In the lair of The Leopard
If there is one novel everyone agrees you have to read before you go to Sicily, it's not Mario Puzo's doorstop The Godfather; it's a far slimmer volume - The Leopard by the aristocratic author Giuseppe di Lampedusa.
Il Gattopardo, as it is called in Italian, was first published in 1958, a year after its author's death.
A solitary and taciturn man, he never completed another book (though fragments of other stories have recently been published in an English edition), and could not have dreamed that his depiction of an old Sicilian noble family adapting to changing times would become a world-acknowledged masterpiece and classic.
The book's most famous line, "if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change", is uttered by Tancredi, the handsome nephew of older nobleman Don Fabrizio, urging him to abandon his loyalty to the decaying Sicilian kingdom and ally himself instead with Garibaldi.
The line came to embody a philosophy known as Gattopardismo, broadly defined as the power of compromise.
Today, that compromise is alive and well at di Lampedusa's former home, a splendid 17th-century palazzo on Via Butera, overlooking the bay in the heart of Palermo's superb baroque quarter.
There, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, the current Prince of Lampedusa and Duke of Palma, who inherited the titles as di Lampedusa's adopted heir, lives in the author's home surrounded by the trappings of a refined life.
The octogenarian does so because he and his petite Venetian wife, Nicoletta, rent out the upstairs rooms, once the servants' quarters, to paying guests. The income allows them to restore their home to its former grandeur, while allowing stickybeaks to enjoy a glimpse of the Leopard's lair at close quarters.
As well as offering accommodation, the savvy duchess (who speaks perfect English and was once a UN translator) runs brisk cooking classes three times a week in the blue-and-white-tiled kitchen of her home.
It's a clever way to generate more funds to preserve a home that needs a lot of attention.
We start by gathering herbs on the broad tiled terrace, where the duchess has planted citrus trees and miniature pomegranates in pots. A small turtle, the emblem on the duke's family crest, paddles in a tiny pond.
Then, we go to the market to source fresh ingredients; the duchess prefers the Capo market to the closer and more famous Vucciria, which the Australian author Peter Robb described so mouthwateringly in Midnight in Sicily.
Sadly it is now a shadow of its former self, thanks to the arrival of French hypermarket chain Carrefour.
Aprons on, black coffee served by a maid, we get down to roasting peppers for a salad, making involtini, a tomato-based version of a pesto sauce, and a soft dessert called biancomangiare (white pudding) made with almond milk garnished with fresh pistachios, jasmine flowers from the terrace, and shaved dark chocolate.
The duchess is a no-nonsense cook who prepares traditional recipes using typical Sicilian ingredients such as bottarga (compressed fish roe). The dishes we make are homely, seasonal and rich in flavour without being flamboyant.
She is precise and demanding, and most insistent that we pound our veal scallopini until they are just so; when we stuff and roll them clumsily, she rejects them and tells us to do it again.
The climax of the half-day course is lunch in the splendid formal dining room overlooking the terrace and the sea beyond, served by a waiter in white gloves and eaten off china bearing the duke's crest. Presiding at the head of the table, the duke tells anecdotes about Sicily (he despises the trend of what he describes as mafia turismo, visiting sites where the mob assassinated prominent lawyers and other public figures), the famous author and, of course, the film of the book by Luchino Visconti.
While it was not shot at the palazzo, which was in too bad a state of disrepair following the extensive American bombing of Palermo during World War II, some pieces of furniture from the house were used. The duke, who once ran several of Italy's second-tier opera houses, knows Visconti well, and the cast of Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon (a smouldering Tancredi) and the luscious Claudia Cardinale.
After lunch he leads his guests through the formal apartments. In the yellow drawing room, or salone, he reveals his piece de resistance - the original manuscript of The Leopard, which he helped type as a young man.
It's easy enough to do the maths and speculate that he might be the real Tancredi, or at least the source of inspiration for one of literature's best-known characters. The question pleases him and elicits an affirmation that attempts modesty while revealing pride. "Yes, I am Tancredi," he says, with a little shrug, as if coming face-to-face with such a person were an everyday occurrence.
