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The 'sexy' reality behind Sicily's 'White Lotus' hotel

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(CNN) – With luxurious Baroque villas, exotic gardens, dramatic landscapes, ancient art and a seductive vibe, Sicily looks like the perfect location for the second season of the dark comedy series “The White Lotus”.

The award-winning show charts the tangled, erotic and sometimes dangerous adventures of super-rich tourists staying at the beautiful clifftop San Domenico Palace, a five-star resort operated by Four Seasons in the city of Taormina.

A former 14th-century monastery with unique views of Etna volcano and the coast, the hotel is as much a star of the show as its Hollywood cast and Italian celebrities. And, says his real-life manager, Lorenzo Maraviglia, is a match for his fictional counterpart.

“The actual vibe of the resort is very similar to what you see and feel on the show,” he told CNN Travel. “It’s vibrant, it’s about Sicily – romantic and sexy – and about our amazing guests who this year have included Madonna and Sharon Stone.”

Made for HBO (which, like CNN, is part of Warner Bros. Discovery), the series is filmed around Taormina, Noto, Cefalù and Palermo, but San Domenico Palace is at the heart of the intrigue and risqué connections that ensue. develop over the years. throughout the seven-episode season.

And while guests looking for their own White Lotus escape might not have the same racy experiences, Maraviglia insists her hotel will at least offer the same level of service enjoyed by the show’s characters.

“The success of the series is based on the reality of what happens in a luxury hotel; the interactions between employees and customers, and between customers, are very real,” he says.

But the “extreme situations, like two local escorts coming and going to entertain guests, are part of the drama and theatrics that add a layer of spice,” he adds, insisting that things generally happen at a more leisurely pace – as far as he knows. conscious.

“We can notice if there are strange movements if a situation becomes obvious, but Taormina and our resort are places where these things usually don’t happen. It’s for families and honeymooners. Even if someone has a weekend fling, don’t It’s noticeable to us.”

Visitors to the San Domenico Palace will find it exactly as depicted in “The White Lotus”. These connecting doors between the suites really exist. There are lush gardens for a sunset drink, beautiful cloisters, a panoramic pool and terrace overlooking the bay where guests have breakfast, and a Michelin-starred restaurant where the show’s characters often argue.

Not that Sicily is no stranger to frisson. The island has an ancient Greek heritage of sexual freedom – a past reflected in the series, with pagan statues and religious frescoes silently testifying to the extravagant activities of wealthy guests.

saints and whores

The second season of “The White Lotus” is filmed at the San Domenico Palace hotel in Sicily.

Fabio Lovino/HBO

Taormina is seen in all its glamour: the imposing ancient Greek theater, the panoramic piazzetta, the pastel-coloured dwellings, elegant alleyways lined with cafes and gleaming boutiques, the chic restaurants like Baronessa, where a couple’s dinner scene is filmed. fighting.

The hotel’s best suites, where most of the show’s sex scenes take place, have swimming pools and paintings of saints made by the monks who lived there.

“The decor, the rooms, it’s all original, what you see is real, even the staff uniforms,” ​​says Maraviglia.

While Maraviglia may not have heeded some of the more outlandish guest requests that crop up on “White Lotus,” he says he’s had to deal with outlandish requests since the San Domenico opened last year as part of the Four Seasons chain.

“Some guests wanted to visit the Aeolian Islands by private helicopter and charter a yacht to Syracuse, which is only an hour away by car,” he says.

Physically, there are only two real deviations from reality – the scenes on the beach and the photos showing guests arriving by boat. The resort, located 400 meters high on the rocky plateau of Taormina, has no access to the sea. The private terrace of a nearby fish restaurant, La Cambusa in Giardini Naxos, was used to film arrival scenes at sea.

And since the hotel has no private shoreline, nearby Unahotels Capotaormina resort is where guests can enjoy lounge chairs and umbrellas at a beach club carved into a reddish cliff flanked by rock arches and sea stacks, with view of the small island of Isolabella.

The islet, which also appears in “White Lotus”, is connected to the coast by a narrow strip of sand and is one of the most beautiful and popular diving spots in Sicily, thanks to its emerald green waters. It forms part of an archaeological park and has a villa surrounded by exotic plants that houses a botanical museum.

Most of the bathing and underwater scenes were filmed on the public beach in the picturesque fishing village of Cefalú, between Taormina and Palermo.

The bay of Taormina witnessed real-life intrigue in 1955, when a Polish heiress was allegedly drowned by her husband under mysterious circumstances said to be linked to an inheritance.

The fights between couples in “The White Lotus” are also real. In 1967, an enraged Elizabeth Taylor apparently smashed a mandolin over Richard Burton’s head on the terrace of his suite.

Potted plants and phalluses

The hotel building is a former monastery from the 14th century.

The hotel building is a former monastery from the 14th century.

San Domenico Palace, Four Seasons

There’s a lot of Sicilian folklore in “The White Lotus” along with references to the island’s mafia connections.

