In Sicily, the aristocracy has flung open the doors of its palazzi to reveal a world virtually unchanged since the 19th century. Guy Trebay steps in to find that you don't have to be a prince to be treated like royalty

Zubin Shroff

Before coming to Sicily I made a vow to resist the usual orgies of description: no octopuses gleaming in slick mounds at street markets, no ineffable gelato, no marzipan candies shaped and colored to imitate artichokes. How droll food writers always seem to find these trompe l'oeil candies. How saccharine, they always forget to remark, is the taste. And so there would be no food writing for me, I resolved, until the invitation came, about a week into my visit, to lunch at the Palazzo Biscari.

Readers familiar with Anthony Blunt may remember that the late Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, also a Soviet spy and scholar of the Sicilian Baroque, once judged this vast edifice a perfect prototype. Built in the 1700's for the princes of Paternò Castello, the Palazzo Biscari is indeed a compelling pile, but it is also set in a city that some guides consider among the most degraded in Western Europe. In that contradiction lies an important truth about Sicily.

I say "truth" but, of course, there is no single agreed-upon truth on Sicily, an island that a famous anti-Mafia prosecutor once called "too complicated even for Sicilians to understand," a judgment I see no reason to dispute. Overloaded with art historical treasures, undersupplied with infrastructure, left half-crippled by the Mafia, an organization once officially held not to exist, Sicily possesses a combination of stark topography and social rococo that enchanted an often cranky Goethe on his 18th-century sojourn there, and beguiled and perplexed me on my own. Sicily, it almost goes without saying, is a deeply paradoxical and in some ways separate universe. The remnants of a courtly aristocracy continue to inhabit grand houses embedded in often decaying cities where poverty and corruption are so intractable that many regard their own existence as material for some dark universal joke. Indeed, a singular black humor seems to cut across class lines in Sicily, as I was to discover during several weeks there—much of it as a tourist privileged to observe at close hand the island's titled class.

Catania, for example, is a large city on the eastern side of the island, spread across a broad plain below the deceptively placid cone of Mount Etna and historically shaped by its convulsive whim. Destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 and later rebuilt in the then-new Baroque style, the city is organized on a super-rational grid whose wide avenues and palm-fringed squares have less to do with civic spirit than with dread of seismic shock. In Catania, the usual confectionary aspect of Baroque architecture tends to be offset by the widespread use of gray lava stone, a substance that might weigh the soul on even the sunniest of days.

"Catania is black," the wry septuagenarian journalist Baroness Renata Pucci Zanca said on my visit. "The town," she added merrily, "is black."

When it rains there, it is blacker still and rain it did when I arrived, drizzle becoming cracking thunderstorm and then Homeric squalls that pelted the island for days. Having flown in from dreary Milan on the fantasy of a balmy and lemon-scented escape, I found myself instead in a landscape resembling a soup pot sealed tightly beneath a lid of gray sky.

"It's a disaster!" said Giovannella Paternò Castello di San Giuliano, at whose 18th-century family villa in Carruba I arrived soaking wet and in need of a drink. After a week threading the scruffy maze of old Palermo I was looking forward to spending time at the Don Arcangelo all'Olmo, a recently renovated, centuries-old family compound situated amid 200 acres of lemon groves set on a ridge between Etna and the Ionian Sea. That, anyhow, is what Giovannella di San Giuliano assured me, although the view had to be taken on faith, since neither mountain nor water could be detected through the murk.

My cicerone in eastern Sicily was to be Giovannella's eldest brother, the Marchese Benedetto Paternò Castello di San Giuliano, scion of a clan from that caste sometimes referred to as the Leopards, after the inescapable novel (The Leopard) by the Sicilian prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Unlike most European aristocrats, Benedetto di San Giuliano is seductively unpretentious, a seasoned world traveler and raconteur likelier to hold forth on the Jungle Room at Graceland than on the intricacies of the Almanach de Gotha, that dreary studbook of the European aristocracy.

