In 2016, for the first time ever, Lady Athena McAlpine, wife of the late Lord Alistair McAlpine, is opening the doors of her beautiful home near the sea in Puglia to travellers.
This month we sat down with Athena as she revealed all on the ex-Franciscan Monastery, including what inspired them to open the doors to guests, the story behind the arts and textiles on display, the dramatic history of the convent and what travellers can expect on their visit to the Puglia region.
1. I understand you have Greek heritage and imagine you have lived and travelled to many beautiful places. What originally attracted you and Lord McAlpine to the Puglia region?
I never chose to live in Puglia. It chose me!
Love and fate brought me to the Convento. My husband had discovered and bought the Convento before we were married and he gave it to me as a wedding present. It was a heap of stones and rubble that we brought back to life together.
2. What was your vision for the 500 year old Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli when you first set eyes on it? When you started renovating it, had you always intended it to be a bed and breakfast?
My husband already owned the Convento when we got engaged. As soon as he showed it to me I suggested it would be the perfect backdrop for his collection of textiles, folk art and ethnography as well as housing the 40 tonnes of books that made up his library. As it was such a large property once renovated, we decided to share it with our friends and family and welcome paying guests.
3. Prior to running the bed and breakfast at the Convento did you have any previous hospitality experience? Was it a big learning curve?
I had no professional experience in the hospitality or hotel industry at all, but I have been privileged to enjoy the generous hospitality of others and stay in some great hotels. Some as grand as the Ritz in London and others as humble as an adobe hut in Gujurat.
My husband on the other hand had plenty of hotel experience.
He was born in the Dorchester, during an air raid and joked that his bottle was brought to him by room service. He built the Parmelia Hotel in Perth, the Sydney Intercontinental of course the Cable Beach Resort in Broome.
It was an extremely steep learning curve but we worked intuitively creating the kind of destination that we would like to discover at the end of a long journey.
4. The rooms and corridors are hung with textiles and art from Japan, Korea, Africa and India, creating a stunning collection of “museum quality” treasures. When you are travelling what is it that attracts you to certain pieces and makes you go “that needs to be part of my collection"?
That is a very difficult question to answer. Of course there are all sorts of aesthetic criteria that contribute to a good work of art but it is the "wow factor" that usually grabs your attention first of all. I used to stand in front of great paintings with Alistair and ask him "What makes that painting so great Alistair?" and he used to reply, "It just is darling, it just is!".
5. What kind of guest experience did you envision people to have when they stay at Convento? What makes it a special experience for guests?
Growing up I enjoyed wonderful holidays on the Cycladic island of Andros in Greece where my mother comes from. Every summer we returned to the house my grandfather built there before the second world war. It taught me about the beauty and luxury of simplicity. No phones, no television, no fast food and no modern conveniences. Instead fresh, local produce, beautiful beaches, siestas, reading books, long and late breakfasts with lots of lively chatter around the table.
Those holidays in Greece were so special and that is the type of holiday experience I wish to share with our guests.
6. The Convento is located on the outskirts of the village of Marittima, on the Adriatic coast of the Salentine peninsula, as far south-east as you can travel in Italy to the heel of Italy. What is unique and different about this region? What makes visitors fall in love with it?
The love one feels for the Salento, is a tough love. A slow burn rather than love at first sight! If you are looking for the soft, rolling hills of Tuscany and a "Room with A View" you will not find it down here!
I always joke that here you are caught between the Baroque and the breeze block and a traveller needs to be able to adjust their eye to the juxtaposition of the old and the new. This is what makes the area so exciting.
In some ways the area is more akin to North Africa or India. There are traces of Ancient Greece and Rome, Byzantium and the Romanesque; the Normans, the Aragonese, the Swabians and Austro-Hungarians all settled here. It is as if every civilisation that passed through this land left their mark. There is a lot of history and mystery buried in the scorched earth of the Salento.
7. What are the highlights of the Puglia area? Where do you most look forward to travelling to?
The cultural highlights are certainly Lecce and Otranto. Another personal favourite is the Archeological Museum in Taranto which has the most remarkable collection of ancient Greek jewellery.
8. The garden is filled with rare ferns, cactus and succulents, creating an incredibly unique and special garden. Where did you draw inspiration for your garden from?
The garden was very much the creation of my late husband. I think in some ways he was trying to create an English garden in a Southern Italian setting although he always claimed that the climate in Puglia was much like the climate in Perth.
9. The food you serve at the Convento is said to be exceptional. What type of cuisine do you serve guests? What would a typical menu include?
First and foremost we serve seasonal and local produce however we do stray from the traditional Pugliese dishes and adapt Greek, Syrian and Ottoman recipes to local ingredients as well as introducing dishes from other parts of Italy.
Alistair and I also had fun adapting traditional English dishes such as baked beans on toast! Instead of opening a can of Heinz baked beans, we slow cook cannellini beans in a traditional pignata pot on an open fire and add fresh, homemade tomato sauce and then serve on toasted wholegrain bread made by our local baker.
10. Lots of fresh produce is made in the Puglia region. Can you tell us about what type of food is made? What is your favourite?
One of my most joyful food experiences is making fresh tomato salsa with Cecilia, our cook's mother. It is a full days work. We gathered up the harvested tomatoes, squeezed them from their skins by hand, cook them in large cauldrons, slowly stirring over open fires in the open air and finally pour the rich salsa into dark green bottles. It is a family affair as genuine and as wholesome as the tomato sauce itself.
11. There are some fantastic shopping opportunities in Puglia. Where do you most love shopping and what kind of artefacts or special pieces can people expect to pick up?
I am particularly enthusiastic about Tessitura Calabrese - a family-run business that makes bedlinen, towels, tablecloths and napkins all to order.
Our guests get carried away choosing colour combinations, trims and embroidered designs which are sewn right there on the premises. For special pieces, I visit a local antique dealer who has an incredible selection of old ceramics and pottery to choose from which are spectacularly displayed in his home.