The birthplace of Renaissance architecture and home to Palladialism, the movement that led to Neoclassical buildings dotted across the globe, Italy’s rich architectural portfolio is as essential to its landscape as its verdant olive groves and vineyards. Ranging from Norman castles and Baroque palazzos to charming farmhouse Masserie and tiny hobbit-home-like Trulli houses in Puglia, Italy’s dwellings represent a complex tapestry of its past. It’s hardly surprising then, that many of those inheriting or purchasing what is left of this history are restoring it to share with others.
Oh, the Italian hotel. Grand, heavy doors, hiding the lush courtyards of stately palazzos. Half-faded frescoes, perhaps even more romantic now than they were in full colour. And the tiles; adding colour and pattern in a more-is-more-is-more aesthetic, influencing Dolce and Gabbana to create collections that have transported the white, blue and lemon of Positano around the world on the lithe limbs of many an instagrammer.
Having worked as a travel journalist for the best part of a decade, I’ve had the pleasure of resting my head on luxury pillows in five stars across the globe. Italian hotels, however, have always been the best to me. Not for their ergonomic mattresses, impeccable service or elaborate buffet breakfasts with copious helpings of Straciatella (though these do help), but for their ability to really give a feel for Italy – past and present.
A cultural deep dive into the individual states of Italy before its unification, Italian hotels have the power to truly transport. They’re not purpose built concrete blocks, as ubiquitous and forgettable as the grey, black and blue suited business travellers that frequent them. They are places paused in time, in which we too can pause and escape our reality.
Hence my mission, in the year of covid, to escape to Italy. Armed with a hit-list of hotels recommended by those I trust, I set out to lose myself in Italy’s past by stepping into some of the nation’s best hotels.
The Aristocratic Palazzo
First up was the faded baroque grandeur of Palermo in Sicily, to slip between the pages of Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). This canonical read chronicling the effects that the reunification of Italy had on its aristocracy is the top selling novel in Italian history. Butera 28 – a 16th century palazzo tucked neatly into Palermo’s city walls – is where the book’s author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote this novel.
Welcomed by Duchess Nicoleta Polo Lanza Tomasi, wife of the revered author’s adopted son, Giacomo, I’m shown to a self-contained apartment with an exquisite, twisting wrought iron staircase that runs to a second floor mezzanine. The furniture is antique and the family’s own, rescued from Palazzo di Lampedusa – or what was left of it – after the Second World War bombings.
“It was in a horrible condition while he was writing the book – water would practically leak through the ceiling when it rained,” says Polo Lanza Tomaso on our tour of the palazzo, which after an impressive fifty-year restoration, is nothing less than resplendent.
I muse on the idea that the success of the novel had a lot to do with the fact that the author was a Sicilian aristocrat writing about the reunification of Italy and the demise of Sicily’s own aristocracy as the family palace crumbled around him.
Now, it consists of 12 rental apartments plus the Duke and Duchess’ own living quarters, in which Nicoletta hosts cooking classes from an impressive blue tiled kitchen. “I started this new adventure with no experience in the field at all – I just knew we had to make the palazzo earn money in order to keep it on,” says Nicoletta.
Elsewhere in the otherwise skippable town of Gagliano del Capo in southern Puglia, Palazzo Daniele marries old and new seamlessly. Built in the very year of Italy’s reunification (1861), the Palazzo still remains within the Daniele family and is the one, glorious design beacon to head to in this region.
Having inherited the Palazzo, art aficionado Francesco Petrucci used the building with its impossibly high ceilings as an exhibition space, bringing in Milanese designers Ludovica and Roberto Palomba for a sensitive renovation that respects the 19th century frescoes and original features. It’s only been running as a ‘hospitality concept’ with just nine suites for one year and feels very much like a modern Italian home, with its designer lighting, well-placed (and curated) selection of art and design books and contemporary art pieces in each room. I’m so impressed by the light shades in my suite that I order one from Servomuto for my own home.
At this palazzo, minimalist mid century and design furniture take the place of fancy antique pieces and the space itself is allowed to breathe. This, to me, exemplifies Italian taste and refinement. An almost effortless unification of old and new without things looking incongruous and out of place. The Palazzo feels at once stately and homely, representative of both a by-gone era and a bold modernity.
The Rustic Masseria
That feeling of being at home follows me throughout my trip through Puglia, as I become acquainted with the concept of the Masseria. Typical of this agricultural region and built between the 16th and 19th centuries, Masserie were once huge farm complexes owned by powerful families, churning out olive oil, fruit and vegetables. Now these buildings, usually built around a large square courtyard, are being restored and renovated into hospitality concepts all over Puglia.
