After 4 Centuries, Family is Selling a Sicilian Island Retreat

ROME — Who wouldn’t want their own Sicilian island?

A private, sun-kissed refuge in the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean, complete with the remains of a 16th-century watchtower, ancient Roman basins and a medieval well. A secluded retreat within swimming distance of Sicily (for the physically fit), yet removed from its bustle and chaos.

The Isola delle Femmine — Island of the Women — which fits that description, is on the market at an asking price of two million euros, or roughly $2.2 million.

“I would love someone to buy it who can enjoy it,” said Countess Paola Pilo Bacci, whose family has enjoyed the island for four centuries.

Though they remain fond of the isolotto, or small island, as she and local residents call it, the current heirs no longer live in Sicily, and that led to the decision to sell.

“The isolotto is there and we are here,” the countess said in an interview at a cafe in the upscale Roman neighborhood where she lives. “We go. But not enough. And it’s become difficult to manage the property” without going regularly, she said.

But the island has its drawbacks: there is no place to live on it — the tower is a genuine fixer-upper — and development is strictly regulated because it is a nature reserve.

The island is one of Sicily’s most recognizable landmarks, familiar to passengers flying into Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino Airport and to travelers on the highway that links the Sicilian capital to Mazara del Vallo.

Its evocative name is the stuff of legends, including the oft-told tale that a group of young Turkish women were exiled on the island long ago. Some say the ghost of one still wanders the island, strolling on the beach.

“There are many legends,” the countess said dismissively.

The etymology is likely more prosaic: the posthumous distortion of the name Euphemius, a ninth-century Byzantine commander in Sicily.

Though the island is only 37 acres, its ruins reflect the Mediterranean’s rich history, a tumultuous succession of invasions and settlements.

There are stone basins dating to ancient Roman times that were likely used for the preparation of garum, the fermented fish sauce ubiquitous in the era’s cuisine.

There is a medieval well, and the watchtower is believed to be part of Sicily’s defensive system of coastal fortifications against pirates and Ottoman invaders that was revamped by the Florentine architect Camillo Camilliani in the 16th century.

One of the countess’s ancestors, Rosolino Pilo, who died in 1860 during Garibaldi’s Expedition of the Thousand, a campaign that led to the creation of the Kingdom of Italy, used to go to the island, “because it was isolated, and he could think and read,” she said.

When they were young, the countess and her siblings were habitués of the island, taking fishing boats from the town of Isola delle Femmine across the strait that separates it from Sicily to sunbathe, swim and go snorkeling. (A bit of sports trivia: Joe DiMaggio’s fisherman father hailed from the town.)

“The water is uncontaminated, and rich with coral and fish,” said the countess, who is an artist and often depicts fish and underwater scenes in her art.

“My friends say, ‘Ah, it’s because of the island,’” she said.

But these days, she said, she preferred being on the island in the spring. “It’s full of flowers, bellissimo, like a big beautiful garden,” she said.

The island’s tower was bombed during World War II and was never rebuilt.

Riccardo Romolini, the broker handling the sale, said that the tower had “always been inhabited” and could be restored to its original two-story configuration.

A terrace at the top of the tower would provide a spectacular view. “It would feel like flying,” he said.

There is a potentially restorable underground cistern and medieval well, and he suggested that solar panels could be installed for power.

The island is part of a protected marine area, which means access is limited, and it is wild and rugged.

Since 1997 the island has also been a nature reserve, managed by the Italian League for Bird Protection.

It is strategically located for migratory birds and of late has become a breeding ground for sea gulls, whose numbers have increased in proportion to Italy’s ineptitude in dealing with its waste. The sea gulls jealously guard their nests.

The native fauna include lizards and butterflies. The bird protection organization has been gradually relocating to Sicily the hare colonies that have proliferated on the island in recent decades.

As a nature reserve and a Special Area of Conservation recognized by the European Union, the island is subject to a number of limitations to preserve its flora and fauna.

And there’s the catch.

“The limitations remain even if the island is sold,” said Vincenzo Di Dio, the director of the reserve.

Mr. Di Dio noted that as a nature reserve, the island could not be commercially exploited, and any development would have to be “environmentally sustainable.”

“The island has to be preserved as it is,” he said.

In April, Angelo Bonelli, the national coordinator of Italy’s Green Party, wrote to the country’s culture and environment ministers to express his concern about the sale of the Isola delle Femmine and a handful of islands also advertised on real estate websites.

He called on the ministers to monitor the sales and ensure that existing constraints to development on all the islands were upheld.

“It’s true that no one can stop these sales because they are private, but we want public officials to be aware that they are going on,” Mr. Bonelli said in a telephone interview. He added that his letters had not been responded to.

“Isola delle Femmine is stupendous in terms of its nature,” he said. “But its beauty is in its wildness.”

Also in April, Sicily’s cultural heritage department ruled that the tower was subject to architectural protection and that any work on it had to comply with norms that ensured its conservation.

Projects to develop or restore the tower would have to be preapproved by the department.

The island was originally listed in 2017 at €3.5 million, but the price was lowered, and is open to negotiation.

Mr. Romolini, the broker, said that prospective owners could transform the history-rich islet into an open-air museum, restoring the tower and the ancient garum basins. “It would offer a one-of-a-kind experience,” he said.

But there was also pleasure in owning something as unique as a work of art, Mr. Romolini added.

“That’s the beauty of the island. It is deserted, and people go just to be in the moment, the silence, nature and beauty that surrounds you,” far from the hubbub of our ever-connected daily life, he said. “Some things are invaluable.”

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