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June 14, 2023 – Published in Design & Decor Spring-Summer 2023 issue

The Perfect Combination… at home in Sicily and Malta

Words Jim Dunn

The noise is deafening. We are miles from anywhere. It’s incessant. And the intense heat encourages them. It’s the only noise you can hear at this paradisical retreat on a hill near Noto, Sicily.

I’m talking about the cicadas, that sure sign of summer heat. When they start you know it’s hot and that it’s summer.

There is the occasional bird chirping and like me trying to stay awake in the marvellous but oppressive August heat. Otherwise, silence… except for those cicadas.

There is also a light breeze driving in from the distant sparkling Mediterranean Sea across rolling fields of olives and orange groves. We are just 20 minutes to the nearest beach.

But who needs a beach? I’ve always been able to give or take a sandy or worst still shingle shore, much preferring lazy summer days by a silent, spectacular pool such as this one in the middle of a well planned garden.

Indeed, just like this one and preferably in the middle of nowhere with the only company a few close friends and if they must, those noisy cicadas.

And that’s exactly where I am as I write. 

About 30 minutes from the ‘new’ hit town of Noto, that baroque Sicilian wonder now ‘rediscovered’ in the last few years by foreign buyers a great number of them Maltese and northern Italians and others and there’s wild stories of lucky buyers picking what sounds to me like the most unlikely bargain property purchases.

Yes, it seems that Noto is the ‘in’ place these days to buy property, shop and eat out. The food scene is booming and of course, the local wine is on the whole divine.

But many of us knew about the property bargains to be had in Noto already many years’ ago and many of us invested in property quite a long time ago well before the area became fashionable and attracted celebrities like Dolce and Cabana and leading interior designer Jacques Garcia, they pop in and out of the area on a whim and usually bringing with them their latest acolites.

It’s also said that as soon as the gay community moved into the area around Noto snapping up some lovely homes then that was a sure sign that the market was on the way up.

It’s a good property tip… if you want to be in on the next area to have a big property boom follow the gays.

Sicilian food and wine, as I say, also helped and we all agree it’s among the best in the Mediterranean area. Restaurant reservations at weekends are essential.

Back to the silence at this hill top retreat. We reach it in Tess Simon’s very smart car after a quick turn off the motorway from the ferry terminal at Pozzallo where the ferry from Malta docks and on to a bumpy white road. Then it’s a delightful meander through rolling fields of vines and olives. The area is all very dry as this is the height of summer but in the spring I am assured, there is a vast carpet of wild flowers all around.

Now, around me the light, warm breeze is rustling the dry leaves on the carob and the local shepherd has just woken me up from my post lunch siesta as he arrives with his flock and dogs for his siesta under a large carob tree just outside the estate gates. It’s his daily routine and there’s something very restful about sheep bells tinkling on a summer’s afternoon or come to think of it at dusk as they all settle in for the night.

This 40 acre paradise and there is no other word for it, was created 17 years’ ago by Tess, who is part Maltese,  and also lives in an ancient… about 300 years old… but thoroughly modern home in Malta in the centre of old Żebbuġ, decided to ‘put her mark on Sicily all those years’ ago, bought a field and designed and built this home, with the help of local architects.

The house is 30 minutes from Pozzallo and Noto and slightly longer to Ortigia and in easy reach of all the big hit tourism towns of this part of Sicily.

‘That’s all it was,’ she says, ‘a field but with its own water well and spectacular views. It took two years to complete the building and now the house has four bedrooms en suite with a huge central area linking the bedrooms. There’s a sitting room, dining and kitchen area. The kitchen opens on to wrap around terraces with views of the lawn, pool and surrounding areas.

Out of simple, fairly instant decisions great homes are thus created. 

‘I found the entire building process in Sicily fairly easy to cope with,’ she says. ‘Of course we had problems as you always do with building works but they were fairly easily overcome.’ 

One ‘mistake’ she says she made was not immediately starting to plant the garden but to be honest you wouldn’t notice that now as a mature garden has sprung up all around the large glamorous, statement pool.

Inside, the house has high ceilings, cool colours of fawn and white and the living area is completely open plan with the en suite bedrooms off it.

Tess undertook the interior design herself, comfy white sofas, recline chairs around the fire, and choice pieces of furniture finds and freely admits that initially she filled the house with good ‘rental’ furniture… which looks superb by the way.

For some years she rented the house out successfully but now wants to keep the house all to herself sharing it regularly with lucky friends such as us.

In Malta, Tess has lived in her enchanting Palazzini home in Żebbuġ for 17 years. Adorning her own front door, are two beautiful antique Dolphin door knockers that once had pride of place on her own Grandma’s Valletta Palazzo. Here again she dived into an extensive refurbishing of what was basically a wreck. The work took over two years to complete and she now has 7 bedrooms en suite, a massive long narrow and impressive dining hall capable of seating 18 was created and original tiles preserved throughout. 

There’s a central plant filled Courtyard, terraces, pots galore and a pool. Indeed standing in the Courtyard you could again be in the middle of the countryside surrounded by gardens, shrubbery with sweet scented climbing Jasmine,  just one of the many scents which float romantically around you well away from the bustle and chaos of Malta’s streets. 

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