It is true that when the Prince of Wales came to Sicily in 1990, he stayed with the San Giulianos at their 15th-century castle outside Catania. It is also true of the San Giulianos that they do not allow the prettiness of their pedigree to go to their heads. Among the family's more admirably pragmatic traits is its leadership in a move among highborn Sicilians to lure tourist dollars away from the overrun hills of Tuscany by opening up their own astounding villas, abbeys, and vineyards to paying guests.

One young prince, for instance, the London-based Antonio Licata di Baucina, recently joined his cousins Riccardo and Aleramo Lanza in forming a company to conduct high-end tours of Europe, which could include a formal meal at his family's Renaissance palazzo in an old quarter of Palermo. Some might find it easier than I do to resist the idea of staging a private dinner party at the palace, where the gymnasium-sized salon has stucco walls ornamented with dancing leopards and where the dining room is lit by a Murano chandelier that is the largest 18th-century example of its kind. "It is like an octopus," Antonio's mother, Princess Licata di Baucina,told me, "with ninety-nine arms." The wine-making nobleman Lucio Tasca d'Almerita recently began leasing his 18th-century villa on the outskirts of Palermo, a place where Wagner was a frequent enough guest to have left behind the manuscript fragments that Count Tasca keeps framed. And the Baroness Annastella Chiaramonte Bordonaro now leases a villa in Palermo, a place with a garden so extensive that the baroness's father once led quail shoots there.

That these properties rent for sums that would make most ordinary people blanch is hardly surprising. Yet not all the new hotel-keeping in Sicily is pitched at the few remaining winners of the dot-com lottery, a fact that in itself seems worthy of remark. The Marchesa Maria Luisa Palermo, for example, is one among a number of aristocrats who now run reasonably priced agritourism ventures, hers a farm, the Villa Lucia, in the hills outside Syracuse. The owners of the Relais Santa Anastasia have converted their austere Benedictine monastery near Cefalù into elegant lodgings set amid vineyards where grapes for the abbey's excellent Chardonnay blends are grown. And, of course, the San Giulianos have the Don Arcangelo all'Olmo, where paying guests like myself find an unusually high level of cosseting and an even rarer degree of access to a largely hermetic world.

To be well-introduced in any Italian city is not merely to engage in some Jamesian fantasia. Italian society has never been renowned for its embrace of outsiders, and it does not take the instincts of Tony Soprano to comprehend that the advantages of friends in Sicily is foremost a practical concern. "It's an impossible place," Giovannella di San Giuliano's youngest daughter, Ilaria Balduino, explained over dinner one evening in New York. "Tourists come for a vacation, they don't come to do battle," she said, referring to the never-ending challenge of navigating the island's "First World prices and Third World hotel service," its weirdly goosed-up tariffs, its fluky timings, padlocked churches, and the blandly accepted fact that a great many sights in this most secretive of places are entirely closed to view.

The Dominican monastery church of Santa Caterina in Palermo, for example, is perhaps the finest Baroque ecclesiastical interior in Sicily, frothing with stucco statuary, hectic pastel frescoes, and marmoreal excess. There are altars of amethyst and of lapis lazuli. There is a biblical bas-relief depicting Jonah and the whale in what seems like an early version of CGI. There is a soaring 18th-century cupola lighting an interior presided over by a statue of the church patron, a nun from a wealthy family named Maria del Carretto, sculpted by Antonello Gagini in 1534. There is, too, a haughtily severe Renaissance façade that is about all of Santa Caterina that most visitors ever get to see. The church is held in trust by the seven ancient surviving nuns of the order, and the public is permitted inside just one day a year, on St. Catherine's Day.

