The old inland SS 120 used to be the only road from Sicily’s east coast to Palermo until the Autostrada from Messina was built along the island’s north shore. It wraps around the north side of Mt. Etna, passing the bushy grapevines that thrive in the volcanic soils and a number of small towns whose crumbling castles and thriving little medieval centers are a reminder that, though now an agricultural backwater, this used to be a main highway through an empire.

Exactly whose empire we’re talking about has changed repeatedly.

Just in the past 2,800 years or so, Sicily has variously belonged to the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish Bourbons, French Angevins, and–only since Garibaldi landed at Marsala in 1861 to start the Savoy King Vittorio Emanuele’s conquest of the peninsula–the Italians. Also, just in this one forgotten corner of the island, for a time, technically it was part of the British Empire as well. Well, a Dukedom, really. One belonging to, of all people, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.

The forests through which I was passing, which were blocking the sun from drying out my passport on the dash, lay on the edge of the Duchy of Bronte, a realm which was based around the town of Bronte (famous for producing the best pistachios in Europe) but which was ruled from the Castello di Mainace, a good ways north of town in the forest.

The castle was named for the Byzantine general Geroge Maniakes, who fought the Arabs in Sicily, won a decisive battle here, and founded the castle in 1040 on the site of an Arab fortification. In 1173 the place was turned into a monastery, which tumbled down (along with most of the rest of eastern Sicily) in the massive earthquake of 1693. A century later, the castle was rebuilt, and these days it mostly goes by the name “Castello di Neslon.”

Here’s how that went down.

In 1799, the Spanish Bourbons–monarchs over The Two Sicilies–had been forced out of Sicily #1 (Naples) by Napoleon, and had taken refuge in Sicily #2 (Palermo). King Ferdinand wanted Sicily #1 back (my guess: because of the mozzarella), so he looked for outside aid to help slow the juggernaut that was the Napoleonic army.

The British counsel in Palermo at the time was able to secure the services of their Admiral Nelson to lead his fleet against the French (something he was to prove incredibly good at) and drive them away from the interests of the Bourbons. The reason the consul was able to convince Nelson into the fray had nothing whatsoever to do with his talents as a diplomat, and everything to do with the fact that he was Lord Hamilton. Lord Hamilton’s wife was Lady Hamilton, and Lady Hamilton was Horatio Nelson’s lover.

In gratitude for chasing off the French, Ferdinand gave Nelson the Dukedom of Bronte, which included this castle and estate. This royally granted British fiefdom in sun-drenched Sicily gained a measure of fame back home at the time. One rabid fan of Nelson’s, a certain Reverend Patrick Prunty, went so far as the change his last name to Bronte–only he added an umlaut over the “o,” for reasons clear only to himself–and passed along the new surname to his bookish daughters: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne.

Officially, Nelson never even set foot in his Sicilian castle. Unofficially, however, he just may have spent here the happiest days of his life. Voices whisper that Nelson consummated his tryst with the Lady Hamilton here, in the Castello Mainace, and that this is where they conceived their illegitimate daughter, Horatia.

Whatever the case, the bliss was short-lived. Nelson had his fleet to command, and within four years, he heroically lost his life–yet again besting Napoleon–at the Battle of Trafalgar, and the Sicilian estate passed to his brother, William. Lady Hamilton and Horatia fared even worse.

In that era, even when a hero as great as Nelson was involved, the scandal of such a relationship with another gentleman’s wife was utterly unacceptable to British society. In the end, Lady Hamilton was reduced to serving as a maid back in London, where she died destitute. The bastard daughter Horatia descended into poverty as well, and disappeared from history.

Castello Mainace, however, stayed in the family of Nelson’s brother, and was passed down to his niece Charlotte, who married the Baron Bridsport. The Bridsports held onto the joint all the way up until the land reforms of the 1960s did away with noble holdings. By 1981, everything but the little English cemetery across the road became the provenance of the local comune, which has set it up as a museum to the distinguished Nelsonian connection.

The most interesting item in display in the upstairs living quarters, isn’t the lovely tilework on the floors or the period furnishings behind velvet ropes, nor is it portrait of the petulant teenage Bridsport who served as the last Duke of Bronte, nor even the engraving, signed by both men, commemorating the only meeting, in early September 1804, between Nelson and Arthur Wellesley (this was five years before Wellesley was elevated to “Viscount Wellington,” and ten years before he got bumped up to “Duke”).

No, the most interesting artifact on display was a set of crystal: a wine carafe and two glasses set into a wooden base, with little metal clamps that swiveled over the foot of each glass designed to keep it steady and in place as the ship pitches and yaws. It was the drinking set the Admiral used onboard his ship just before the phyrric victory at Trafalgar.

It was this everyday item, a token of the nuance of Nelson’s shipboard life, which struck me the most. The idea that the Admiral might have done something as gloriously mundane as enjoy an aperitif before the fateful battle sat well with me, and it reminded me of Enzo and his fiery Liqueur of Love. But that tale will have to wit until the next post.