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Bagheria is situated on the north coast of Sicily, close to the south-east of Palermo.
The town was at one time an enclave where the wealthy of Palermo built their baroque villas away from the main town in the rolling vineyards and lemon plantations of the region. The trend was started by the Prince Giuseppe Branciforte, and soon many other wealthy merchants followed the Prince's lead and it is the resultant villas that are a highlight of a visit to Bagheria.
Bagheria is a coastal town with a pretty waterfront area which is popular with tourists. Here and in the town there is a good selection of bars and restaurants and there are some good beaches just a couple of kilometers away at Aspara.
Sadly Bagheria became a Mafia enclave after the Second World War and planning rules were abandoned. The beautiful villas still exist but most are very neglected and a lot of unattractive apartment blocks have been built. With Palermo and other development now encroaching on Bagheria the town has doubtless lost part of its original allure, but looking at the villas still allows a glimpse into how life would have been for the Sicilian gentry 250 years ago.
The villas and palaces largely date from the 18th century. The highlight among these is the Villa Palagonia, a very unusual design by Tommaso Maria Napoli (although still clearly baroque) that has a grand, ornate balustraded staircase curving up to the decorative main entrance.
The unusual feature of the Palagonia is that the facade is curved, a theme which continues with the rooms inside the villa (the villa is open to the public so you can admire these eccentricities). The ornateness continues inside, for example in the famous gallery of mirrors.
However it is for the other 'curiosity' at Villa Palagonia that most people visit the villa. It is packed with statues of monsters all around the walls and gateway to the villa. There are more than 200 in total. These were added by the Prince of Palagonia and are said to have originated in his own designs and nightmares. The Prince was said to be mad but even then everyone wanted to see his grotesque statues! Indeed in the days of the 'Grand Tour' it was one of the key destinations and was famous throughout Europe.
Another important villa is the Villa Valguarnera which was also the work of Tommasco Napoli. This beautiful villa is owned by one of the key aristocratic families of Sicily and you may recognise it from a Dolce and Gabana advert for the Dolce perfume that was filmed there and starred Sophie Lauren. This villa too suffered at the hands of the Mafia who sequestered the villa whilst the owner the Princess Vittoria Alliata di Villafranca contested the will when her aunt left half the house to the Opus Dei.
The villa was very neglected at one point but Princess Vittoria is restoring it and the villa is available for rent if you are feeling rich!
There are numerous other villas to admire in Bagheria although many are not open to the public. A couple of the other villas constructed around the same time and close by are the Villa Trabia and the Villa Valguarnera.
The Villa Cattolica on via Consolare is open to the public and is home to a modern art gallery called the Guttuso Museum. Renato Guttuso was an important Sicilian artist and many of his paintings are exhibited in the museum.