Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli.
“Nobody has ever been able to explain to me why it’s called Convento,” says Athena McAlpine. “It was a monastery. If you look above the door you can see the emblem of the Franciscan order. In the nearby town of Soleto, the frescoes in the small church of Santo Stefano record this moment in history when the Greek Orthodox were converted to Catholicism. Someone pointed out to me that whoever painted the scene of Christ being tempted in the wilderness must have (a) been Greek Orthodox and (b) had a sense of humour, as Christ is being tempted by the devil and the devil is personified as a Franciscan monk with claws instead of feet. An Orthodox artist, kind of poking fun.”
Perched between Diso and Marittima in the southernmost reaches of Puglia, two of the loveliest villages of the Basso Salento, the history of Il Convento has been slightly less pious since Italian Unification, when the church sold many of its assets and the property fell into private ownership. It was used as a tobacco factory for a time and then lost in a card game to a scrap merchant, who sold it in a derelict state to Athena’s late husband, Lord Alistair McAlpine, in 1996. After some earlier false starts, the couple resumed the renovation of the Convento in 2002 and completed it within 18 months. It emerged as both guesthouse and sprawling cabinet of curiosities, home to Lord McAlpine’s collection of art, textiles and tribal artefacts, including a stellar assemblage of Indigenous Australian art and works by his friend, Sidney Nolan.
When the couple got together – Athena is Greek but was educated in Britain – he owned 3500 textiles and a run-down monastery. “I remember saying to him: why don’t we redo the Convento and use it as a background for your collections, and then turn it into a bed & breakfast? I hadn’t even seen the place, but Alistair thought it was a great idea. He brought me down here for the first time in January 2002. It was snowing and my first reaction was, oh my god.” In its current magnificence, it’s hard to believe il Convento was ever derelict. The cloister’s walls are painted primary red, a theatrical backdrop to a striking line-up of old Ethiopian furniture and cycads and succulents in Salentino pots. Eight guest rooms are named according to spirit, including African, Mexican, Aboriginal and Princess. Four adjoin the cloister on the ground floor. The rest are accessed from the first-floor gallery, where altar-like arrangements of tribal art and Nolan’s Adelaide Ladies (1964) face off with 14 tonnes of McAlpine’s books that famously made their way to the Convento.
My ground-floor Navajo Room was everything I’d imagined a room at this legendary guesthouse to be. An antique Indian bed dressed in hand-embroidered linens, a George III bow-front chest of drawers, a rustic armadio and an Azilal rug beneath a barrel-vaulted ceiling in exposed stone – a spartan scene softened by sensational Navajo rugs and textiles covering tables and walls. Also vaulted was my ensuite bathroom, a riot of Syrian screens, inlaid tables and vintage Indian prints. Soap and shampoo came in large bottles of Dr Bronner’s (no single- use plastic), with bath salts from Santa Maria Novella.
Having unpacked my few items of clothing – the Convento’s relaxed, barefoot informality means little is needed – I set out to explore, feeling as if I had the fabulous country house of an eccentric friend all to myself. A semi- open hall lined with striking Ilmas by the Bardi elder Roy Wiggin (Ilma refers to objects used in open ceremonies by the Bardi people north of Broome) leads to a courtyard garden. Beyond lies the kitchen, an enormous cave-like dining room hung with a collection of small but exuberant works on paper by another Aboriginal artist, Ngarra, and a series of art- and textile-clad spaces to sit and just be. Massive cacti surround a 17m swimming pool at the centre of a large walled garden behind the dining room, a must in summer when the Salento sun is scorching at 40C. And speaking of swimming, the crystalline waters of Acquaviva are walking distance from il Convento, a perfect spot to take a dip before breakfast. Not that you have to rush. Breakfast is served in the dining room until a heavenly 1pm, and lunch and dinner can be taken at a series of tables semi-hidden in nooks throughout the garden at 2pm and 9pm respectively.
In between, the kitchen is well stocked and you are invited to help yourself. There’s cook (and so much more) Pierluigi’s homemade torta on the counter. The fridge is packed with fresh ginger juice, chilled rosato and bottles of just made caffè leccese (iced espresso and almond milk). Next to the fridge is a bar to concoct the perfect aperitivo at the end of the day. Pierluigi prepared five delicious salads for lunch on the first day, including spicy middle eastern lentils and a Salentino take on a niçoise (made with locally caught tuna) served at a table in a walled garden lined with pomegranate trees and plumbago.
Athena joins me after lunch, a vision of relaxed, Mediterranean loveliness. I float my own brief impressions of Salento, a tapestry of towns and villages at one time deserted and another time bursting with life. “Salento nascosto – hidden Salento,” she says. “There are all these blank and imposing facades, shutters and rolled- down windows, and everyone is trying to figure out how populated these towns are. But when doors are open and you get to peer into a courtyard, you discover something very beautiful. I find the people down here are a bit like that too: austere and severe on the outside, but once you get to know them they’re soft and gentle.”
Eventually our conversation comes around to the Convento. “At the heart of the Convento you have the care and attention of the staff. They look after the property and the guests beautifully. A tremendous amount of energy goes into service and making the guests feel at home. I am very careful about using the word luxury, as was Alistair. He would say that our definition of luxury is not about having gold taps and modern technology in all the rooms; we may have fans instead of air conditioning and a couple of the rooms do not have ensuite bathrooms, but the luxury lies in the truly simple things like the locally made towels and bed linen. It takes three women to make a bed, the hand embroidered sheets are ironed directly on the mattresses. The laundry is luxurious. The laundry room is a great hub of activity. Great care is taken with guests’ clothing and it is a useful service for those travelling light. A friend who has been coming here for years brings only a few articles of clothing because she knows they can be freshened up and pressed for the next day. There is luxury in simple things.”
Guests during my stay included a film director, a fashion executive and Danish furniture designers, all of whom were regulars and all of whom are new friends. Helen Forbes of Essential Italy, who handles all reservations, says many guests come time and time again. “They return for many reasons: the peace and calm they are guaranteed from the moment they arrive until the moment they depart, and Pierluigi’s cooking, which is simple Pugliese cooking using only the very best local ingredients. Menus are decided in the morning, depending upon what’s looking best at the morning markets.”
I take a dip in the pool and wander back to my room, where I doze in front of a fan. While there’s no air conditioning, walls are 1.3m thick – built to repel both heat and Turks – and it was arguably the absence of such trappings that lulled me into delightful afternoon slumber. Over a supper of grilled spatchcock, jacket potatoes and an iceberg lettuce salad at another spot in the garden that evening, I boast proudly of my nap to Athena. “Alistair used to always say, we sell sleep.”
We catch up again the following afternoon, just before my massage in the rooftop yoga room with the kind and talented Zina. As we wander through the ground floor rooms, picking up books and looking at pictures, I’m curious to know if she, the custodian of such an extraordinary collection, might have collected of her own. “I do not think I am a collector, at least not in the way Alistair was, but I thoroughly enjoyed collecting with him …. When we got married my mother said that the lid found the pot. An old Greek expression to describe a couple that truly fit well together. We complemented one another.” We circle back to the dining room, looking at the Ngarras. “These works were the start of our collection. I wasn’t even 24 hours in Perth before we walked into a gallery, and all these sheets of drawings on paper caught both his eye and mine at the same time. There is a photograph of us surrounded by all these sheets of paper. We just looked at them and I heard myself saying to Alistair, I think we have to take them all.”
From a story originally published in WISH.
Photography: Henry Bourne.