Ever-present in popular consciousness as the birthplace of Mafia lawlessness, Sicily has now become a fashionable island. The myth-enshrouded Cosa Nostra has waned in influence, and some of the problems left behind poverty and civic neglect are being dosed with a large injection of EU funding in a push to modernise the island off the toe of Italy.
Although the decaying grandeur of parts of Palermo hints at the island’s chequered past, the chic tourist resort of Taormina and the trendy Aeolian islands offer the boutique hotels and upmarket villas that draw the A-list crowd. It would be the biggest crime of all to go merely for the beaches and the restaurants as you might to nearby Sardinia when Sicily has spectacular ancient sites and Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano.
The popular Sicilian saying ‘Italy without Sicily counts for nothing. Sicily without Italy is not afraid’ sums up the proud independence of the island. In language, climate, temperament and cuisine, the Sicilian way is more extreme, a melting pot of Greek, Arab, Spanish and North African. Raw and diverse, it promises riches for the intrepid.
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With access to the island having improved hugely in recent years and a fourth airport due to open at Cosimo/Ragusa in the south-east Sicily has become a practical second-home choice, and it’s cheaper than mainland Italy. Properties are one-fifth of comparable ones in nearby Malta, according to Mario Spiteri of Go Sicily Properties, for whom 70% of its buyers are Maltese, the rest German and British (www.gosicilyproperties.com).
‘Farmhouses or country houses that need renovating are popular, but there are also former palaces, town houses or new-builds ready to move into,’ he says. The British, who started buying two years ago, favour the east coast, and prices around Ragusa have increased by 10% a year. A fully renovated four-bedroom farmhouse can fetch €1 million. In Palermo, it used to be easy to snap up an apartment in a grand old block, complete with frescoed ceilings, for less than £50,000, but now, many are developed and sold on for nearer £150,000.
Few properties have been promoted to the international market, but the opening, this week, of Sir Rocco Forte’s Verdura Golf & Spa Resort promises to launch Sicily as a luxury-resort destination. The 570-acre site, with just over a mile of prime beachfront, is located near the fishing town of Sciacca in the south-west an hour from Palermo popular with locals, but not yet on the international tourist map. Sixty villas will be released for private sale, on top of the 203 rooms in the hotel complex, restaurants, a 43,000sq ft spa, three golf courses and the essential helipad. Priced between €1.5 million and €5 million, villas will be 3,875sq ft-plus, in low-lying Moorish style from locally sourced volcanic tufa stone with courtyards, roof terraces and private gyms (020–7766 3141; www.verduraresort.com).
Other developments are hoping to benefit from the attention that Verdura is bringing to what Sir Rocco calls ‘the forgotten country of Sicily’, but, first, a cautionary note for prospective buyers. Sicily is not yet fertile ground for English-speaking agents, so it’s often a hard, slow process to source resale properties. The rental market is also in its infancy, although again, with tourist numbers rising, the potential is certainly there.