Getting lost in Donnafugata castle and its magical gardens

I’m writing to tell you about a wonderful castle I visited during my recent visit to Sicily. You may be familiar with it if you watch the television series about detective Montalbano, as some of the show was filmed there. In fact, the castle is the home of Mafia boss Don Balduccio Sinagra in the series.

It is situated to the west of Ragusa, and stands in a place called Donnafugata– a name with varying explanations. Information at the castle says it originated from an Arabic word which meant “spring of health”. This makes sense as there is a spring found on the site. Others link the name to its meaning of “fugitive woman” in Italian. According to legends, in the fifteenth century Blanche I of Navarre, (widow of Martin I, King of Sicily) fled the castle when Count Bernardo Cabrera captured it because he wanted to marry her and become king of the island.

I enjoyed visiting Donnafugata because I was firstly able to explore inside the castle, and then I discovered its gardens which include a maze and sculpted hedges. There was also a great restaurant close by where I had one of the best lunches of my trip. Here is a view of the modern-day castle, which dates back to the 19th century, when the estate was renovated by the Arezzo family, who had bought it off the Cabreras.

WP_20150320_189Once through the gates I started off exploring the Piano Nobile, or main floor, the only one open to the public. I particularly liked the blue colour on the walls of the waiting room, which was decorated with a statue, a large mirror and several pictures including paintings of Baron Corrado Arezzo, who was responsible for the renovations, and of Saint Cecilia, patron of musicians.

WP_20150320_045The adjacent room was the men’s smoking room. The walls had turned slightly brown, as a result of the smoking I imagine, but there were some pretty peacocks in the corners of the ceiling. I wonder if they represent all the counts and barons who would have enjoyed smoking their pipes while having a chinwag in here. If you look closely you can actually see the pipe motifs in the wall paper.

WP_20150320_051In the nearby “Women’s Room” there was a massive colourful chandelier made of the famous glass from Murano island, and in the Musicians’ room there was an interesting depiction of the zodiac on the ceiling.

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Next I came across the place where romantics believe that the “Donnafugata”, Blanche of Navarre was imprisoned by Cabrera after she refused to give him her hand in marriage, which he needed to become King of Sicily. The castle’s information says that according to popular legend, she fled from this room to avoid having to marry Cabrera! Good for her if it’s true. However, the story of the room is difficult to believe if the current castle was constructed after the timing of the legend.

WP_20150320_092I liked the pastel colours in the rooms, and the wall paintings of Sicilian scenes, musical instruments, and mythological characters. There were several pretty details to spot. Some of the decoration was a little over-the-top and bordering on kitsch, but I’m also quite fond of that style.

After walking through other rooms including guest bed chambers, a “Hall of Mirrors”, which is a small copy of the one in the Palace of Versailles, the Bishop’s Bedroom and the Billiard Room, I then stepped out into the unexpectedly glorious gardens of the castle, which were definitely the best part.

In front of me there was a long walkway which led to a columned portico. To the left there was a small mound topped with a circular temple. This was a very romantic spot that would be a great place for a summer party, don’t you think?

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To the side of this was a large stone labyrinth based on the one in London’s Hampton Court Palace. I only ventured into this slightly as I didn’t want to spend hours trying to come out. But it might be fun if you were here with children. I wandered around to the boxed hedge gardens and had the chance to see some stunning views of the other side of the castle.

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At this point I was really starting to daydream. Several little details added to the sense of being in a fantasy world, for example the designs on the vases that flanked the hedges:

WP_20150320_193After I’d wandered around at the back of the castle for a while, I realised I had lost my friends. I started heading back to the exit, but just before I left the gardens, I saw some steps, guarded by this fellow:

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I sneaked up the steps, oblivious to the fact that the castle wardens were trying to close for the afternoon, and I was lucky because I had a chance to look out on this view, and see another funny character in this vase:

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I also admired the frames of the doors and windows up close:

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I heard someone calling my name. “Catherine!” my friend shouted again. I ran down the steps and realised the wardens were trying to close the castle for the afternoon. So if I’d been alone I might have got locked in! That could have been quite exciting. I would have had to find my own way to escape, like the Donnafugata.

Luckily I did manage to get out just as they were closing the gates. My friends and I then wandered down to the Trattoria Al Castello. Even though this was right next to the castle, it was still very well priced, and we had some interesting dishes, including ravioli with ricotta, and a delicious risotto, washed down with some of the tasty local wine.

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I had a lovely day out at Donnafugata castle. You should also come and see it soon! I hear that they are trying to revive some hidden “jokes” that Baron Arezzo had installed around the garden to surprise visitors. These include a seat that sprays out water if someone sits on it, and a model monk that would scare people when they opened the door of a chapel in the grounds.

I have so many more stories to tell you about Sicily, but I have to finish there for now as I have to run some errands. I’ll be back soon!

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