Coat of arms of Count Federico Palace in Sicily

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Il Conte e la Contessa Federico

Palazzo Conte Federico, prestigiosa dimora storica per congressi, incentive, cene di gala con concerto, viaggi, B & B a Palermo in Sicilia, Italia.

Count Federico's palace is wonderful for prestige private events for congresses, corporate entertaining, conferences, gala-evenings with concerts, guided tours, bed & breakfast in Palermo, Sicily, Italy.

Live like a Princess in Palermo

"Don't go to Palermo with an itinerary, go with an open heart," pleads fashion designer Domenico Dolce. The co-founder of Dolce & Gabbana speaks of his home town with a passion shared by its patrician residents. Since the recent revival of Palermo as a tourist mecca, many leading families have decided to open their ancestral homes - and even their hearts - to the public. While most palaces are willing to hold wedding receptions and grand dinners, a select number now welcome paying guests. Even prestigious princes need to keep a (regularly restored) roof over their heads, and have to count the cost of cleaning priceless chandeliers and portable altars.

Sicily nurtures the seductive illusion that you are a treasured guest rather than a common tourist. But it may not be an illusion: Sicilian hospitality is legendary, as suffocatingly sweet as the local cassata sponge cake. These sumptuous palaces are genuine homes, even if it is a gothic pile with a baroque ballroom and medieval kitchen. As such, the pleasures are deeply domestic, with the chance to saunter from one scene to another, from balconies as private as boudoirs to the bustling market beyond the portals. Set amidst a jumble of eastern-style souks, tiny squares and scented gardens, these noble palaces present secret snapshots of the city.

The families are a delightful mixture of the imperious and the genuinely imperial, of desiccated old fogeys and dynamic entrepreneurs. Among the charming princesses and courtly, tweed-clad princes lurk occasional crashing snobs bound to their family tree. Rivalry is rife, if expressed in genteel terms, with gentle shrugs laced with wicked asides. Some nobles manage to move with the times while others are mired in the past, living off splendid memories when the Sicilian nobility was awash with servile retainers. But nowadays, even princesses remember to turn out the lights and turn down the bed-covers. Fortunately, Sicilian hospitality and family pride succeed in making duty seem like pleasure rather than an irksome chore. Life has moved on, and the liveried footmen may be borrowed, but the generous city spirit stays the same.

Palazzo Conte Federico, for all its grandeur, is the palace that most feels like a much-loved family home. Set close to the Cathedral, this beguiling medieval and baroque affair is built on a stretch of the Roman-Phoenician city walls. The palazzo is typically Sicilian in being a subtle blend of styles, as much a happy hybrid as the marriage of its owners, who combine Austrian sense with Sicilian sensibility. The gracious ancestral owner is Count Federico, a vintage car enthusiast and rally driver who can trace his lineage back to the great Emperor Frederick II, a 12th-century leader, law-maker, musician and scientist who led the cultural renaissance in the South. The ravishing Countess Federico, a vivacious soprano from Salzburg, plays supreme hostess to his absent-minded professor, enchanting guests with operettas and Neapolitan melodies. By contrast with her husband, the unaffected Countess, along with their enthusiastic sons, are happiest cycling around Palermo. Still, in vintage car rallies, the Countess acts as her husband's navigator and lucky mascot, as he wins when she's on board. Racing driver friends of Michael Schumacher recently stayed at the palace and thanked their hosts with a rare set of tyres for the Count's vintage car.

A perfect evening at the palace combines music, feasting and fantasy in princely proportions. Before cocktails by candlelight in the Arab-Norman tower, fortunate guests can stroll through the state-rooms and admire the suits of amour in the knights' hall. Dinner is based on exotic recipes dating from when Sicily was under Arab-Norman rule, and the centre of civilised Europe. Other dishes date from an 18th-century Sicilian heyday when noble families maintained private French chefs. A concert in the baroque ballroom includes music on a piano once played by Wagner, in a palace appreciated by Verdi. Privileged guests can then sink into the baroque bedroom or wallow in a gorgeous medieval suite, complete with canopied tester bed.