Yet when I visited the Palazzo Alliata di Pietratagliata in Palermo, Antonio Licata di Baucina suggested that we have a look at the church the following day. "There is so much in Sicily that people need help to experience," he remarked. Arriving the next morning at the door of a convent behind the church square, Baucina pressed a buzzer and bent toward an intercom to speak what were apparently the magic words. "It is the Prince of Baucina," he whispered, as though Italy were not legally a republic and as if the perfumed world of Tomasi di Lampedusa were in no sense a vanished one. Promptly a buzzer sounded. A door swung open. Keys were produced. We trotted around to a side door of Santa Caterina and let ourselves in.

To say that the experience was heady is not to suggest that the average traveler is in much danger of feeling shortchanged in Sicily. The island, after all, is almost embarrassingly over-endowed with the loot left behind by the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, the Bourbons, and the various other invaders lured there over 25 centuries by its agricultural wealth, unsurpassed marble quarries, vast salt flats, abundant fisheries, and strategic position in, as one journalist put it, "the Mediterranean heart of things."

There is another, less palpable, kind of wealth in Sicily, which takes the form of what you could call a Sicilian cast of mind. Colonized relentlessly over centuries, Sicilians appear to have absorbed and then subtly subsumed whatever it would have been fatal to resist outright. Thus the island became the exotic amalgam that it remains, and the Sicilians a blended people, so tempered by their heritage that they sometimes suffer from what the writer Gesualdo Bufalino called "an excess of identity." A Sicilian's birthright, Bufalino noted, is the conviction that he stands at the center of the world. Like most blessings, this one embraces its own opposition; it is not rare in Sicily to encounter expressions of almost existential resignation to what Bufalino called "the thousand windings" of inheritance.

To visit Sicily is to feel somehow implicated in these turnings, physically, emotionally, and psychically. On a given Sunday afternoon, one may find oneself, as I did, standing in the small Baroque city of Noto, elated at the overwhelming spectacle of buildings columned, domed, and ostentatiously barnacled with carvings, all of them arrayed as richly as cakes in a bakery window.

In Noto, the day I visited, sun pierced the clouds and fell in fat slabs across the broad piazzas. Although the palaces were shuttered, the family bustle of a midday meal floated from behind the curtains of a porter's apartment. Two women hung wash on a wire angled between a house and the corner of an elegant small church. I got the sense of having wandered onto a stage set during a break in the program: a turn of the clock and the show would resume. That same afternoon as I drove back toward Catania, I found myself dispiritedly passing through scenery left over from another, and more typically squalid, island scenario. Ubiquitous, half-finished housing blocks litter coastal Sicily like corroded souvenirs deposited by such gangsters as the unlettered Totò Riina, who bilked his own people with construction boondoggles as he also helped bring down an international banking cartel, subvert Italian politics, and dispatch his enemies using particularly vicious means. Riina was notorious for having murder victims dissolved in acid. One is reminded of those people by the sight of so many buildings gutted and left as skeletal remains. "I don't say, 'There is no Mafia anymore,'" the renowned former mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, told me one afternoon at his Art Nouveau villa in the city center. "What I say is that, at a certain point, Sicilians were obliged to decide between terror and shame and while, for many years, they accepted shame, when the disease became acute, they fought back." Orlando's success in combating the Sicilian mob earned him shortlist status for a Nobel Peace Prize, but not without personal cost. He and his family have spent decades living under 24-hour police guard, and the one time in his adult life when he was able to drive an automobile was on a trip to California, where he impulsively rented a convertible and roamed the coastal highway, unawarethat FBI agents were protectively on his tail.

In Sicily, a visitor is repeatedly left struggling to reconcile excesses of artistic splendor and moral squalor, to negotiate between the occult and the rational, sensuality and intellect. One afternoon on the small island of Ortigia, just off the eastern coastal city of Syracuse and a new destination for northern Italy's art-and-fashion flock, I came across a wizened vendor roasting chestnuts on a homemade brazier. Their smoky aroma ribboned past the columned façade of Andrea Palma's duomo and into a sky of stormy green clouds. Dogs ran freely through the piazza, and time collapsed. One was in the 21st century and also the 17th.

