Our ancestor, Queen of the French Marie Amelie, the wife of Louis Philippe, inherited an enormous villa outside the city walls of Palermo from her parents, King Ferdinand and Queen Marie Caroline of the Two Sicilies. She also inherited some farmland in Zucco. When I visited the Orleans Palace, the site of my parents’ marriage, I was disappointed. It had been turned into a prefecture following World War II, there wasn’t much left to link it to the family. As for the once splendid park, renowned for its beauty, it had been broken up and parted out over the years.
Perhaps the property in Zucco would be more promising. The site was about 25 miles from Palermo and produced wine. I remembered this because we inherited a few bottles from Louis Philippe’s own cellar. I set off with my cousin Micky and her husband Fred. The chauffer wasn’t familiar with the site, so we went to the town hall where I asked the mayor for the location of the property of the Duke of Aumale, who had owned it for many years. The mayor grimaced and gave us the directions. We were informed that we couldn’t visit the property, but we could see it through the gate.
The property is in the middle of the countryside, in a valley overflowing with vineyards. We arrived at a heavily fortified gate, covered with chains and padlocks. Nobody was around. There must be a way in though, people have to come and go. I saw another entrance, not far from where we were. This one was open. We drove a little further along a dirt road and arrived at the entrance. At that very moment, a small car with four mustached men with knitted eyebrows was leaving the property. One of the hostile looking men got out and rather menacingly asked us what we wanted. I told him that we were the descendants of the Duke of Aumale, a former owner of the property, and that we wanted to take a peek at the home. Without a word, he made a swift motion, signaling for us to pass through the gate. The car full of gentlemen then sped off, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake.
Our chauffeur didn’t seem sure of the situation, but I was curious and told him not to worry. Making our way past the vineyards we soon found ourselves before an immense villa that looked totally abandoned. Again there was nobody in sight. The villa wasn’t particularly attractive, but it was well situated and had gorgeous views of the countryside in all directions. There was a heavily overgrown garden terrace shaded by palm trees. On the wall there was an enormous panel with the French coat of arms, three fleurs-de-lis topped with a crown, itself decorated with a fleur-de-lis. It was the only reminder of our family. We kept to the terraces, not daring to enter the home itself. The whole time I felt like we were being watched, like there were invisible eyes upon us, observing us, following us. We didn’t stay long, and left without meeting a soul.
That evening, at a dinner in Palermo, I asked to whom the Zucco property belonged. “To the mafia chaplain,” replied a local princess, “It is even guarded by members of that illustrious order. The chaplain is almost never there, he spends most of his time in prison, bringing comfort and moral support to his flock.”