|Photo by Freeimages.com/Pierluigi Antonacci|
by Claire Wrathall, The Daily Telegraph, June 06, 2016
When, 20 years ago this summer, Marisa Melpignano decided to turn the family masseria into a luxurious hotel, her friends "thought I was crazy! Masserias [ancient fortified farmhouses found only in Puglia in the very heel of Italy] were traditionally rustic homes for country people," she tells me over a breakfast cappuccino. "No one accustomed to five-star hotels would want to stay in one."
In any case foreign visitors to Italy loved the north: the lakes, Tuscany, Umbria... while northern Italians knew the south to be poor and uncouth. When Carlo Levi chose to call his memoir of a year spent in exile in a village in the neighbouring region of Basilicata in the 1930s Christ Stopped at Eboli, it was a reference to the fact that Christianity and the civilisation and enlightenment it brought had yet to penetrate the deep south, which remained, he’d been led to believe, essentially pagan, wild, superstitious and 'far from the traffic of men'
Melpignano believed otherwise. Though she and her late husband, both natives of Puglia, lived in Rome, where she had an antique shop, he a law firm, they loved the area and had always spent holidays here, staying with family. One day, however, while out gathering camomile flowers near the unassuming seaside village of Savelletri di Fasano, they had happened upon an abandoned farmhouse, the main structure of which had been built by the Knights of Malta during the 15th century. They bought it and gradually restored it to habitability. But as their children grew up and wanted to travel abroad, there were only so many weeks of the year it was occupied, and there were staff to pay. The answer was paying guests.
She opened Masseria San Domenico as a 28-room hotel in 1996, careful to preserve its agricultural heritage (it still produces oil from its 250 acres of olive trees) and swapping marble and the traditional trappings of luxury for something understated and of the place, even resisting the temptation to enlarge the windows to admit more light and capitalise on the views. "To do that," she says, "is to compromise the heart and soul of a masseria."
Two decades on, with its integrity intact, the hotel now has 96 rooms and suites, a thalassotherapy spa, a vast freeform pool, two beaches (one sandy, one with a pontoon off which to swim) and most of the luxuries expected in the 21st century... and has inspired dozens of rival five-star masseria conversions. Melpignano herself has added to their number. In 2004, she opened Masseria Cimino in an 18th-century house that had belonged to her grandfather, on the edge of the golf course that she had created in 2000. Melpignano turfed the course in Bermuda grass, which tolerates saltwater, to rebutt accusations that golf has no place in an environment this arid.
Then, last August, Melpignano unveiled a third property: Masseria Le Carrube, four miles from the enchanting whitewashed hilltop town of Ostuni, simpler and more contemporary than San Domenico and an essay in distressed wood, neutral linens and shades of white, with 15 rooms and two swimming pools in a courtyard that was once a sheepfold.
If Signora Melpignano was an outlier, she soon established a trend. In 2002 the late Lord McAlpine bought the 15th-century Convento di Santa Maria di Constantinopoli near Otranto on the coast, which his widow, Athena, continues to run as a B&B. And since then a host of A-listers from Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren to the Brazilian bossa nova legend Rosalia de Souza have acquired homes in Puglia.
But it was the opening in 2010 of Borgo Egnazia where Justin Timberlake married Jessica Biel, also near Savelletri, that really established Puglia as a destination for sybarites. The creation of Melpignano’s husband, who commissioned the building, and son, Aldo (who, as a postgraduate student in the US, had interned for Ian Schrager’s Morgans Hotel Group), it was a new build (not that you’d guess) designed to resemble a gleaming citadel of rough-hewn local white tufa, surrounded by a village (or borgo) of two-bedroom houses and palatial villas with butlers and private pools.
Unlike the masserias, it’s also right on the beach. For though Puglia has 500 miles of coastline, lapped by the Adriatic to the east and the Ionian Sea to the west, its seaside is not its real glory. It may have a handful of modish beach clubs with sunloungers, laidback restaurants and DJs, notably Coccaro near Monopoli and, further south, White Beach near Torre Canne, but much of the coast is undeniably down at heel.
That said, appearances should not deter you from lunching on spaghetti and sea urchins (ricci) at Ristorante Albachiara, just south of Savelletri. With its battered plastic chairs and tables, and laminated menu on which almost nothing costs more than €10, it’s almost off-putting, except that it draws a stylish crowd. But Emily Fitzroy, the owner of Bellini Travel, who knows more than anyone in England about off-the-beaten-track Puglia, had promised I’d love it. "A bottle of Peroni, a plate of spaghetti, the waves crashing on the rocks below… Paradiso!" she’d said. And it was.