Palazzo Aiutamicristo, a neighbouring and equally stunning historic home, also seems to be in safe hands. As the regional president of the Italian National Trust, Baron Calafati di Canalotti is passionate about his heritage. Indeed, a recent restoration of the roof led to the discovery of a medieval coffered ceiling buried beneath later additions. The palace was built by a Pisan merchant who pioneered banking in Sicily and traded wool, cheese and cereal from London to Barcelona. The Pisan merchant used his wealth to create a monument to his greater glory, employing master-craftsmen from France, Spain and all over Italy. As a result, the palazzo can boast guests as grand as Emperor Charles V, who stayed here in 1535 because Palermo's royal palace was not considered impressive enough.

As with many city palaces, the fierce exterior gives few clues as to the treasure trove within, from gothic crenellations to baroque balconies. The palace is built around an exotic 15th-century private courtyard encircled by a delicate loggia overlooking a giant palm tree. The fabulous frescoed ballroom is still in use, even if the baron's eccentric grandfather preferred it as his personal cycling track, proving himself to be an eternal boy racer even in later years. The ballroom's bold rococo frescoes depict an allegory of princely virtues, encompassing valor and glory, nobility and justice, peace and prudence. But when this idealisation of princely power becomes too much, the intimate guest suites can provide a cosy retreat. The suave baron and his hospitable wife make guests welcome in a couple of charming bedrooms, decorated in period style, but indoor cycling is no longer permitted.

Palazzo dei Marchesi Ugo delle Favare, set on Piazza Bologni, one of the grandest squares in the city, is a stone's throw from the lovely Arab-Norman Cathedral and raucous city markets. Whether there to inspect the blood-stained swordfish or the sun-kissed tomatoes, designer-clad baronesses are as common a sight as genuine fishwives. But beyond the haughty baroque fašade of Palazzo Ugo, the mood is far more restrained. Baroness Luisa Camerata is the public face of a cultured, low-key family. As a prominent lawyer in Palermo, the baron prefers to keep a lower profile, as does their sultry daughter, a serious student of agronomy. The family estates are there in the background and will need to be tended for future generations. The majestic palace has been in the family since its 18th-century heyday as a society salon. The sumptuously furnished drawing rooms are a reminder of these times, as is the yellow silk dining-room, adorned with myriad mirrors. Guests are accommodated in tastefully furnished apartments reached via a lovely summer terrace. This secret hanging garden is built on the foundations of the city's original Phoenician walls.

Palazzo Raffadali, just around a palatial corner, is still lived in by the princely Raffadali family. As leading lights of the historic houses association, the family battle against death duties in a crusade to preserve the island's heritage, including their home. Despite being in the city centre, the Gothic palace overlooks the remains of a lemon grove. After a dynastic marriage, the family annexed the neighbouring palace, and turned the result into a sophisticated showcase of 17th-century taste. Since then, the palace has been well-restored, despite losing a wing to a fellow aristocrat. The family seat boasts an Empire-style guest bedroom, complete with ancestral family crib and one of the grandest beds in Palermo. Pious guests are also catered for in Palermo palaces. The Raffadali, like many families, have an ornate portable altar, a relic from Bourbon times when the nobility needed a flexible chapel while absent from their country villas - which naturally came complete with a private chapel.

On formal occasions, the Prince and Princess host period receptions, with costumed actors reciting scenes from The Leopard, the classic Sicilian novel set in aristocratic circles. Demure noblewomen dance, do needlework, or cluster around the grand piano while preening coyly behind fans. Yet Princess Stefania is keen to stress the family's normality: "We don't use five sets of knives and forks for dinner every day". Their dapper son, Prince Bernardo, gamely poses by a portrait of a phenomenally ugly ancestor, dubbed "a hippopotamus in muslin" by comedian Arthur Smith.

Palazzo Alliata di Pietratagliata, a stately medieval palace, lies just beyond the boisterous Vucciria market, a reminder that in Palermo all classes happily cohabit. The jumble of styles is also typical of Sicily, which marries gothic, baroque, neo-gothic and art nouveau in this atmospheric historic home. Dynastic marriage has been at the heart of the enterprise ever since the 16th-century Prince of Baucina commissioned the palace, which was later bought by the Dukes of Alliata. As fate would have it, the families were reunited through the marriage of the present Princess Alliata to the Prince of Baucina. On paper, at least, it is a marriage (and palace) made in public relations heaven. While personifying the new breed of professional princesses, the imperious Principessa Signoretta Alliata is proud of being a "double princess" and eager to recount tales of prestigious guests and priceless heirlooms. In the palace, the piece de resistance is the frescoed ballroom, adorned with a Murano glass chandelier, the largest 18th-century chandelier in the world. The chandelier was recently cleaned in honour of a visit by Queen Beatrix of Holland after the Prince of Baucina declared that no queen could be received with dirty chandeliers.

