircase.
Palazzo Biscari dining room set for our tour's closing dinner.
Princess Beatrice presented each of us a Royal Sicilian passport. Susan Higinbotham admires her new Sicilian passport.
Nicole DiBona. Theresa Viola.
Baron Roland de l'Espee and Dr. Susan Kendall.
Faith Coolidge and Curry Glassell.
At Le Stanze in Fiore we met garden designer, entrepreneur, artist, hostess Rossella Pezzino de Geronimo.
Admiring the garden and books of photographs taken by the hostess.
Photograph by Rossella Pezzino de Geronimo.
Enjoying the buffet dinner served at Le Stanze in Fiore.
Centerpiece arranged of natural materials by our hostess.
Penelope Holloway and John Parkerson.
Confiding that he had happened upon Palazzo di Lorenzo di Cestelluccio as an abandoned ruin in the picturesque Baroque town of Noto -- Jean-Louis Remilleux described peeking through the door at what appeared to be "pigeon paradise." The noted French television producer bought it and proceeded to restore it and stock it with a massive collection of objects. Invited to see his astonishing restoration of the large palace we marveled at its replica silver wallpaper, stuffed foxes and alligators in the cabinet of curiosities, rounded library cabinets, surfaces covered literally "wall to wall" (!) in framed pictures, engravings, paintings, and prints. As the Palazzo will be opened next spring to the public, dinner was served in Remilleux's personal quarters adjacent to Noto's only private palazzo garden.

One moonlit night in the outdoor gardens of his family estate Castelluccio, Don Luigi Bonaccorsi Principe di Reburdone hosted a ceremony uniting our engaged couple Bonnie Deutsch and Philip Hart in marriage. Strumming musicians then led us off to a candlelit dinner which wound up with all of us dancing.
Clockwise from above: Arriving at Palazzo di Lorenzo di Castelluccio in Noto; Palazzo di Lorenzo di Castelluccio's imposing entrance; Jean-Louis Remilleux, Princess Beatrice, and former AFV President le Vicomte.
Former AFV President Baron Roland d'Espee discusses antiques with the owner.
Relaxing before dinner.
Stuffed animals, shells, butterflies are among the collections in Remiilleux's cabinet of curiosities.
In Remilleux's curvy library, one set of bookcases swings open to reveal a passage to the lower floor.
Engaged couple John Viola and Nicole DiBona in the drawing room. Princess Beatrice and John Parkerson in the garden, Noto's only private palazzo garden.
Jean-Louis Remilleux welcomes the group at dinner.
Dinner at Palazzo Castelluccio was festive.
Curry Glassell and Faith Coolidge in front of the dining room's painted walls.
David Hamilton leads the commitment ceremony for Bonnie Deutsch and Philip Hartung.
Strolling minstrels serenade the newly married couple.
Catharine Hamilton, Princess Beatrice, and host Don Luigi Bonaccorsi Principe di Reburdone congratulate the couple.
Princess Beatrice with host Don Luigi Bonaccorsi Principe di Reburdone.
A candlelit dinner was held in celebration.
Dinner was followed by dancing.
Traveling between sites on our comfortable coach.
With its rich multi-cultural heritage, Sicily is full of UNESCO Heritage Sites and special officials, guides, and hosts led us through the historic locations. Monsignor Tulipano showed us around the magnificent Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel, allowing us access to the original 12th century Norman "Crypt Chapel" which is not open to the public. The Palace is now the seat of Sicilian parliament but still retains royal and official portraits in elaborately decorated corridors and rooms.
Touring the Royal Palace.
Portraits of royalty adorn walls in the Palace apartments.
Detail of the spectacular Palatine Chapel.
The lower Crypt Chapel not customarily open to the public.
The mosaic floor of the Crypt Chapel.
Aimee Maroney and former AFV President le Vicomte Olivier de Rohan.
A more casual palace is the Little Chinese House located in Parco della Favorita, a summer residence of Princess Beatrice's forebears King Ferdinand and Queen Maria Carolina. We saw the queen's draped bed and pictures of her husband and children painted on the walls of her dressing room. The dining room's elaborate dumb-waiter allowed the plate at each place to be changed in the room below, allowing guests to dine privately without servants present in the room.
The Little Chinese House was once a royal vacation residence.
Sister of Marie Antoinette, Queen Maria Carolina was the great, great, great, great grandmother of Princess Beatrice.