Such rough-cut gems aside, it is Puglia’s labyrinthine towns that make the area so appealing. I’ve yet to find a more alluring gelateria than Bar Fod on Piazza Vittorio Emanuele in Cisternino, where the décor and typography can’t have changed since the 1930s, and the ices are as good as any I have ever tasted. Try the fragrant fico d’India, as they call prickly pear, and the almond milk. The coffee, too, is wonderful, especially the local speciality, caffè in ghiaccio con latte di mandorle, an espresso poured into a glass of ice and topped with almond milk. (There are very few cows in Puglia, but thousands of nut trees, so dairy-free diets are more or less the norm.)
Ostuni, too, is worth the detour for an aperitivo at the Caffè Tentazione on Piazza della Libertà followed by dinner at Osteria del Tempo Perso, the rough stone walls of its main dining room hung with farming implements (or you can dine downstairs in an actual cave). Afterwards, return to the square for coffee or an infusion of camomilla, by which time, if it’s a summer weekend, you may find a local orchestra in the bandstand, playing arias by Verdi or Puccini.
Aside from the tourist magnet of Alberobello – famous for its endlessly photographed terraces of trulli, the little cone-like stone dwellings that pepper the landscape – the most celebrated town in Puglia is Lecce, which revels in a not altogether justified reputation as ‘the Florence of the South’. Its abundance of exuberant baroque architecture – built on the proceeds from the olive oil it used to sell to the British, who used it to fuel oil lamps – and elegant streets have undeniable splendour, though I’m not sure it rivals the birthplace of the Renaissance. You certainly don’t need more than a day to see the sights.
It is, however, a good base for a couple of days, thanks to La Fiermontina, which opened in a 17th-century mansion in the heart of the town last summer, 15 minutes’ walk from the partially excavated remains of a 15,000-seat Roman amphitheatre.
In terms of contemporary hotel design, it bears comparison with the best that Italy has to offer. Its Pugliese architect Antonio Annicchiarico, who counts the Hermès family among his clients, has conjured a scheme that is both at one with the area’s materials (the rough white Trani stone) and heritage (the star-pinnacled vaulting) and pays homage to the current owner’s artist grandmother, Antonia Fiermonte, who fled Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s for Paris and fell in with several pioneers of modernism. Hence the sculptures in the garden by Fernand Léger, René Letourneur and Jacques Zwobada and a collection of furniture by the likes of Le Corbusier and Gerrit Rietveld (in the hall) and Charlotte Perriand (the sofas, tables and armchairs in the library) that would not disgrace a museum.
There is also contemporary design: most strikingly the perforated orb-like brass lights (Nictea by Tobia Scarpa for Flos) that illuminate the gold-panelled bar, which is named after Antonia’s brother, Enzo, a boxer-turned-film actor who was briefly married to the widow of John Jacob Astor after she survived the sinking of the Titanic.
La Fiermontina is the perfect place for a long weekend. Whereas most of Puglia’s loveliest hotels are remotely located and require a car should you wish to eat somewhere other than the hotel’s own restaurant, here a 10-minute stroll takes you to Le Zie (literally ‘the aunts’), a tiny unassuming place run by three sisters whose purea di fave con le cicorie – a purée of dried broad beans topped with bitter greens stewed in peppery olive oil – is justly celebrated.
This is a classic of cucina povera, as the area’s largely meat-free cooking is known, and found on almost every menu. The best I ate, however, was the version made by Maria Carla Pennetta, who cooks at Masseria Trapana, 10 minutes by car from Lecce, which opened at Easter this year.
Like San Domenico, it too was a ruin when its owner, Rob Potter-Sanders, an Australian hotelier looking for a project to call his own, happened upon it. But two years of meticulous restoration, during which frescoes in its chapel were uncovered, have transformed it into a 10-room boutique that feels more a private house than a hotel.
With their stone floors, vaulted ceilings and vast bespoke wrought-iron bedsteads, the rooms have a cool, understated austerity. But you’ll want for nothing in the way of comforts (right down to the loan of a stylish sunhat), or technology. Masseria Trapana’s real glories, however, are its six walled gardens (one with a handsome pool), planted with 520 citrus, pomegranate and nut trees between which hammocks have been strung.
Masseria Trapana stands surrounded by endless vistas of silvery olive groves. Indeed, Puglia is said to be planted with as many as9- 60 million olive trees, the gnarliest of which are more than a thousand years old. Those in the south of the region, however, are under threat from a bacterial disease, Xylella fastidiosa, which is spread by insects and has already devastated tens of thousands of the trees that have come to define this almost biblical terrain.
Puglia may be gaining hotels, but without careful stewardship its ancient landscape may not endure. Which is yet another reason to go now.
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This article was written by Claire Wrathall from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.