Puglia has garnered a lot of press these last few years as a hot travel destination; yet--for now--it remains a less traveled and authentic region in Italy, where olive trees dominate the landscape and small villages populate the hills. The simple things prevail—sun, sea and delicious food. Masserias and small hotels add to the charm and in one week we slept in a farmhouse, a cave and a former convent. That convent, Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, located on the tip of the heel near the Adriatic coast is one of the most unique properties in Puglia, the home of Lady Athena McAlpine and an incredible 8 room B&B. 

Tripper Tips:

Il Convento provides free laundry service during your stay, a big plus, especially if it’s in the middle of your trip. We all left with fresh clothes for the remainder of our vacation.

You can fly into either Bari or Brindisi. Il Convento is a two-hour drive from Bari and one hour from Brindsi.

Combine your trip with a stay at a Masserria closer to Bari and explore the charming towns such as Poligano a Mare, Otsuni, and Martina Franca. We traveled on from Il Convento to Matera, on the border of Puglia in Basiliciata. The town, one of the most dramatic and atmospheric places we have ever been is a "wow" and a must visit. Sleeping in a restored natural cave at Albergo Sextantio was memorable and surprisingly luxurious.

Check In: We arrived in the late afternoon at Il Convento after driving through the small town of Marittima di Duso, a sleepy little village where we passed mostly old people strolling down the narrow streets. Our GPS had us going in circles, till finally one of us spotted a sign for the church of Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, just on the outskirts of town. Standing outside the church, we knocked on the small side door next-door, still unsure it was the right place. The door swung open, Athena warmly greeted us and the experience began. For a stay at Il Convento is an experience, entering the inner courtyard transports you immediately to another world--blink you might just think you’re in Mexico, Cartagena, or India perhaps, rather than in Italy. Immediately it’s as if you’re at a friend’s grand villa rather than a guest at a hotel. 

History: Il Convento, a 15th century Franciscan monastery, was in complete ruin when the late Lord Alistair McAlpine and his wife Athena bought the property. They lovingly restored it, furnishing it with collections from their extensive travels. Every nook holds another treasure such as Moroccan carpets, Indian ceramics, tribal art, and everywhere books—stacks and stacks of incredible books. 

Wake Up: This is non negotiable. Go for a run (or walk) down to what we referred to as ‘the swimming hole.’ We were up early, and so for the three days of our stay this became our morning ritual. As it was late September we pretty much had the place to ourselves, apart from an older gentleman who seemed happy to see us each day, smiling and nodding warmly. The water is clear and beautiful, the spot beyond picturesque and it is an ideal way to start your day. Pierluigi, Il Convento’s in house chef, told us that in the summer months each inch of rock is covered with people sunbathing. There is something to be said for late spring or early fall travel!

Mangia: Breakfast is spread out on the dining room table, an abundant array of delicious breads, pizza focaccia, homemade jams and jellies, yogurt, plus fresh fruit and juices. Pierluigi is in the kitchen, happy to make you eggs as he plans the day’s menu; soon off to the market or his mother’s garden to get provisions. Breakfast is communal and its fun to converse with the other guests, sharing highlights of each other’s trips to nearby towns and restaurants. 

Relax: It’s tempting to never leave Il Convento during your stay.  There are so many places to read, cozy corners, hidden nooks. The pool is beautiful and perfect for lounging. Pierluigi will make you an incredible lunch utilizing different spots around the property. And our lunch was lovely; an assortment of cheeses and cured meats, fresh raviolis, stewed zucchini, rocket with cherry tomatoes. During the day guests are invited to help themselves while Pierluigi is out shopping for dinner.  Wander into the kitchen for something sweet (the biscuits are addictive) or an afternoon Aperol Spritz.

Don’t Miss: Make sure to explore the beautiful grounds; we especially enjoyed the rooftop succulent garden. Also on the rooftop there is a yoga room that can be booked for massages or a private yoga sessions. 

Dinner: Though there are towns and restaurants within driving distance, trust me, you wont want to leave. Have a pre dinner drink in the cloistered courtyard; magical at night with the candelabra’s lit and classical music playing. It’s just you and the stars. Beautifully set tables around the garden (weather permitting) or in one of the small dining rooms are set just for your group. Pierluigi is a very good cook; everything is local, simply prepared and delicious. Dinner ends with sips of the house made grappa infused with fruits and spices, let’s just say we tried quite a few.