A stone's throw from the church, along streets with names like Via Circe, stands a landmark that every guidebook commends with the usual historical blather: references to Pindar, to Virgil, to the goddess Artemis. (Although oddly not to Caligula, who, having raped his sister Drusilla and then taken her for his common-law wife, became so crazed by her unexpected death that he fled Rome for Syracuse to consult the oracles, never bothering, as the Roman biographer Suetonius fastidiously noted, to bathe or shave.) Fed from a source first discovered by the Greeks, this legendary landmark, the Fountain of Arethusa, looked to me like a glorified duck pond. Litter clung to stands of mingy papyrus. Tourists clumped around a columned fragment that resembled the kind of Neoclassical fakery you'd expect at a suburban garden center, someplace like New Jersey's celebrated Fountains of Wayne. The fencing was picked out in Christmas bulbs.

"If you can't accept contradiction, you can't understand Sicily," says my friend Piero Longo, the author of a recent volume on Sicily's architectural history. One could say the same of excess.

Horror vacui is how Longo describes the Sicilian aversion to the austere, visible in the phenomenal gilded mosaic cycles at the hilltop cathedral of Monreale, almost surreal in their scale and extent; in the Gesù church in Palermo, so ornamented that the decorations seem like magnified depictions of viral pathology; in the fatigued botanical garden on Via Lincoln, where 18th-century attempts at planting according to the rational Linnaean precepts are overwhelmed by the island's rampant fecundity. A kind of elaborate tension informs the give-and-take of even the most ordinary transactions, infusing the act of paying a taxi fare, mailing a postcard, or ordering a chickpea fritter on the street with a sense of theatrical business, as if to test whether you're in on the game.

"Learn these," instructed Renata Zanca, grabbing my notebook to write out the following: knife, fork, spoon, I'd like some more, thank you, that's enough. We were seated at an outdoor table of the Antica Focacceria San Francesco in Palermo, Zanca offering a thumbnail lesson in Italian that was also an impromptu tutorial in Sicilian priorities.

At the Antica Focacceria, a chef stands over an ancient cast-iron stove near the entrance, stirring veal stew to ladle onto buns for take-out sandwiches. One cook or another has done so since the days when Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi was a carriage depot for workers from the island's rural interior. In the 20th century, the Antica Focacceria broadened its clientele to include the Palermitan middle classes and, if not its titled gentry, then at least such important personages as Murder, Inc. founder Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who ate at the same table here every day for years. Lately the restaurant has reinvented itself as a center for Slow Food, the Italian-incubated movement to combat fast-food culture, nonsustainable farming, and the juggernaut of globalized economies. "Seven new words or phrases a day and you've got the language," Zanca said. "Have another dessert."

Among the delicacies on the tray proffered by a waiter was gelo di melone, made from watermelon pulp flavored with jasmine water. Traditionally served on the feast of Santa Rosalia, this super-refined gelatin appears regularly on the Antica Focacceria menu in summer and would be the envy of any pastry chef in New York.

I did have a second dessert, and not for the last time. One night at the Don Arcangelo all'Olmo, where the delicious meals are prepared by Marina di San Giuliano, Giovannella di San Giuliano's sister-in-law, the trays of cannoli brought by a guest from a bakery in Messina were set to compete against a platter baked at home. As a dutiful guest I gorged on both and claimed diplomatic neutrality.

One constantly eats well in Sicily, it hardly needs saying, and drinks well, too, a variety of fine new wineries having worked hard to dispel the clichés about rotgut table reds. The blended whites from the Relais Santa Anastasia in particular stand out, as does the Chardonnay from Planeta, a favorite of Wine Spectator types, although hardly anything compares in memory with a table wine served at that lunch one afternoon in the Palazzo Biscari.

