Sicily is a land of deep contradictions: heart-breaking beauty, history, poverty, sublime food, mafia, culture and immigration all coexist under the same relentless sun. Conquered and ruled, over the ages, by the Moors, the French, the Kingdom of Naples and, finally unified with Italy, all these influences are borne in the everyday: a visitor is treated like an honored guest, like in the Arab custom; cakes and sweets are intricate the way the French make them; the same baroque architecture one admires in Naples is mirrored all over Sicily. And then there is that deep blue sea, inviting and comforting in a way no ocean can ever aspire to be.
Reserved by nature, Sicilians are also charming and resilient – take the example of a new crop of young agrarians who took possession of Mafia properties seized by the government and turned them into self-supporting farms and agriturismo (essentially, bed and breakfasts on a farm, often with small restaurants on site showcasing the products of the land).
In recent years, Sicily has also become the gateway for thousands of North African and, lately, Syrian refugees who land on its shores hoping for a better future. At times, Sicily can feel like a land too steeped in its past and traditions, immovable, still embodied in the lapidary sentence the fictional Prince of Salina, in the book “The Leopard” by Tommasi di Lampedusa, uttered two centuries ago: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” (and if you have never seen the Luchino Visconti movie by the same title, do yourself a favor and rent it – if nothing else to see a ravishing Claudia Cardinale in her 20’s).
What has changed and stayed the same in the little village of Castel di Tusa, near Gela, is the hotel “Atelier sul Mare”. For all intents and purposes a hotel where guests are expected to enjoy the beaches and the granitas but where they can also choose to sleep inside the art. Not surrounded by it, actually inside it.
Antonio Presti, the hotel owner and Sicilian by birth, conceived of a place where “art can be experienced like a dream”. Literally.
Mr. Presti, over the years, asked 20 contemporary artists to create rooms that would speak to their artistic vision and most of them are veritable art installations – like the Mouth of Truth, by Mario Ceroli, a re-imagining of Rome’s famous monument; or The Nest, by Paolo Icaro, where the bedspread simulates a bird’s feathers; or Energy, by Maurizo Mochetti, representing the contrast between gravity and the immaterial lightness of light.
Some of the rooms didn’t fill me with a desire to spend the night, let alone an entire vacation – but, then again, isn’t art that’s relevant supposed to jolt us, make us feel out of sorts?
Twenty more conventional rooms are also available. Prices for all are surprisingly affordable.