Excursions: Athena can supply you with maps and suggestions for exploring the nearby towns and beaches. One afternoon we headed to the seaside town of Otranto, a short drive along the coast. The Cathedral is a must! We all agreed the 12th century mosaic floor was remarkable, unlike anything we had ever experienced in a church. The chapel of the dead behind the altar is eerily filled with bones and skulls of 800 martyrs who refused to renounce their Catholic faith. The small Chiesa di San Pietro is another worthy stop to see beautiful Byzantine frescos currently undergoing preservation. Stop for a gelato at Gelato Naturale and if you choose to stay for dinner grab a seat at popular Ristorante da Sergio. Another day we headed to Baroque Lecce, often referred to as the “Florence of the South’. Wander the narrow streets where it feels like there’s a Baroque-era church at each turn. Highlights include the Basilica di Santa Croce, Centro Storico and the Duomo di Lecce. Don’t miss lunch at La Zie, an extremely popular trattoria specializing in home style cooking. Each dish that came out of the women only kitchen was delicious; this was authentic, rustic food and one of our best meals in Puglia. Another day, Athena suggested lunch by the sea.  A dramatic drive along the coastline brought us to Lo Scalo in Marina di Novaglie. After lunch you can travel further down the coast where there are many small beaches where you can rent chairs and enjoy a swim. 

Not For Everyone: Il Convento is a very special place and we all loved our stay. However, if you can’t be without your Wi-Fi, then Il Convento is not for you. There are no phones, televisions or Internet, encouraging guests to relax and slow down. (We have to admit, we did wish they had Wi-Fi, and eagerly logged on whenever we left the property.) All of the rooms are uniquely decorated, and all have a private bathroom. However, the rooms on the second floor do not offer bathrooms ensuite instead they are located across the hall. There is no air conditioning, not a problem when we visited in September, but during the hot summer month’s fans are provided if needed. 

Reserve: To book a stay at Il Convento speak to Helen Forbes at Essential Italy who handles all reservations for Athena. Helen is extremely well versed and well traveled throughout Puglia and can recommend Masseria’s to combine with your stay, along with restaurant and sightseeing recommendations. 

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A weekend in Venice


Venice, a floating city is one of the world’s most magical of places. A city of contradictions—sensual, romantic and architecturally significant while at the same time fragile, overcrowded and very expensive. One of the most unique places to visit, go and see the sights, but leave time to wander; getting lost is half the fun! Venice’s charms and treasures are too numerous to experience in just a weekend, so plan your time well and make the most of your day.

Tripper Tips:

Venice’s beautiful opera and concert house, Teatro La Fenice, reopened after a catastrophic fire in 1996 that destroyed it completely. Click here to see the schedule while you are here. The theater is usually open for daily tours, check ahead to be sure.

The tiny boutique of Cristina Linassi sells hand-embroidered nightgowns and sheets made in its own workshop. This is an ideal place to pick up something extra special as a present. They also have exquisite bed and table linens...with the prices to match.

Off the beaten track -  visit Cemetery Island, Isola di San Michele, to see the tombs of Igor Stravinsky, Joseph Brodsky, Segei Diaghilev and Ezra Pound.

Venice has a great hot weather aperitif that you definitely want to try--the Sgroppino, which is Prosecco mixed with vodka and topped with a small scoop of lemon sorbet.

Before dinner head to a Bacaro, stand up snack bars resembling Spain's famous tapas bars. Cicchetti are little snacks, good for a bite before dinner with a glass of wine. Cantina do Mori and Bancogiro. both are good places to try near the Rialto Market.

Near St. Lucia train station visit the very old neighborhood of Campo del Ghetto, the world's oldest Jewish ghetto. Still an active community to Venice small Jewish population (approximately 500) with two synagogues still in use today. The Museo Ebraico offers guided tours every hour starting at 10:30.

