Tales of the city, Sicilian style

The Prince of Lampedusa captured Palermo's spirit in his classic novel, The Leopard. Patricia Cleveland-Peck follows his trail

If, like me, you prefer the lost garden before it has been found, or the faded grandeur of the palazzo before it has been restored, then you will love Palermo. Mind you, it will prove testing, because the city's incredible Baroque buildings stand alongside rubble-strewn bomb sites and the dilapidation often verges on squalor.

If, like me, you prefer the lost garden before it has been found, or the faded grandeur of the palazzo before it has been restored, then you will love Palermo. Mind you, it will prove testing, because the city's incredible Baroque buildings stand alongside rubble-strewn bomb sites and the dilapidation often verges on squalor.

Now, however, moves are afoot to encourage visitors; projects have been initiated to make Palermo safer, the beach has been improved and pledges made that the old city will be renovated rather than demolished. This is encouraging because Palermo is almost too rich in history; Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards and the British are just some of the powers to have occupied the island.

These accumulated layers of culture we experienced for ourselves when we attended a musical evening at the Palazzo Conte Federico. The house is built on the old Punic Roman walls. Most of the building dates from the 12th century but each intervening age has left its trace; painted ceilings, Baroque frescoes and armour sit happily alongside the present Conte's little red racing car. That it survives while so many old palaces fall into disrepair owes a lot to the present Contessa, a beautiful Austrian, who not only organises visits but also sings arias to her guests between courses.

At the other end of the spectrum is Palermo of the Belle Epoque. At the turn of the 19th century great families, such as the wealthy local Florios, and the British marsala barons, built huge villas. We were able to appreciate the luxurious atmosphere which persists quite magically at the sumptuous Villa Igiea, transformed into a Grand Hotel in 1900 by Ernesto Basile. Particularly beautiful is the hotel's dining room, perhaps one of the most perfect examples of Art Nouveau style in Europe.

Palermo is a city in which to wander. Guide books will direct you to the major sites but we decided to see what Palermo would throw up if we strolled in the footsteps of someone who captured the spirit of Sicily in one volume – Guiseppe Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa, who died in 1957. His masterpiece, The Leopard, tells the story of the passing of the great aristocratic families and is particularly good at evoking place. Di Lampedusa devoted himself to reading and, at the end of his life, to writing. For the final 10 years of his life he rose early and took the same daily walk through Palermo.

To repeat this walk we made our way along the seafront to his house in via Butera, taking in the gardens of Villa Gulia where he played as a boy. At the end of the street is a Marionette Museum (puppet shows based on the battles between the Saracens and the Christians are still staged in the city).

From here, turning up the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, we came to what was to prove one of our favourite squares in the city, Piazza Marina. A small garden with a huge banyan tree surrounded by wonderful buildings, it contains several restaurants. Our favourite was La Cambusa where you could choose for lunch, from a huge selection, as many antipasti as would fit on a plate. All for €8 (£5).

Crossing via Roma we realised that we were not far from the Prince's original, and he claimed only real, home. Using as a clue the author's remark that his mother's dressing room overlooked the garden of the Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Zita, we found the sad, boarded-up ruins of the palace bombed by the Allies in 1943.

We continued along via Ruggerio Settimo, past the Teatro Massimo, another Basile building, where on the steps, The Don breathed his last in The Godfather. No trip to Palermo is complete without a night at the opera or ballet, not only for the Massimo's superb productions but also for the joy of seeing Palermitans in all their finery.

Di Lampedusa habitually breakfasted in cafés nearby. After breakfast he would set off for Flaccovio's bookshop which he visited every morning for 10 years: it is still there. Across the road in via Generale Magliocco we found the suitably old-fashioned looking Pasticceria Mazzara, where di Lampedusa used to sit writing The Leopard.

The facts

Getting there

The author travelled to Palermo with Alitalia (0870 544 8259; www.alitalia. co.uk). Return flights from London Gatwick via Rome or Milan start from £267. She travelled with Magic of Italy (0870 888 0222; www.magictravel group.co.uk), which offers three nights at the five-star Grand Hotel Villa Igiea from £585 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from London Gatwick, car hire and b&b.

Further information

The Leopard by Prince Lampedusa (Vintage, £6.99).

The National Film Theatre (020-7928 3232; www.bfi.org.uk) in London is showing a season of films by Luchino Visconti from 17 April to 29 May, including "The Leopard". On Saturday 10 May at 6.15pm, the film will be preceded by an interview with its star, Claudia Cardinale. Limited tickets are expected to be available on the day, priced £14. For details, contact the box office.

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