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Sicily, Old & New

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Photo: David Cicconi

So, in the hope of catching a few glimpses of this renaissance, my wife, son, and I charted a course through southeastern Sicily, seeking out a generation of Sicilians who are trying to reinvent the island for a new kind of traveler, one who is looking for rustic beauty and authentic charm. We stayed around the hilly rural area west of Siracusa and east of Agrigento—Noto, Ragusa, and Modica—all beautiful Baroque cities largely ignored by tourists, who almost invariably head for the beach. This is a region of deep gorges, quiet farms, carob plantations, and rugged limestone cliffs. In 1693, its towns were completely razed by a massive earthquake—giving the great Baroque architects a blank slate on which to build rationally planned cities like Noto. The landscape is neither European nor African, but something in between. Culturally, it is the Switzerland of Sicily. Unemployment, which is still at a staggering 23 percent across the rest of the island, is half that in Ragusa. And because the southeast is geographically isolated from the rest of Sicily by the Iblean Mountains, it has remained relatively free of organized crime.

We had considered renting a villa somewhere in the Val de Noto, and to explore the possibilities, I met in Rome with Emma Averna, a Milanese who learned the luxury business while working at Bulgari, and Federica Musco, a Sicilian journalist based in Catania; together they run Sicily Deluxe, a rental agency that aims to persuade Americans who traditionally take houses in Tuscany to consider Sicily instead. Over lunch, they told me they spend a good deal of time trying to coax what remains of the old Sicilian aristocracy to bring their villas up to "American standards"—which inevitably means putting in a swimming pool. "Why do Americans always need a swimming pool—they have the sea!" Musco cried, in a husky-voiced imitation of an outraged Sicilian count.

Sicily Deluxe had a couple of great-looking places, but in the end we decided against a villa, in favor of moving around. However, as we were driving south from the Catania airport to Siracusa, passing the gigantic oil refineries on the coast—a view that looked very much like the old Sicily in its utter lack of regard for the preservation of the island's natural beauty—I thought of something else Musco had said. "Sicily selects certain people. If you like to go to the Hamptons, then you will like Tuscany, because everything is in place. But in Sicily you have beauty right next to the horrible, black and white, the sea and the mountains—there is no middle ground."

Just outside Ortigia, the island on which the ancient city of Siracusa is built, the Anapo River flows out of the mountains. Beside the river, about a half-mile from the port, is a boutique hotel called Caol Ishka, Gaelic for "sound of water." It falls loosely into the tradition of the masseria, or converted farm, as opposed to an agriturismo, or working farm. The young owners, Emanuela Marino and her partner, Gareth Shaughnessy, retained the skeleton of the farm buildings but redesigned the interiors to make 10 rustic-chic rooms with lofty wooden roofs, lavish showers, and stylish Italian lighting and bathroom fixtures. You can get Wi-Fi out on the veranda, as you walk around the papyrus and bamboo stands that ring the grounds, or sit by the river and watch the rowers go by in their shells. There's also an infinity pool.

Marino is a clever 36-year-old Sicilian with flashing black eyes and perfect English, who attended business school in London, where she met Shaughnessy, who is Irish. Both were working in business, advancing in their careers, but neither was very happy. So when the possibility arose of developing an old farm that had been in Marino's family, they decided to quit their jobs and give it a try. They moved to Siracusa, where they live in the town's historic center, and converted the rustic farm buildings into one- and two-story bungalows with the help of local designer Roberto Gallo.

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