Our Sicilian Home – Love at First Sight – First Floor

Some may call it irony, others fate, but the very first house I ever toured is the one that we ultimately purchased. 

I had gone to stay in Sambuca for a few days to try to find out more about the 1 euro houses. Unfortunately, the program had already ended (for that round) so there weren’t any for me to see. But my Airbnb host connected me with her neighbor, Margherita Licata, who works for a local real estate agency. 30 minutes later, I was sitting in her office discussing available properties. 

My priorities were to find something for less than €50,000, preferably in the older style (not already renovated) and with some kind of outdoor space. I also wanted something around 150 sqm (1614 sqft or more). 

The first house she took me to had been on the market for ages. It is located at the upper end of the main street through town, so very convenient to walk to shops and restaurants, yet far enough away that it isn’t so loud at night. 

The front of the house faces onto the entrance of the Arabic quarter, a unique maze of cobblestone paths, courtyards, and painted doors that characterize the oldest part of the town. Directly in front of the house is a small empty space where the town begins its annual procession of the Madonna statue. 

At one time, the house may have been connected, but today, the garage on the ground floor belongs to someone else. So you enter the little door on the left and immediately go up a flight of stairs which opens into this showstopper of a room. 

The original tiles are intact and beautiful. The room has a high barrel vaulted ceiling with frescoes painted on it. The walls are all hand-stenciled. There are two large pieces of furniture – a mirrored dresser with a marble top and a bar cabinet with glass doors. 

At one end of the room are double doors that open onto a balcony which overlooks the entrance to the Arabic quarter. There is also a set of doors at that end that lead upstairs. At the opposite end are green double doors that lead into the next room. 

You can see in the pictures how the house aged just in the time between when I first saw it in early 2020 and when we finally purchased it at the end of 2022. The mirror on the dresser fell and broke, and the ceilings are looking worse. 

All the furniture and decorations came with the house. We are working with Zarite in Cammarata to try to preserve as many as we can. Zarite is an interior design and home furnishings family business that specializes in restoring and upcycling vintage furniture. We are potentially looking into repurposing some items. For example, we are going to see if we can turn the dresser with the marble top into a double vanity for one of the bathrooms. 

The double doors to the left of the entryway lead into what will likely be a kitchen and dining room. It also has the barrel vaulted ceiling (which is in terrible condition due to the roof). This room has terra cotta tiles that are painted solid colors, though it is difficult to see under the dirt. It has one large full-length window that looks out onto the semi-private courtyard. 

The walls in this room are also hand-stenciled. I’m hoping we can save at least a piece of it, but due to the water damage, I’m not sure if it will be possible. 

I think the previous owner was possibly a tailor or seamstress as I found bags and bags of fabric scraps, thread, antique leather thimbles and hundreds of buttons. Unfortunately, nearly everything is now ruined.

After the deed was signed, I was able to get into the house to do a little cleaning. Though still in desperate need of repairs, it gives a glimmer of what it will someday be. 

Next door to this house was a very small house that was also available. Really just two rooms over two floors, it had also been empty for decades. Adding this tiny house (as we call it) gave us the potential for another bedroom, or utility room, and another entrance. 

The initial thought is to add a door from this dining room into the room on the other side of the wall (whatever we may turn it into) to connect the two houses. Also, that room has a balcony that is currently too long, which makes it difficult to go down the stairs into the courtyard. By owning that property, we can correct the balcony. 

Through the door on the far side of the kitchen/dining room is a hallway. On the left is a door that leads to the stairs into the courtyard. To the right leads to a small closet (marked WC on the floor plan though there doesn’t seem to be any plumbing) and two more rooms. 

The two rooms were clearly used as bedrooms. The first has an antique marriage bed, with a figure of a man on one side and of a woman on the other. Sitting on the bed, which is still made up with blankets and pillows, is a suitcase. It looks like someone was packing to leave and simply ran out of time before finishing. 

This room also has the characteristic barrel vaulted ceiling and hand painted tiles. Again, time and the poor state of the roof have damaged the ceiling and interior of the room. One aspect that makes modernizing these old Sicilian homes a bit more difficult is their tendency to put the doors in the middle of the wall. So to get to the bedroom at the far side, a person would have to walk through this bedroom.

Since the walls are more than a foot thick, and constructed using solid stone blocks, not to mention the arched ceiling, moving the door or adding a hallway is impossible without completely altering the aesthetics of the room. 

You may notice in the pictures that some of the tiles have been removed. After we had signed the preliminary contract, but before we had signed the deed, someone broke into the house and stole some of the tiles. 

It may seem like an odd thing to steal, but these original, hand-painted tiles are now very expensive and are often sold in street markets in Palermo and other towns.

It happened when the road in front of the house was being repaved so there were a lot of workers around and construction noise. But thankfully, a neighbor noticed someone carrying the tiles out of the house and alerted someone. Our agent came over and added an additional lock to the door. Whoever did it seemed to have only been able to remove a handful from the house. Many of the tiles have been popped up from the floor but are still still sitting there.

As we had planned to install under floor heating anyway it wasn’t such a huge loss. Our architect will salvage the remaining tiles and reinstall them to look a bit like a carpet, with a plain border around the edge. 

This blue bedroom only has the one small window which looks out into the neighbor’s small courtyard. The door in the middle of the opposite wall leads into the next bedroom. 

This pink bedroom has a small built-in closet on one wall, a door to a balcony on another and a full-length window/door on the third wall. So every wall has something on it which will make using it as a modern bedroom somewhat tricky. 

This room also has high, barrel vaulted ceilings and the same blue tiles as the neighboring room. The walls are pink with a hand-painted stencil pattern. The person who stole the tiles also removed some from this room as well. 

The narrow balcony looks out over the countryside and a small garden below. Part of the garden belongs to the owner of the garage, and part belongs to us (marked in red in the photo). 

You can see again in the pictures the damage to the ceiling over time. On my first visit, the spot is a relatively small hole. By the time we’d signed the deed, the hole had grown quite a bit. We have asked our architect to prioritize fixing the roof before it gets worse. 

We’re not sure yet what we will do with these rooms. But we hope to maintain as many of the original elements as possible. 

This post covered what the Italians refer to as the first floor (piano primo). In the US, it would be considered the 2nd floor, but in Italy what we call the first floor is referred to as the ground floor (piano terra).

To keep the posts from being ridiculously long, I’ll cover each floor in a separate post. 

You can follow our Sicilian home renovation journey by clicking on “Our Sicilian Home” under topics on the right side of the page or following us on Instagram here

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