Casa Cuseni is the main character in A House in Sicily. Written by Daphne Phelps, this book is a homage to the house that she loved and tended for over 50 years. The house is located in Taormina, Sicily’s clifftop city above the Gulf of Naxos.
When I traveled to Sicily in the fall of 2023, I knew that I had to visit this house, which the Belle Arte of Messina declared of “cultural and historic importance.”
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Since I only had 24 hours to visit Taormina, there was no time to waste. As soon as we finished breakfast in our hotel, my two companions and I took the gondola up to the town. Then we started to walk down Corsi Umberto (the main pedestrian street) until we saw a sign for Casa Cuseni.
I steered myself into a skinny alley, which was partially hidden off the bustling street in Taormina. The tourists behind me moved like a wave rising, peaking then plunging into the nearest bar or coffee shop. But I was swimming against the current when I darted into the dark alley.
Blocked from view, my destination sat high above Corsi Umberto and Teatro Greco. My pilgrimage would take me to Casa Cuseni.
Don Roberto’s Estate
The British expat (Phelps) ran this family home-turned-quasi-hotel for more than five decades after inheriting it from her uncle Robert Kitson (known to the locals as Don Roberto).
Some of the 20th century’s most famous and eccentric writers, artists, and philosophers—Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Tennessee Williams, Bertrand Russell, Roald Dahl, and Henry Faulkner—lodged at her Sicilian home.
Picture a golden yellow cube home decked in a sea of greenery and trees, its rectangular windows gazing down on the Gulf of Naxos, the Ionian coast to the south, and Mount Etna.
Tale of Two Taorminas
The contrast between Corsi Umberto and Casa Cuseni is stark—frenetic vs. contemplative. Jewelry stores, perfumeries, and clothes stores are the main residents of Taormina’s commercial center. Birds, squirrels, and cats call Casa Cuseni home.
But to get back to my story of searching for Casa Cuseni. Accompanied by two fellow travelers, we trudged up the alley’s steep rock staircase, spilling out on a less traveled road. Through a series of wrong turns and a lot of aimlessly circling, we finally found the writer’s home, located on Via Leonardo Da Vinci. (Can I interrupt my travelogue to mention my joy at learning the name of this road?)
Casa Cuseni in the Hilltops
Perched like a Roman goddess on Mount Olympus, Casa Cuseni stares down at the ant-like humans running along the streets of Taormina. Kitson acquired the land for a “ridiculous small sum” in 1900:
“ … he bought a 12,000-square-metre site on the hillside that rose precipitously above the small town of Taormina at the top of which the Greeks in the 4th century BC had built their Acropolis and later Arabs and Normans their castles.”Daphne Phelps
Kitson took three long years to build his house (which he designed). Locals wielding iron bars pried vast rocks from the hillside to build the garden’s stone walls. Casa Cuseni’s exterior is covered in canary yellow stucco. The interior design used cubes and double cubes. His house featured a main entrance, staircase, five bedrooms, a dining room, and a private library.
Guided Casa Cuseni Tour
We arrived on Sunday morning, hoping to sign up for the guided tour. Casa Cuseni now operates as a boutique hotel. But there was no sign of guests or employees on the cerulean blue morning. A turtle served as the security guard, lounging on a rock at the entrance.
Cautiously, we entered the yard and climbed the staircase. The yellow house perched on its verdant hill. It reminded me of a feline with slit eyes sitting atop a fence.
The sign at the entrance proclaimed Casa Cuseni as a member of the “Taormina Cult.” The trail includes historic establishments famous for “letteratura, arte e cinema a cielo aperto” (translated literature, art, and open-air cinema).
Flowers bloomed abundantly in the dirt beds. The ancient trees blocked swatches of sunlight. The stone path curved through lush landscaping. Always we ascended, as the path was built on a slant. Reaching the main patio, we gasped at the panorama—bluest of blue sea. Mt. Etna stared at us from the north.
“Hello. May I help you?”
A red-headed woman briskly walked toward us. When we explained that we wanted to take the guided Casa Cuseni tour, she told us to return tomorrow. No tours on Sunday.
“We fly out of Catania tonight,” I said, deeply saddened. Then I told her how much I wanted to see inside Casa Cuseni and buy Phelps’ book.
“Oh! I can sell you the book. Come inside!”
We couldn’t believe the serendipity of the moment. Casa Cuseni’s general manager was so proud of Phelps’ book that she allowed us inside. We would get to see one room!
She brought us to a room at the front of the house. It had stunning views of the garden. I wanted to sit down on the red sofa, but I would never be so presumptuous. So instead I stared at the bookcase. There were two rows stacked with Phelps’ book. I also saw 10 different ancient cameras as well as a copy of The Art Museum, Kunst fur alle, and Gio Ponti.
A landscape painting sat on an easel perched by the window. A visiting artist must have painted the view outside this window. There were striking similarities: expansive sky, mountain range, and old trees lining the hilltop.
The Inner Sanctum
The manager then beckoned us across the threshold to join her in another room where she processed our credit card payments. Passing through a cobalt blue door, we entered the main house. She steered us into a room, painted sea foam green.
The office walls were lined with paintings, including a copy of Picasso’s Don Quixote painting and a boat moored at the harbor. On a shelf above the desk was a portrait of Concetta Genio holding a white cat. Phelps dedicated her book to Concetta “without whose manifold skills, generosity of spirit and steadfast friendship over the years, I would never have been able to save Casa Cuseni.”
The bookshelves were stacked with books left by writers who once lodged at Casa Cuseni. Did Roald Dahl sign the copy of his book to “dearest Daphne?” I glanced at the fat spine of a book titled RUSSELL; it dominated the slim books nearby.
Private Dining Room
The manager decided to let us see the private dining room after we paid for the books. I was in awe. Sir Frank Brangwyn, RA designed the paneled walls and signature furniture items (such as pecan sideboard, high-backed chairs, and round table).
“In 2019, this interior was recognized as the world’s best example of the Arts and Crafts Movement outside Britain and was declared a Place of Identity and Memory of the Sicilian Region,” according to Casa Cuseni.
We departed Casa Cuseni in love with the Taormina house by the sea. I thought of how Phelps wrote how she would never forget the sensation of arriving in Sicily.
“The sky was the bluest of blues; on one side of the train the sea was sparkling, to the other was mountains, and orange and lemon groves. The sun was dazzling.”
This is how I felt as I walked away from Casa Cuseni. Dazzled. A cat dropped out of the branches to watch our departure. The turtle may have blinked. I felt sad but elated to step back into the time of Don Roberto. Thank goodness Daphne saved her uncle’s house.
“Never have I tired of the ever-changing beauty of the garden, or of the dignity and perfect proportions of the house built in golden stone. And that view . . . To live opposite Etna, the highest, most active volcano in Europe, is indeed a privilege.”Daphne Phelps
Come stay at the first hotel for artists (if you can get a reservation). “Casa Cuseni was the first hotel for artists in Europe, in 1947. Today, as then, it is still open for hospitality. Here, Ernest Hemingway wrote his first novel, Lord Bertrand Russell won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Sir Frank Brangwyn, Sir Alfred East, Cecil Hunt, Sir George Clausen, painted Sicilian landscapes, Arthur Lasenby Liberty, Pablo Picasso, Henry Faulkner, Salvador Dali, Denis Mack Smith, Roald Dahl, Jocelyn Broke, Tennessee Williams and many others again, all found an ideal place to write, paint, or simply a magical place to rest as Greta Garbo was to discover,” according to the Casa Cuseni website.
I want to stay here.