“The aim is to make our guests feel at home, completely relaxed and like they’re in nature – even if they are in the city,” says Francesco Funel at La Fiermontina, in Lecce. We’re in the olive grove garden and he’s regaling his place of work. “It’s unique because you don’t usually find Masserie in towns, they’re usually in the countryside,” he tells me.
We’re in the heart of Lecce’s Baroque old town and what once was a working Masseria is now a luxury hotel, with dramatic vaulted ceilings and simple, modernist furnishings. Constructed of honey-coloured Lecce limestone, typical of the region, La Fiermontina feels more fancy that it does farm, but olive oil is still produced from the olive trees here.
For those like me, in love with the farm-to-table concept, a Puglian masseria is the ultimate place to stay. At Masseria Potenti in Manduria or Le Mandorle in Ugento, guests dine on the produce grown on site and can even get their hands dirty in a cooking class.
What struck me most at Masseria Potenti, was the way owner Maria Grazia expertly curates rustic elements – dried herbs hanging from a four poster bed, vintage linens collected over a lifetime used in the bedrooms – to nod to the building’s past and distill all that rural, Pugliese life is about. Chilli hung from every wall while I was there, indicative of the Masseria’s dedication not just to hospitality, but to its workings as a farm. The draw here is a feel for the real Italy and a convivial atmosphere equivalent to the hug of an Italian nonna.
The Cave Dwelling
Respecting and preserving remnants of the past has increasingly been on the agenda where previously abandoned structures and towns in Italy are concerned. In the last decade, the term ‘Albergo Diffuso’ has been coined to describe hotels on historical sites that are bound by strict restoration rules and regulations, adding to the character of Italian hotels.
On entry into the hotel Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita in the ancient city of Matera, it becomes clear that a lot of care has been taken here to respect its complex history. Carved out of the stones of Matera, Le Grotte Della Civita is a series of thousands-year-old cave dwellings, inhabited up until 1952 when the Italian government evacuated its inhabitants. The town itself was considered the ‘shame of Italy’ in the 1950s, as the caves that made up the town became overpopulated and unhygienic, with many families living alongside their animals. Since then, the caves have been abandoned but a concentrated effort is now being made to bring life back to Matera. One of these projects has been Le Grotte Della Civita.
My own cave room is lit by candlelight. Heavy, repurposed dark wood furniture and wrought iron detailing make up the atmosphere of a medieval home. A centrally positioned, tear shaped bathtub and indulgently soft bed add essential 21st century comforts to an otherwise archaic interior. I sit and eat persimmons – my welcome treat – on the bed and don’t find it hard to imagine what life must have been like for those living here many hundreds of years ago.
In the morning, I enjoy the most lavish buffet breakfast (cheeses, cold cuts, fruit, yoghurt and an endless array of cakes) with a view of the neolithic dwellings across the vast gorge, gouged out of the sides of the rock Matera is built on. It feels fantastical and other worldly. Only owing to the meticulous preservation and restoration afforded to places like this in Italy, is this all possible.
The Grand Family Home
On the Amalfi Coastline, I’m welcomed at perhaps the most hospitable luxury hotel I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. A five star with a hefty price tag on dinner, let alone on the suites, can feel intimidating but Le Sirenuse in Positano is anything but. Perhaps owing to its history as a holiday home for the Sersale family, or to the friendly Napolitan spirit or purely to the owners’ good heartedness, Le Sirenuse is an arms-wide-open kind of hotel – one that breathes the spirit of Italy.
Despite it being a 58-room hotel with a smart, white tablecloth restaurant and an ever-expanding brand that incorporates Emporio Sirenuse clothing and Eau d’Italia cosmetics, Le Sirenuse still manages to feel intimate. In true Italian style, it’s been kept within the family.
Flora and fauna sprout and grow up walls and along ceilings in the dining room, uniting this inside world with the rich, colour-splashed town of Positano, dipping into the sail boat dotted blue just beyond the windows. It hasn’t lost its charm as a family home and irreverent details are everywhere to be found. My plate at dinner is decorated with childlike illustrations of farm animals. Glazed ceramic tiles – a different colour and pattern for each floor of the hotel – add to the upbeat energy of the space while vintage furnishings and modern art bring the luxury element to this Bordeaux-toned fun-house.
I call it a fun house not just because of its bright interiors but because of its post-war boom feel. At dinner, a three piece band sing, ‘That’s Amore’ and my server jokes they’ve been doing this set for the 20 years he’s worked here, and places a bet that ‘Come fly with me’ is up next. I can barely order for laughing. Owner Antonio and his wife Carla are at dinner with their friends, mingling with guests and insisting we all have a good time. ‘Just enjoy it – forget about covid, look at where you are,’ says Antonio.
Thanks to Covid, my road trip through Italy was cut short by two weeks but Le Sirenuse was the ultimate climax; a perfectly distilled combination of old world refinement and the enduring warmth of the southern Italians in a hotel. It could only exist here.