It was not the wine itself that mattered, of course, but the setting. The palace, which I mentioned at the outset, is Catania's largest private palazzo. I saw it just once, at lunch on a rainy afternoon, and yet it has provided me with the most durable image of all. The palace itself is a mixture of grandeur and desuetude, the great balconies of its piano nobile designed to command a panorama of the seaport but cut off from that prospect by 19th-century authorities who built an elevated railway track that spites the view. In one wing of the palace are the apartments of Giovanna Moncada and her yachtsman son, Lorenzo. Deep inside these chambers, and reached along a series of connecting salons, is a room that is among the most renowned in Sicily.

The Gallery of the Birds is decorated with inset mirrors and boiseries painted a Venetian green. Its white-and-yellow floors, now faded and crackled, are paved with 18th-century terra-cotta tiles patinated by centuries of wear. What lends the gallery its lasting fame is the birdlife populating every surface. This improbable aviary was commissioned by IgnazioPaternò Castello from anonymous local artisans who were allegedly given a copy of George Louis Leclerc de Buffon's then recently published Natural History to imitate.

The task was carried out with brio and naïveté. Swallows clutch fruit baskets in their claws. Eagles teeter on the branches of mulberry trees. Quizzical owls are hung with painted ribbons that record their names in Latin. When Goethe was a visitor to the palace in 1787, the brackets that ornament the gallery's mirrored niches would have been adorned with yet more birds, three-dimensional porcelain ones from the fashionable manufactory at Meissen. Those china creatures were sold or stolen or otherwise broken up during the Allied invasion. Somehow, the pathos of loss enhances the overall grandeur of the room.

Lunch in the gallery was classic Sicilian fare: a first course of spaghetti wrapped in fine strips of sautéed eggplant, the main course a variant of a fish dish often associated with the coastal city of Messina—although served by a white-gloved retainer. If little that I encountered in Sicily remains as memorable as that meal of involtini di pesce spada, the reason is no mystery.

A gastroporn cliché it may be, but food remains an abiding Italian metaphor, often the best way to absorb the complex turnings of the country's varied traditions. What the eye or the intellect cannot digest, the stomach can usually manage, or so I felt as I cut into a dish of pounded swordfish rolls whose stuffing combined many elements from Sicily's stratified history.

To note that parsley, garlic, pine nuts, green olives, capers, pecorino, and sea salt all go into making the dish is also involuntarily to draw imaginary vectors to the Arab and Roman and African and pre-Christian worlds. To observe that some cooks, like Giovanna Moncada's, add to the stuffing minced raisins plumped in Malvasia delle Lipari liqueur is to invoke the Sicily of Diodorus Siculus, who described that potent island concoction in the first century b.c.

The involtini di pesce spada prepared by Moncada's cook were delicately flavored. With them we drank a frank young white from grapes grown in Etna's volcanic soil. Rain falling outside in gunmetal sheets cast the room into a kind of burnished twilight. That the conversation seems unmemorable in retrospect hardly matters. The lunch was, to poach a phrase from Alexandre Dumas's Sicilian memoir Le Speronare, "one of those indescribable hours that one can summon up in memory by closing one's eyes." It was the sort of occasion that even so self-assured a writer as Dumas did not believe could be properly captured with a pen. As it happens, neither do I.

GUY TREBAY is a staff reporter for the New York Times.

Palermo is easily reached by plane via Rome or Milan; direct flights are not available from the United States. Renting a car is recommended, as public transport is limited.

Palazzo Biscari Two apartments are available for rent; no maid service. DOUBLES FROM $95. 10 VIA MUSEO BISCARI, CATANIA; 39-095/715-2508;

Don Arcangelo all'Olmo DOUBLES FROM $190. 16 VIA L'OLMO, CARRUBA; 39-095/964-729;

Relais Santa Anastasia This former abbey about 40 minutes outside Cefalù has been converted into a 28-room hotel. Wine is produced at the vineyards surrounding the property. DOUBLES FROM $255. CONTRADE SANTA ANASTASIA, CASTELBUONO; 39-092/167-2233;

Grand Hotel et Des Palmes Nineteenth-century hotel with 177 rooms. DOUBLES FROM $235. 398 VIA ROMA, PALERMO; 39-091/602-8111;