Mounted on wheels, Queen Maria Carolina's bed could be situated to catch cool breezes.
A clever dumb-waiter at each place allowed plates to be changed without the presence of servants.
Started by the Princess Beatrice's ancestors, with plantings from every continent, Palermo's Orto Botanico is one of Europe's most excellent subtropical gardens. Director Francisco Raimondo told us it was "like visiting the garden of the world."
Director Francisco Raimondo greeted us in the temple-like entrance to the Orto Botanico.
Princess Beatrice with a model of the original garden structure.
Sensitive plants are cultivated in the greenhouse.
Director Raimondo pointed out water repellant leaves.
John Viola and fiancee Nicole DiBona.
Vicomte Olivier's cell phone bears his Rohan family coat of arms.
In Palermo's most famous medieval church the Martorana, Papa Luigi Maria Lucini invited us to see the still private clerestory where nuns looked down through steel netting to observe services below at the altar made of lapis presented by the czar to an ancestor of Princess Beatrice.
Papa Luigi Maria Lucini guided us around the Martorana.
At the Martorana nuns viewed services through an elaborate metal gate.
The Martorana altar is made of lapis Czar Nicholas donated to the royal family. Dr. Susan Kendall rests on the clerestory bench where nuns knelt to observe Martorana church services.
Our evening visit to Palermo's extraordinary Cathedral Monreale opened dramatically with organ music playing as the lights were gradually raised to reveal the exquisite Arab-Norman interior of the church known as the "Golden Temple."
Arcivescovo Michele Pennisi led our evening visit to Monreale Cathedral. Monreale Cathedral was dramatically lit for our visit at dusk.
The next day, charming music on the violin, organ, and voice enhanced our visit to the private Oratorio delle Dame where noble women once came to pray and serve the poor within walls decorated with elaborate paintings and frescos.
Through the door, a leafy path leads to the Oratorio chapel.
A painting over the altar represents the noblewomen who gathered here to do good works. Princess Beatrice's 19th-century ancestor Queen Maria Carolina served as Prior.
During the music we admire the extraordinary painting of Palermo's master painter Giacomo Serpotta.
We visited the Villa Palagonia decorated with "monsters" which led Goethe to invent the neologism "Pallogonic" to describe crazy, chaotic works.
Grotesques decorate the eaves of Villa Palagonia.
Michele Fouan examines a monster fountain.
In Syracuse and Taromina, guides explained the ruins of Greek and Roman amphitheaters, and we were astonished to view the world's most extensive remaining mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale, a 5th-century AD Roman estate high in the island's interior.
The floors of 4th century Villa Romana del Casale retain the world's most extensive Roman mosaics.
Wall to wall mosaics at Casale ...
The Viola family visiting the ruins of the Greek Temple at Syracuse.
Ruins of the historic Greek and Roman theater at Taromina.
Susan Higinbotham with Taromina and cloud capped Mt. Etna in the background.
Fine dining is also a feature of the AFV journeys. Customarily each day's full course lunches and dinners are presented in private homes, but we did have a chance to sample Chef Angelo Treno's sophisticated modern cuisine, concluding with crunchy honey ricotta mousse for dessert at the countryside inn of Al Fogher. Sardinian specialties at Catania's Osteria Bello Antonio included salty orange, caponata, and sardine antipasti and miracle local cassata cheesecake.
Al Fogher chef Angelo Treno poses with Princess Beatrice. Little Blunderbus veal sausage with crisp vegetables was served at Al Fogher.
Susan and Harlow Higinbotham seated at Ostaria Bello Antonio.
Osteria Bello Antonio's renowned caponata.
Ostaria Bello Antonio's specialty cheesecake.
And our concluding luncheon was held amidst the amazing gardens of Taromina's San Domenico Hotel on a terrace overlooking the sea and hovering over the Cape of Noxos which was the site of Sicily's original Greek settlement, concluding our voyage where the country had begun.
The tour concluded at Taromina's San Domenico Palace Hotel.
Closing luncheon at San Domenico Palace Hotel.
Ragusano cheese gratin was served at lunch.
Catharine Hamilton relaxes after an exhausting but fascinating trip.
Curry Glassell shows the set of souvenir plates each of us took home.
Princess Beatrice presented each of us with a Royal Passport to Sicily.
Final views of the Sicilian coast.