The savvy princess runs upmarket stately homes tours around Palermo as well as offering rural stays on Masseria Mongerrate, her country estate, and, from September, accommodation in the family's palace in Palermo. The fortified farmhouse and rolling hills are emblematic of the sprawling feudal estates that covered Sicily until land reform acts curtailed aristocratic privilege. Even so, the family's Mongerrate estate still pays for its keep, with horses, cows, ducks and geese as much part of the landscape as the low-slung Madonie mountains and distant views of the sea.

Villa San Marco is the most Mediterranean of historic homes, with a turreted main villa framed by botanical gardens and citrus groves. This delicious 18th-century villa in Bagheria, just outside Palermo, was the summer home of the princes of Mirto, and is still lived in by their descendants. Palazzo Mirto, the family's town residence, was donated to the city as an eclectic period museum. It remains a perfectly preserved time capsule of 18th-century life, just as the Palermitan nobility left it. By contrast, the villa started out as a fortified watchtower, as witnessed by the small drawbridge. However, the harsh mood was softened in the 17th century, when Sicilian gardens and terraces turned the estate into a pleasure palace. In the 1940s, the villa welcomed Tomasi di Lampedusa, the writer of The Leopard, the literary swan-song of the Sicilian nobility. As a cousin of the owners, he had free rein to indulge his gift for nostalgia, casting his eye over the ancestral carriages and the baroque children's portrait gallery.

In a romantic courtyard overlooking the hills, today's guests can still savour his family memories first-hand. The carriages are still on show in the stables, while the original country-style kitchen remains, hung with Sicilian ceramics and brass pots. Don Vincenzo and Donna Camerata di Casalgismondo take pride in their past, but have added touches of their own, including a colonial-style gazebo where cocktails are served. The former staff quarters are now open to guests, with verandahs overlooking the exotic garden, and breakfast served beside the pool. Decorated in period country style, both of these apartments can accommodate up to six people.

Villa Tasca is the grandest residence of the famous Tasca D'Almerita family, one of Sicily's most prestigious wine dynasties. The villa, set between the historic centre and Monreale, is linked to Regaleali, the Conte Tasca d'Almerita wine estate in the countryside. Since the old Count Tasca's death a few years ago, the wine estate has been put on a more professional footing, but is still run by the family, who also hold cookery courses. The prosperous dynasty, who owned part of Palazzo Aiutamicristo until 1996, have recently opened their romantic 16th-century villa and gardens to guests. The family has several frescoed suites available, as well as a library and billiards room, with the services of a butler and chauffeur on hand in case the odd pop star or footballer comes to stay.

In the 1780s, patrician owners added crenellated towers and a grand staircase, as well as a classical parterre and water gardens. In 1855, the Tasca family remodelled the grounds in Romantic style, with winding paths, fountains, a swan lake, and tropical gardens. (In familiar Sicilian fashion, Beatrice Lanza brought the title and her conveniently ennobled husband, Lucio Tasca, brought the money). The Tasca vision remains intact, with a palm-lined avenue leading to a lake and a giant banyan tree, the spot where Wagner was supposedly inspired to compose the end of Parsifal. Whether contemporary composers find inspiration or not, the wine should be worth drinking.

In Palermo's palaces, it may be a case of taking in lodgers in order to restore crumbling loggias. But, given a sultry night, swaying palms and a princely bedroom, the city works its seductive spell. Palermo then becomes a playground for the senses - possibly with a Gothic en-suite bathroom attached.

Ten things to do in Palermo

Getting there: Given that the palaces naturally offer limited accommodation, no British tour operators handle stays in Palermo's historic homes, although several visit these private homes on escorted tours. However, the owners mentioned are happy to provide bed and board on an individual basis as well as catering for special events and gala dinners. Email if you would like more details of staying in Sicily on your Holidays

Alitalia fly from London Heathrow to Palermo via Rome three times a day while British Airways fly to Rome, with the onward connection on Alitalia; Meridiana also fly from London to Palermo via Turin.

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