Bravo Holiday Residences Can book you into the various palazzi and arrange villa rentals and private tours. 237 LAFAYETTE ST., SUITE 5W, NEW YORK; 866/265-5516;

Lanza & Baucina Sets up luxury special events in Europe, and is run by brothers Count Riccardo and Count Aleramo Lanza and their cousin Prince Antonio Licata di Baucina. 44-207/738-2222;

Antica Focacceria San Francesco DINNER FOR TWO $76. 58 VIA ALESSANDRO PATERNOSTRO, PALERMO; 39-091/320-264

Santandrea The menu changes daily. DINNER FOR TWO $90. 4 PIAZZA SANT'ANDREA, PALERMO; 39-091/334-999

Palermo's two best outdoor markets are the Mercato Ballarò (between Piazza Ballarò and Piazza del Carmine) and the Mercato Capo (in Piazza Beati Paoli).

Associazione Figli d'Arte Cuticchio Puppet theater has a long tradition in Sicily. The best performances are staged by Mimmo Cuticchio, a third-generation master puppeteer. Call for showtimes.95 VIA BARA ALL'OLIVELLA, PALERMO; 39-091/323-400

Antica Focacceria San Francesco

An institution in downtown Palermo since 1834, this old school bistro is a top draw for gourmands, who come for the "slow-food" inspired focaccia sandwiches, deep-fried chickpea fritters, and arancini (rice balls stuffed with tomatoes, peas, and mozzarella). The menu’s highlight though is the boiled beef spleen–cheese combo anino con la milza. Once a favorite of mobster Lucky Luciano, the focacceria is now one of the few businesses in Palermo that refuses to pay protection money. The interior is marked by antique wooden cabinets, marble tables, and cast-iron ovens.

Don Arcangelo all'Olmo

When the Marquis and Marchioness Paterno’ Castello di San Giuliano returned to their ancestral home in Sicily after years abroad, they renovated their villa that had stood empty 100 years. Bookended by Mount Etna to the west and the Ionian Sea to the east, the property now stands as the premier villa to rent on the island with two separate buildings that sleep up to 24 guests. Both include copious lava stone, vaulted ceilings, colorful Caltagirone tile work, and a full staff of cooks, waiters, and maids. Lemon fans have 200 surrounding acres to pick from.

Grand Hotel et Des Palmes

For gravitas, it’s hard to beat the Grand Hotel et Des Palmes in the center of old town Palermo. Built in the 1850s, the hotel has seen sensational murders, suicides, dangerous liaisons, and diplomatic intrigue, especially in 1943, when it served as allied headquarters. Today, the hotel’s 177 rooms and six suites offer a palatial accommodation full of antique furnishings, thick curtains, stucco ceilings, and parquet floors. Gala events and conferences take place in the grand salons — replete with marble sculptures, massive chandeliers, and gilt mirrors.

Relais Santa Anastasia

An abbey stands on a hilltop overlooking the town of Castelbuono in northern Sicily. Eight centuries ago it was full of Benedictine monks, but today it's the Relais Santa Anastasia, hosting guests in 25 rooms and three suites behind its thick, stone walls. In tribute to its history of winemaking (vineyards continue to surround the building), the owners named each warm-yet-austerely decorated room after a grape. The hotel also has a tapestried reading room, complete with fireplace and large sofas, as well as a hydro-massage swimming pool and on-site spa.

Palazzo Biscari

Prince Ignazio V was a Renaissance man in the mid-1700's and modeled his palace to follow suit. Throughout the hundreds of rooms, a rococo spirit lavishly expresses itself in stucco walls, gilt framing, limestone sculpture, ebony walls, and frescoes by Sebastiano Lo Monaco. Today, the private apartments attract a steady stream of tourists, while the ballroom hosts conferences and celebrations. One lucky person can even rent the one set of private quarters, but only for longer stays. Ignazio’s obsession with archeology also makes the palace museum a hot spot for students and enthusiasts.