A ceramic sculpture of a bearded Moor’s head is often shown in the show as a symbol of betrayal, a reference to a local legend that dates back to medieval times. One of the Arab occupants of Sicily is said to have had his head cut off and used as a vase by a woman with whom he had an affair.

“This story embodies the Sicilian essence of love, passion and revenge, all represented in the ‘White Lotus,'” says Sonia Bonamassa, public relations coordinator at the San Domenico. “She beheads the Moor because she loves him, but he has betrayed her.”

These testa di moro ceramic heads are today used by Sicilians as vases, candlesticks, citrus fruit bowls and flower vases or just to decorate rooms.

The Mori are emblematic of Sicily’s Arab heritage. Other local souvenirs include colorful pottery in the shape of a pine nut, which Sicilians believe brings good luck.

“Director Mike White was extremely receptive to these local things, we played with them and he included many of our suggestions in the season, like Italian songs, adapting his approach to reality,” says Maraviglia.

One tip that didn’t work out, probably because it was too radical even for a show so erotic-laden, was a local bar that the actors nicknamed “the penis bar”.

Bar Turrisi, in the picturesque medieval village of Castelmola, near Taormina, is filled with phallus-shaped objects. “Bottles, watches, glasses, everything,” says Maraviglia. Even stairs and tiles have penises.

Waitress Giorgia Ponturo says the hotel’s (real) crew visited regularly after a tough day of filming and hopes the series will lure tourists to quieter, lesser-known spots in Taormina, like Castelmola.

“This bar dates back to 1947, it was a brothel and a gay hangout,” says Ponturo. “So the owner decided to adopt the phallus motif, which was an ancient Greek symbol of sexual potency and fertility, to reaffirm the virility of Sicilian men. It also brings good luck.”

Crazy parties and luxurious mansions

The hotel manager says that real-life guests can expect the same level of luxury seen on the show.

The hotel manager says that real-life guests can expect the same level of luxury seen on the show.

San Domenico Palace, Four Seasons

Some scenes were filmed in a Renaissance palace called Villa Tasca, which is actually located in the town of Monreale, near Palermo. Set in lush parkland, it features sumptuous frescoes and statues, king-size bedrooms and an exotic lake-pool with fresh spring water. Rented for weddings and private events, German composer Richard Wagner is said to have stayed here while creating one of his masterpieces.

Another extravagant mansion featured in “The White Lotus” as the setting for an orgy is Villa Elena, set among olive groves near Noto. It is decorated with antique tapestries and marble pieces and has a huge swimming pool jutting out from a temple.

“The White Lotus” pays homage to the mafia movies “The Godfather”, featuring the location of a classic scene – Castello degli Schiavi in ​​Fiumefreddo, an elegant castle with a cloister. It is a private property open to guided tours and event bookings.

The best of Sicilian food is also featured in the series. Guests gobble up ricotta-stuffed cannoli, cassata cakes, gelato and arancini rice balls. The characters regularly drink local rosé and martinis. Two couples spend a day wine-tasting at the Planeta cantina on the flanks of Mount Etna, where the fertile black soil of the volcano produces top-notch bottles such as Eruzione (“Eruption”).

Since the 1800s, Taormina has been an international VIP hotspot known for its wild parties and sexual freedom dating back to pagan Greek days when homosexuality was the norm. The Anglo-Irish playwright Oscar Wilde was a frequent visitor.

It is said that Taormina may have been the birthplace of DH Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”. The author and his wife were guests at the Palace of San Domenico in the early 1920s and the book was apparently inspired by an affair between Mrs. Lawrence and a local donkey rider.

global highlight

Unlike the show, guests cannot reach the hotel by boat.

Unlike the show, guests cannot reach the hotel by boat.

Fabio Lovino/HBO

Locals hope that Taormina’s global promotion of “White Lotus” will draw even more tourists to Sicily and increase its appeal as a Hollywood stage.

Giacomo Chillé, of the Discover Messina travel agency, plans to organize guided tours of the series’ locations. “There is enormous potential in cinetourism (tourism linked to cinema), we already take Americans to the places of the ‘Godfather’ with tailor-made trips”, he said.

Not everyone is happy. Enzo Anastasi, owner of the La Canna hotel on the eccentric island of Filicudi in the Aeolian archipelago, is concerned about “reducing Sicily to a rich man’s Disneyland.”

He said: “These American series promote and portray the usual super-rich people and their glamorous locales, which are not the real, authentic soul of Sicily, where simple traditions and lifestyles survive.”

Giuseppe Quattrocchi, a Taormina resident who owns the Le Bistrot du Monde restaurant, thinks the series will be a godsend for Taormina tourism, but says he didn’t like how Sicily was sometimes portrayed.

“When three guests go looking for their ancestors in a remote village and are turned away by their supposed relatives, that is the opposite of our innate hospitality,” he says. “In addition, the escorts and the reference to local criminal organizations portray a negative image.”