After lunch, the official visit is over. Guests who have rented accommodation are met by Joanna, the duchess' capable personal assistant from Brisbane, and led to the top of the house, where some rooms have views of the port from bijou balconies.
Apartments vary in size and amenities, but all have cheerful painted tile or parquet floors and second-hand furniture, giving them a lived-in quality, offset by satellite TV and free, though intermittent, Wi-Fi. The kitchens are well-equipped for visitors who want to source produce at the market and self-cater. (There are plenty of restaurants in the piazza around the corner and on the seafront, where stalls sell fresh shellfish and gelati bars make a dazzling array of seasonal ices).
Thoughtfully, there is soap powder for the washing machine, as well as basic supplies, including a carton of milk in the fridge to get things started.
With low rates, it's little surprise that travellers and families make the palazzo their base for exploring not only Palermo (the famous botanical gardens are within walking distance) but beyond, going along the coast to Cefalu for the day, or inland to the Villa Romana del Casale with its spectacular restored mosaics at Piazza Armerina.
In early October, we were even able to park outside the door, though driving in Palermo is not for the faint-hearted; there is a good bus service nearby.
The quiet season, says the duchess, is between November and February, when it rains and the city goes into hibernation. It's a melancholy time that may well have suited Wagner, who wrote Parsifal at a hotel not far away.
She is candid about her desire to welcome more visitors in winter and points out that the apartments are centrally heated. It snows rarely in town, usually settling on the surrounding mountains, but when it does (most recently in 2009) , the light dusting adds a decorative sparkle to the patinaed limestone facades of the city's great architectural masterpieces.
For literary pilgrims it does not get much better than reading The Leopard beneath the very roof where the book was not only conceived, but where its hero lives and breathes - incontrovertible proof that things have indeed both changed and stayed the same.
The writer travelled at her expense.
Five more great literary pilgrimages
VICTOR HUGO'S HOME, PLACE DES VOSGES, PARIS, FRANCE The oldest and most elegant square in Paris where the author of Les Miserables lived in a lavish apartment for 16 years at the height of his fame. See maisonsvictorhugo.paris.
THOMAS HARDY'S COTTAGE, HIGHER BROCKHAMPTON, DORCHESTER, BRITAIN Walk through the fragrant bluebell forest to this modest low-ceilinged thatched cottage where Hardy was born and wrote his classic Far from the Madding Crowd. See nationaltrust.org.uk.
THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE, ISTANBUL, TURKEY Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk spent his prizemoney on this eccentric, idiosyncratic collection to go with his novel of the same name. Housed in a building in Beyoglu, it displays objects from the '70s, the period in which the novel is set. See masumiyetmuzesi.org.
JANE AUSTEN'S HOME, CHAWTON IN HAMPSHIRE, BRITAIN You won't believe how tiny the table is at which Austen penned her immortal novels. This modest house showcases the humble circumstances and frugality of the Austen women who dyed their dresses with plants from the garden rather than buy new ones. See jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk.
MUSEE NISSIM DE CAMONDO, PARIS, FRANCE Anyone who read Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes and wants to experience the exquisite taste of the Ephrussis in their banking dynasty heyday will love this splendid hotel particulier, where Proust came to dine on Tuesdays. The Ephrussis and the Camondos were neighbours in this chic and exclusive street until tragedy struck both dynasties. The mansion was built in 1911 by the Comte Moïse de Camondo, also a banker. See lesartsdecoratifs.fr.
GETTING THERE The Qantas-Emirates alliance operates flights to Rome where there are affordable connecting flights to Palermo. See qantas.com.
STAYING THERE Butera 28 Apartments, Palermo. Rates start at $110 a night or $498 a week for a small apartment.
DRIVING THERE Driving in Palermo tends to be stressful. Some companies may charge a premium to those who wish to attempt it. Rental cars have to be booked in advance from the airport. Local companies may offer cheap deals but their cars may be in poor condition. Unless you are planning to drive out of town for day trips, you may be better off on foot and using public transport. See holidayautos.com.
MORE INFORMATION viabutera28.it
- Sydney Morning Herald