Adventure

Casa Cuseni: Turning Back the Clock in Taormina

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.”

Madcap Adventure

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.

Taormina Cult

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!”

Private Peek

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.

Departure

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

Reservations

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.

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  • Adéle
    November 18, 2023 at 6:30 am

    What a fascinating place! I love places like this. So full of history.

    • Terri
      November 18, 2023 at 9:29 am

      For any writer, it is a dream to visit. The ghosts of Hemingway and Dahl surely roam the gardens (or bar)!

  • Roxanne Reid
    November 18, 2023 at 8:12 am

    You must have been so excited to see at least a few of the rooms inside, although gutted you missed the whole tour.

    • Terri
      November 18, 2023 at 9:28 am

      Perfect description. GUTTED! I wanted the full tour so bad.

  • Jolayne
    November 18, 2023 at 8:45 am

    We are looking at Sicily for a destination next year. It looks delightful.

    • Terri
      November 18, 2023 at 9:27 am

      Casa Cuseni is a must see if you visit Taormina, along with the ancient Greek theatre.

  • Anita
    November 18, 2023 at 9:39 am

    Casa Cuseni seems to be very special place for visiting. I am happy to hear that you had the opportunity to see it outside regular tour days. I am wondering is it even real to stay there overnight… Thanks for sharing!

    • Terri
      November 18, 2023 at 3:21 pm

      They have 5 rooms that are available but I think you might have to make the reservation months in advance.

  • Tara | Silly Little Kiwi
    November 18, 2023 at 9:56 am

    I’d never heard of Casa Cuseni until now! It looks amazing 😍

    • Terri
      November 18, 2023 at 3:20 pm

      It is definitely worth the pilgrimage to Sicily to see this house!

  • Viola
    November 18, 2023 at 10:24 am

    What a beautiful place in Sicily! It’s fascinating to hear about the house’s role in hosting renowned writers and artists. Thank you for sharing this immersive journey!

    • Terri
      November 18, 2023 at 3:19 pm

      It was immersive. I read the entire book – A House in Sicily – on my flight back home to Washington DC. Daphne’s story of rescuing the house is fascinating.

  • Maria Dol
    November 18, 2023 at 11:15 am

    What a lovely place, full of life and history. I traveled to Sicily for a day only a few years ago and since then I have been looking forward to returning. Taormina is at the top of my must-visit list. Saving Casa Cuseni for my future trip

    • Terri
      November 18, 2023 at 3:19 pm

      I hope you get to return to Sicily. I spent 9 days on the island and there were so many places that I didn’t get to see.

  • Linda (LD Holland)
    November 18, 2023 at 11:19 am

    We stayed outside of Taormina on our visit. And I must admit that when we drove into Taormina we got so frustrated with the roads we did not go back. We planned to go by train or bus and simply ran out of time. We would have loved the quiet and lovely views on a visit to Casa Cuseni. And indeed such a contrast to the crazy Corsi Umberto. We will definitely have to check out the Taormina Cult trail on a return trip.

    • Terri
      November 18, 2023 at 3:18 pm

      I felt the same way about the jammed roads leading to Taormina and the crowded pedestrian boulevard. But when I climbed to the hilltop to visit Casa Cuseni, I fell in love with that view of the Bay and Mount Etna.

  • Patricia (Tish) Mikan
    November 18, 2023 at 1:08 pm

    What a dream come true! I am overwhelmed with the history and gorgeous landscape!!! Love Italy
    Thanks

    • Terri
      November 18, 2023 at 3:16 pm

      I ❤️Italy so much. But Sicily was extra special. I am so glad that I had a peek inside Casa Cuseni.

  • Moona
    November 18, 2023 at 1:58 pm

    Casa Cuseni is a stunning villa. Imagine being able to stay as a guest in the stunning villa which isn’t only lovely but also serves as a museum? Count me in!

    • Terri
      November 18, 2023 at 3:14 pm

      I absolutely to stay at Casa Cuseni one day.

  • Emma
    November 18, 2023 at 2:36 pm

    How beautiful, I really love Italy! Loving the colours and the view from this place looks incredible!

    • Terri
      November 18, 2023 at 3:14 pm

      The views standing in the garden was incredible. I felt like I could see 50 miles away.

  • Hannah
    November 18, 2023 at 3:54 pm

    Casa Cuseni looks like such a beautiful place to explore! As a bookworm, I love learning about the literary influences of buildings. It’s no surprise that writers and artists feel inspired by this beautiful setting! Thanks for the great guide!

    • Terri
      November 18, 2023 at 4:06 pm

      Bookworms unite! This the way I felt as I walked through the house. I could just imagine Hemingway nursing a hangover and scribbling in his notebook.

  • Taylor
    November 18, 2023 at 6:13 pm

    Very cool that Ernest Hemingway stayed there! I recently read For Whom the Bell Tolls in anticipation for my visit to Ronda, Spain.

    • Terri
      November 18, 2023 at 8:54 pm

      I love when you read a book about a destination before you visit it. I did it backwards. I visited Casa Cuseni. Then I read A House in Sicily!

  • Laureen Lund
    November 18, 2023 at 8:49 pm

    This is just lovely. We will be in Sicily for the first time next February. I’m going to try to add this to our itinerary.

    • Terri
      November 18, 2023 at 8:54 pm

      I hope you get to do the guided tour or even better, stay at Casa Cuseni.

  • Heather
    November 18, 2023 at 11:19 pm

    What a wonderful post! Seems like you made the most out of your quick visit!

    • Terri
      November 19, 2023 at 3:20 pm

      I took lots of photos and videos during my brief visit. I hope I can stay there one day.

  • Pam
    November 19, 2023 at 8:41 am

    You can tell you really loved Casa Cuseni by your writing. I’m so glad you were able to see at least a small part of the house while you visited. It sounds like a really inspiring place to visit.

    • Terri
      November 19, 2023 at 3:20 pm

      I think reading Phelps’ book – A House in Sicily – really made me fall in love with it.

  • Elizabeth Bankhead
    November 19, 2023 at 12:49 pm

    Sounds like an interesting place. I’m glad you got to see some of the house even though it was Sunday. I always love off the beaten path!

    • Terri
      November 19, 2023 at 3:19 pm

      I am so grateful that the general manager let us do a brief tour of the house. The Arts & Crafts-style dining room was exquisite.

  • Erica at Trip Scholars
    November 19, 2023 at 3:03 pm

    You brought the place to life with your evocative writing style and have inspired me to visit Casa Cuseni! It is powerful to visit places like this– it brings such depth to my understanding of the life and works of authors, artists, and thinkers whose works I’ve admired. I’m glad you were able to visit some of the house and hope you are able to see the rest someday.

    • Terri
      November 19, 2023 at 3:18 pm

      Thank you Erica. I hope my readers can visualize this historic home and imagine the famous artists that temporarily called it home. I hope you get to visit.

  • Amy H Tull
    November 19, 2023 at 6:02 pm

    Terri, what an enchanting home! I’ve only been to the touristy part of Taormina, but saw enough to know I’d have to go back some day. Now I have another reason!

    • Terri
      November 19, 2023 at 7:45 pm

      It was enchanting. I felt like I stepped back into time both when Don Ricardo built his castle in Sicily as well as when his niece saved his creation for posterity. Go visit!