We’ve just said no to an upgrade – are we mad? No. We are at the car-hire desk in Sicily, the one place where you really should say no to the tempting offer of a big flashy car. We have been warned that small is beautiful on the streets of Sicily – that’s unless it’s a Fiat 500 Grande, which Mr Smith refuses on the grounds that it’s the ‘on steroids’ version of the car. So we find ourselves whizzing through the vast open space that is the heart of Sicily, in a small sexy Alfa Romeo – which proves just perfect for the narrow streets of Noto.
Arriving at the Syracuse city in the late afternoon, it appears impressively before us, with all its golden colours playing wondrously with the sandstone of the impressive baroque buildings. The streets are slender, and as with everywhere in Sicily, parking is virtually impossible. How pleased we were to find a tiny space right outside the large green double doors of Hotel Seven Rooms Villadorata.
A press of the buzzer and the doors open, not to reveal a hotel reception as expected, but the most wonderful ancient cobbled courtyard sloping down to two magnificent palms and a jasmine tree, the beautiful smell of which fills every inch of the space with an exotic aroma. Palazzo Villadorata – what a pleasure to make your acquaintance.
Salvo greets us looking a little confused. ‘You did not come in a car?’ He cannot believe we have found a space to park; apparently this is something you don’t have to worry about when staying here, as guests can bring cars into the courtyard. Oh well, it was good practice for Mr Smith’s parallel-parking skills.
After being handed an ornate bunch of keys and a printed list of instructions on where and how to use them, we are given free range of this wing of the palace purchased by owner Cristina from one of the noblest families of ancient Noto. She has lovingly restored it with amazing attention to detail, combining elaborate splendour with a modern twist, retaining its grand opulence, but with a sense of space.
The fragrant, calm rooms have high ceilings, exquisite tiles, ostrich-egg-topped bedsteads, gecko door handles, gold turtles, precious French and Italian fabrics, rare gorgonian sea corals and soft muted colours. It feels as though we have stepped straight into the novel The Leopard and we are now living the sumptuous life of the Sicilian aristocracy. There are giant plasma TVs hidden in antique cupboards, super-fast WiFi and modern bathrooms with power showers.
Mr Smith (or perhaps that should be Principe Smith) opens the two floor-to-ceiling French balcony doors to reveal a spectacular view over Noto’s rooftops and golden baroque buildings. We sit drinking in its glory, which looks just too good not to be explored in the setting sunlight.
Walking down the steeply sloping Via Nicolaci and we admire the ornate wrought-iron balconies of the palazzo; jutting out of the façade are horses, griffins, nymphs and cherubs. We walk the length of the main road, dipping up and down the shaded sidestreets wondering at its grandeur. Arriving at the flamboyant golden Cathedral of Noto, we stumble across a Sicilian wedding party in all its finery. The women are so dressed up that it is hard to tell which one is the bride; it looks like most of the men have sneaked out of the church into the bar during the service. This is people watching at its best.
The next morning, and that Italian sunshine is streaming in through the shutters, the whole of Noto glowing right there in front of us. The enormous bed is so comfortable, it would be easy to stay there all day, but I am itching to explore. So, as a way to rouse Mr Smith, I pad barefoot through the palace across the smooth stone floors, (which feel as though they are coated in velvet), to the small pantry where a Nespresso machine nestles cosily alongside a Smeg fridge full of complimentary drinks. We sit in bed, sipping espresso, the French doors thrown open, listening to Noto waking up – being a Sunday, this involves a lot of bell ringing.
Everywhere inside the palace is so quiet and calm, and we don’t see anyone else at breakfast, which is served in Cristina’s private apartment. An enormous roof terrace table is set up with fresh croissants, while a canary is singing its heart out and, rather spookily, our wedding music is playing on the stereo. Rosemary, our delightful host, welcomes us; she obviously loves her job and cares about the palace as much as if it was her own. She asks us what our plans are for the day and shares some secrets of places to visit and tips for the best beaches, for which towels and a parasol are thoughtfully provided. You can see the sea from the terrace, and it is here that Prince Nikolai would stand looking out to the beaches from where his tuna-business staff would signal with flags as to whether it had been a good fishing haul that day.
There is so much to do within short driving distance of Seven Rooms, including Syracuse and the Vendicari Nature Reserve. But we could not leave Noto without a trip to Caffe Sicilia. Opened in 1892, it is now run by the fourth generation, and they have introduced modern flavours into to their age-old granita recipes, by injecting basil and black olive into their sweet icy mix.
Sated, we return to Villadorata for a final taste of the best address in Noto. You know that you’ve experienced somewhere special when all its little details leave a perfect indelible snapshot in your mind. And the magnificence of Seven Rooms Villadorata is now firmly etched on ours.