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Family Business Wins Government Battles Twice: A Family Victory in Sicily

Aug 21, 2007
Imagine a villa set high on the hillside in Taormina, Italy on the east coast of Sicily. It's been your family's home and hotel property for generations, a villa with gardens full of hibiscus, roses and lemon trees, with magnificent 180 degree views of the Mediterranean and snow capped Mount Etna.

What would you do when the government took your home and business away from you not once...but twice?

This is the story of how through fierce determination the Schuler family won two battles against governments who confiscated their property in Taormina, Italy.

While on an Italian cooking and volcano walking tour with Mama Margaret in Sicily recently, we stayed at lovely, pink Hotel Villa Schuler in Taormina and were awestruck by the colour and beauty surrounding us.

The present hotel owner and manager, Gerhard Schuler is a quieter man, but when I said to him, "This property looks like a historic building beautifully renovated. What's the story behind it?" his face lit up. "I'll give you our book."

I read "The One Hundred Year Story Of Villa Schuler" and the hotel took on a whole new character and depth.

In 1886 Eugen Schuler left Germany for warmer Sicily for health reasons. In a few years he was running a successful jewelry and antiques store, was happily married to a German woman, Anna and had a son.

They bought a small villa in Taormina on the present Villa Schuler property. In 1905 suddenly Eugen died at 39. What was a widow with a 12 year old son to do? She had a good business head and turned their home into a B & B.

Taormina was becoming famous among artists and intellectuals in Germany and northern Europe, looking to enjoy warm winters in Sicily for weeks or months. Soon they were staying at Villa Schuler.

Beautiful Taormina became a mecca for the rich and famous like Johannes Brahms, Oscar Wilde, D.H. Lawrence, British kings, Greta Garbo, Christian Dior.

Anna had just got her business running well when World War I broke out. The Italian government confiscated property belonging to enemy Germans, like Villa Schuler. Anna and her 22 year old son, Eugen fled to Germany where they spent the war.

After the war, Eugen took his wife, Thea and mother to Taormina. Villa Schuler was up for sale at an auction.

However the local Italian bidders got together and decided to withdraw their offers so the Schulers were the only bidder and could buy their property back. The Schulers had a good reputation and good friends in Taormina!

Soon Villa Schuler was doing brisk business again. In the 1920's Eugen's wife and one of his two children died, leaving him and his mother running Villa Schuler where loyal guests stayed for months.

In 1926 Eugen's wife, Thea and their daughter died, leaving one son, Heintz and Eugen to run Villa Schuler.

World War II broke out and the now larger villa was expropriated again. The Nazis arrived in Sicily, occupied Taormina and turned Villa Schuler into a liason centre for the German army.

When the Germans left Taormina in 1943, following the Allies' liberation of Sicily, the British army occupied the villa. The Schulers fled to Bolzano in northern Italy.

The British turned the villa into a rest home for soldiers. They bricked in all the balconies so drunken soldiers wouldn't fall off them. Because it was a German house, before they left, they ripped out all the plumbing and wiring and smashed many rooms.

After the war, the Italian government owned the ruined property and housed bombed out and homeless civilians in the empty rooms. They raised chickens and rabbits in the gardens.

Eugen brought his mother and son, Heintz back to Taormina and got a job managing a large hotel in a nearby town. He was 61 and didn't want to give up his parents' home or make a new life.

His luck came back in 1953. He convinced the Italian government to give him back the family home in ruins, this time for free.

His mother had died, so he went back to his broken down house with his son and daughter-in-law, who were not interested in running a hotel and moved away. Restoring the building was too big a project for him. He spent a sad year all alone making little progress.
His luck was about to change again.

Meanwhile in Germany, a young nurse, Marta had got stressed out during the war and was in a sanitarium with persistent stomach ulcers. A doctor told her to change her life and got her a job as a private nurse to a lady in Taormina. Through her, this intrepid nurse met Eugen, 31 years older. They married in 1954.

With some local workers, they restored the desolate house bit by bit. In the first five years, there were no electrical appliances. They opened the hotel anyway.

After all their guests had gone through in the war, they didn't mind staying in such a magnificent location in basic rooms with "hot and cold running water".

Word spread and the tourists came back to Villa Schuler, some of them children of guests in the 1920s. How to promote the hotel now that the days of long stays were gone? Eugen got German consulates and embassies around the world to recommend the hotel to diplomats, judges, politicians and actresses.

Eugen and Marta had two sons, Gerhard and Claudio. Marta ran the hotel with four staff. In such a family run place, they made friends with their guests and often celebrated their birthdays and anniversaries at the villa.

By the 1960s their business was booming and they added a third floor to the villa to make 27 rooms.

The 1970's saw the start of mass tourism in Italy and international guests arrived. Marta ran Villa Schuler as Eugen took a less active role in the business to pursue his passion, Mount Etna.

Like his father, Eugen accompanied scientists up to the volcano rim. He became an acknowledged expert at the Volcanological Research Institute in Catania, the capital of his province. He died happy in Taormina at age 82.

Eugen and Marta's son Gerhard, now manages Hotel Villa Schuler.

The Villa Schuler story inspired me in many ways. Over generations the Schuler family persevered through a series of hardships to keep and operate what was important in their hearts.

They maintained vast social networks of people they treated well and worked together to build the lifestyle and business they love to this day.
About the Author
Margaret Cowan of Vancouver, BC owns a tour company, Mama Margaret Italian Cooking Holidays at http://www.italycookingschools.com/sicily.html

They ran their first Italian cooking, wine and walking tour in 1995. Margaret and her local Italian tour partners offer tours from north to south in Italy.
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