Standing sentinel, shoulders back, head up, in the corner of one of the two living rooms of Villa Belich, a pink-hued one-bedroom bungalow roughly 90 kilometres from Palermo airport, is a three-foot-tall superhero wearing red-and-yellow budgie-smugglers.
The scaled-down superhero, based on the Fantastic Four character The Thing, is the work of the Sicilian-born, Palermo-based sculptor Domenico Pellegrino. On the belief that post-war America plundered the history of Greek gods for its comic book protagonists, Pellegrino re-appropriates Marvel characters as Sicilian heroes. Hence why Belich’s resident superhero has swapped his customary blue shorts for a pair of underpants painted in the highly-decorative style of a Sicilian horse-drawn cart.
It takes about one-and-a-half hours to get to Belich from the Sicilian capital, the last 15 minutes of which become a tangle of pot-holed B-roads and beaten-up dirt tracks. Fortunately, The Thinking Traveller, the only villa rental company through which you are able to hire the property, sends you a handy information pack before you’ve even left the UK. ‘Turn left at the green gate, bear right at the cream house, look out for the old farm with the cylindrical red water tower’; don’t try this in the dark folks, otherwise you’ll end up lost, just like us.
“I’m totally in love with art,” explains Belich’s proprietor Adriana di Mariano, an interior designer by trade and a contemporary art collector by passion. “I am convinced that pieces of art decide the houses they live in. When I was working on Belich I brought some of my favourite pieces to the house to decide which of them would stay.”
Some of the villa’s other artworks include a huge drawing in the dining room by the abstract Palermitan painter Ignazio Schifano – you can see some of his other pieces in the Sicilian Contemporary Art Museum in Catania, on the other side of the island – and an even bigger canvas, ostensibly left blank, unless we missed something, by the conceptualist Vincenzo Schillaci. Something about the seen and the unseen, or something, we guessed.
Villa Belich is burrowed several hundred metres from the beach on Sicily’s south-east corner, where the island flattens into fields of wheat and vine and the horizon dips into the sea. As well as directions on how to get to the property, the booklet provided by The Thinking Traveller offers advice on everything from local restaurants to the treasures of the surrounding area (the company publishes a guidebook for each of its 220 properties).
15 minutes away, for example, is the archaeological park of Selinunte, one of the most progressive cities in Magna Graecia, until the Carthaginians sacked it in 409BC. The ruins that remain today are as impressive as anything found in the Valley of Temples, the more famous archaeological site an hour to the east in Agrigento.
Also within the book are details on how to get to the hilltop estate of Planeta, one of Sicily’s largest fine-wine producers. Between mid-August and the end of September you can help them harvest grapes. Alternatively, you can skip the manual labour and arrange a wine tasting within the estate’s chic La Foresteria restaurant.
Menfi, the closest town, is a 15-minute drive away. Much of the city was razed to the ground by an earthquake in 1968, meaning that the town isn’t so much to look at nowadays. Restaurant Liccumarie near its centre, however, does serve slabs of meat and glasses of red wine worthy of an evening out. Nearby bistro-pub Befolk is mostly homemade beef burgers and locally-brewed beer. It’s shut during lunchtimes but hosts local bands at the weekends.
Alternatively, you can opt to hide away in Belich and have The Thinking Traveller arrange a chef to cook for you. Gabriella Becchina swapped life as an art historian in New York to set up a food-themed experience company in Sicily. The daughter of an upmarket olive oil producer – her father founded Olio Verde in 1989 – Becchina was born and raised in neighbouring Castelvetrano. Today, she works with The Thinking Traveller on in-villa menus that highlight the strength and breadth of local ingredients. Becchina’s sea bass was one of the highlights of our entire time in Sicily.
And you won’t retreat spending the extra time at your new home-from-home. Belich is a design lesson in chicness and light; white-beamed ceilings and grey, micro-cement floors. It’s ludicrously spacious for just two people. There’s a double-aspect kitchen, a separate dining area and two living rooms; so that one of you can be playing vinyls on a record player in one, while the other flicks through coffee-table tomes in the other. The furniture is as eclectic as the artwork.
“Most of the furniture in the property is from an old uncle’s house,” explains di Mariano. “I love mixing memories, traditions, roots and family stories with contemporary furniture to create a sort of timeless, free spirit atmosphere.”
The Belice Nature Reserve is only 300 metres away. Chances are you’ll have the beach all to yourself, such is the off-the-beaten-track nature of this south-facing stretch of Sicily’s coastline. An infinity pool, surrounded by palm trees, looks out to the ocean.
Belich has its own vineyard and citrus orchard. They run in furrowed rows in front and behind the house, their sun-scorched branches creating a natural sound barrier to the cacophony of the outside world. Not that there’s much noise to keep out down this way, except for the gentle chime of clanging sheep bells and the continual brushstroke of smooth ocean waves.
Villa Belich sleeps two and is available to rent exclusively through The Thinking Traveller. Prices per week start from €3,510, thethinkingtraveller.com.