You may know Francis Ford Coppola as godfather (or more accurately director) of…well, ‘The Godfather’. The award-winning, pioneer film-maker is also, perhaps more surprisingly, a hotelier, and the Palazzo Margherita – hidden away behind a wooden door so discrete you won’t easily spot it – is perhaps the property most dear to his heart.
Built in Bernalda (the birthplace and home of Agostino Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s grandfather) in 1892 by the Margherita family, the hotel is a true 19th century palazzo. It was bought by Coppola in 2004, who wanted to transform it into a small, luxurious Italian boutique hotel, hoping to inspire more travellers to visit this stunning and still undiscovered region of Southern Italy. And more than that – he wanted it to be a place his own family would want to visit again and again.
It is this very sense of family that distinguishes Palazzo Margherita as one of the most charming small luxury hotels in Italy (apparently Coppola asked the whole family to contribute their design ideas, and his daughter Sophia Coppola celebrated her wedding at the Palazzo Margherita). Acclaimed French designer Jacques Grange helped Coppola and his family to create a luxurious, authentically Italian experience; from the original marble floors, Murano glass chandeliers, hand-painted frescoed ceilings, fragrant gardens and sparkling private pool.
It is almost impossible to state the awe we felt on stepping through the door of the Palazzo Margherita for the first time. Outside was a swelteringly hot, small but bustling Italian town (about as authentic and far-away from the tourist track as you can imagine), but inside was a cool, quiet sanctuary of elegance and tranquillity. Calm, vine-wreathed courtyards, jasmine-scented gardens, rooms as palatial and elegant as anything you could hope to find in the grandest Italian palace; the Palazzo Margherita is the epitome of effortless sophistication married to familial warmth. You will feel like the Marchessa of all you survey!
If you want to feel exclusive, the Palazzo Margherita is surely the place to come! With only 9 suites and rooms in total spread across the whole property (meaning a maximum of only 26 guests at a time) you are certainly among a very select set of travellers. Every room has its own distinct personality; whether it is the parred-back charm of one of the Garden Rooms, or the breath-taking opulence of the Roman suite (where we were housed). I have stayed in many beautiful hotel rooms over the years, but few have truly warranted the term palatial when compared to the sheer size of the Roman Suite. When I say soaring ceiling that barely does the (beautifully hand-painted) ceiling in the bedroom justice! Deep, gold sofas, a claw-foot bathtub, grey-marbled bathroom, a walk-in wardrobe so roomy you could swing a whole menagerie of animals, a private balcony looking out over the bustle of Bernalda; all combine to absolute hotel heaven!
It is also one of the Palazzo Margherita’s many charms that the rooms are all so utterly peaceful. To illustrate a point, shortly before going to bed we could hear from the gardens what sounded like a party (or less generously a full-scale club night) coming from very nearby. But once inside our room, it was so quiet we may as well have been on the moon. Bliss!
The Palazzo Margherita wears its dining heart very much on its sleeve – with several dining options – from the rustic to the refined (and not just for hotel guests).
At the large, welcoming eat-in kitchen, guests can experience first-hand the traditional cooking of Basilicata; with a small but excellent menu of local speciality pastas and fish dishes, presented elegantly but with zero ‘fuss’. If, like us, you would like to enjoy these dishes alfresco, you can order your food to be served at one of the delightful courtyard tables or even under the leafy bower of a garden arbour.
At the front of the Palazzo, the Cinecittà Bar is a traditional café and pizzeria that spills out onto Bernalda’s main street and looks onto the town square. It is a perfect spot for people-watching, mingling with the local life, and sipping a delicious Italian coffee, all supplied by Illy.
The richly decorated Family Bar (which reminded me a little of an old-style gentleman’s smoking parlour) is an intimate private bar and dining room where guests can enjoy coffee or meals throughout the day, and pre-dinner cocktails and appetizers in the evening.
Also, occasionally guests can enjoy a typical Italian informal grigliata (barbecue) in a tucked away corner of the garden: where everyone shares a “spaghettata” and a mix of grilled seasonal vegetables and meat.
The breakfast buffet – which I enjoyed in a sun-dappled leafy courtyard – was the freshest wealth of fruits, yoghurts, cheeses and pastries – and couldn’t have relaxed me more at the start of the day.
Who goes there?
This is clearly a property that has romance wrapped around it like wisteria. All our fellow guests were well-heeled couples; and an international set at that. As you can imagine from a Coppola-owned hotel, it is popular with Americans, but also with more adventurous Australian, German and British guests. As it’s a little more out of the way it may not be a natural fit for older retirees, but it is the perfect spot for a honeymoon or an anniversary trip. Families may struggle – though they are by no means excluded – as there is only the one room that accommodates a family (which, for those wanting to avoid large hordes of excited children on their relaxing break may be no bad thing). But the uniting qualities of the guests at the Palazzo Margherita seem to be a sense of the discerning, the elegant, and of being slightly more in-the-know than the average traveller.
Out and About
The Basilicata region of Italy might be one of the last hidden gems of Italy; relatively unknown to the average British tourist but the wealth of experiences on offer are limitless. The province of Matera itself is famous for its ancient cave dwellings, dramatic landscapes, and historic houses. If you’re in the mood for a cooling sea breeze, the Palazzo Margherita is just 15 minutes’ drive from the coast, where miles of white sand beaches border a cobalt-blue Ionian sea (the Palazzo has room at its own private beach club available for guests).
Staff at the Palazzo Margherita can arrange a host of activities; whether a candlelit dinner in an ancient cave, a focaccia making lesson or a cheese making class at an old masseria (working farm). They can organize hiking or biking tours at Pollino National Park, take guests on a tour of the ancient town of Matera (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) or to see historic and contemporary art, nearby Greek ruins, or setup private wine tastings, or special nights listening to local, traditional music.
Sadly, our stay was brief, but our complimentary pasta-making class was an utter delight – learning to make three different shapes of pasta (shapes I had never come across within Italy, let alone outside of it) and accompanying sauce from the freshest tomatoes and local cacioricotta cheese remains a trip highlight!
The Worst Bit:
There is a downside to getting to one of Italy’s hidden gems; the Palazzo is a good hour and a half’s drive from either Bari or Brindisi airports and the drive (through a sometimes quite industrial landscape) is not always the most inspiring.
The Best Bit:
It is hard to list just how many magical moments the Palazzo Margherita provided; sitting on the edge of the swimming pool late at night with my feet in the illuminated water after a delicious dinner, watching ‘The Godfather’ itself in the enormous public salon that at the flick of a switch becomes your own private cinema, reading a book in the gardens with the scent of jasmine wafting through the air, or waking up in a suite so beautiful I felt like royalty. But perhaps the very best thing is feeling like you’re one of only a very few people to know about this utter gem of a hotel (though the irony of writing this and hopefully encouraging others to visit not being lost on me).
Stepping through the almost hidden entrance to the Palazzo Margherita, entering its gentle silence, sitting in the shade of the wisterias, walking through its cool marble rooms, is a genuinely magical experience I won’t ever forget!
Rooms start at €560 per night (including breakfast) and suites start at €1,500 per night (including breakfast); Palazzo Margherita, Corso Umberto I, 64, 75012 Bernalda (MT), Basilicata – Italy; T + 39 089 81 81 81; thefamilycoppolahideaways.com/en/palazzo-margherita