Seán Williams

Too Expensive for Wagner

Ghosts of the Belle Epoque: The History of the Grand Hôtel et des Palmes, Palermo


Tauris Parke 168pp £20 order from our bookshop

In recent decades, bringing Belle Epoque hotel life back from the dead has become something of a pan-European obsession. Andrew and Suzanne Edwards, in this new history of the Grand Hotel et des Palmes in Sicily, attempt a seance of sorts, evoking both individual and collective spirits of the once-fashionable holiday residence known in English as The Palms. Notable names appear, some linger and a few leave a lasting impression. The first in this cosmopolitan cast of characters is the Yorkshire-born wine maker Benjamin Ingham, whose Sicilian villa was turned over time into a palazzo, the parties and soirées at which made it into 19th-century travel guides. In the 1850s, Ingham decided to create a new, larger palazzo; the plot of land where he built it was purchased in England from a German princeling. Next in the story comes Enrico Ragusa, a Sicilian from a family of hoteliers who had trained in Berlin. In 1874, Ragusa acquired the palazzo and set about developing it into a hotel. Since then it has attracted an array of famous guests, from Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima (that is, until the couple found less expensive accommodation in a nearby villa) to Oscar Wilde, Arthur Miller and Maria Callas. Frenchman of letters Raymond Roussel checked in during Italy’s Fascist period and was carried out of Room 224 in a coffin.

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