Stay: The Bauer Il Palazzo, housed in an 18th century palace, overlooks the Grand Canal and is close to St. Mark’s Square. Two boutique hotels, both on the Grand Canal, include Ca Maria Adele and Ca’Sagrado. Feeling extravagant, there’s nothing better than the new Aman, a grand, historic, 24 room hotel housed in a renovated 16th century palazzo right on the Grand Canal. The legendary Gritti Palace just reopened after an extensive renovation. For those who want a more resort like feel, stay on the island of Giudecca. Belmond’s Hotel Cipriani or Bauer’s Palladio Hotel and Spa are a 10-minute boat ride from St. Marks.

Breakfast: Start the day at Café Florian on St. Mark’s. Dating back to 1720, this Neo-Baroque café is beautiful, sit outside and watch the crowds go by.

Morning Sights: For first time visitors, or those who can’t remember the last time they were in Venice, Piazza San Marco, or as the English say St. Marks’s Square is a must do. It’s sure to be filled with tourists so go early. Ride the elevator to the top of the Campanile for a great view of Venice from up high. Go inside St. Mark’s Basilica, the most famous of Venice’s churches and one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture. Book the Secret Itineraries tour in advance for the Doges Palace, and walk right past the long line with your guide. Inside you’ll see two very different sides of the building—first the magnificent rooms with walls of Venetian masterpieces, and then the hidden secret prisons and torture chambers behind those walls. All of these sights are within a few hundred yards—you can cover a lot of ground quickly! Set off in directions off the square and wander, you will discover a much quieter city.

Shop: Il Prato at San Marco has a great selection of Venetian handicrafts all handmade...from antique fabrics to leather goods, fine papers to old carnival masks.  

History Buffs: Visit the Correr Museum at St. Mark’s Square dedicated to the art, culture and history of Venice.

Lunch: Ristorante Quadri on San Marco serves delicious contemporary Italian. Near the Rialto Bridge dine at popular Antiche Carampane. Make sure to order the order the pasta with spider crab and fritto misto. Or head to Ai Gondolieri in the bustling Dorsoduro neighborhood.

Art Afternoon: Venice is an exciting place for modern and contemporary art even when the Biennale is not in season. Many museum quality collections can be seen at extraordinary palazzos throughout the city. One of Venice’s most popular attractions is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. During her life Peggy Guggenheim was a pioneer of many artists, giving many their first shows. This is a personal, intimate museum in what was once her former waterfront home in the Dorsoduro neighborhood. Francois Pinault is one of the most influential art collectors in the world today. In 2009 he opened his second venue of contemporary art, Punta della Dogana, located at the tip of the Dorsoduro. It hosts temporary exhibitions, mostly with works belonging to the François Pinault Collection. (Pinault’s first venue, Palazzo Grassi, a palace built on the Grand Canal in the 18th century is also worth a visit!)

Old World Art: Not into contemporary art… head to the Gallerie dell'Accademia to see 5 centuries of classic Venetian painting.

Time Travel: The Palazzo Rezzonico is also in Dorsoduro. The interior offers you the truest sense of life in 18th century Venice.

Apertif: Fans of Hemingway must have an Aperol spritzer at Bar Longhi. Located at the Gritti Palace this was one of his favorite haunts; sit on the terrace overlooking the canal. Another favorite Hemingway haunt, Harry's Bar has been a fixture of Venice since 1931. It's on most everyone's list to visit, asthe birthplace of the Bellini, a mixture of white peach juice and proseco, invented by Giuseppe Cipriani and named after a painting by 15th century artist Giovanni Bellini.

Late Night: Venice is not a late night city, but Centrale is an exception if you're looking for a night cap. Just steps from St. Mark's the hip, stylish interior contrasts with the historic, 16th century building it calls home, a winning combination.

Dinner: Off the beaten track is Vini da Arturo. However, this under the radar restaurant is worth finding! Arturo's dishes never disappoint. Don't miss the Venetian pork with vinegar or the radicchio pasta. Arturo's only seats 22, so book ahead. Enjoy one of best meals in Venice at Da Fiore, this Michelin starred restaurant is tops for fresh local fish and seafood. Al Covo uses only the freshest ingredients to showcase the traditional Venetian cuisine from Chef Cesare Benelli. A friend recently loved her meal at Hostaria Da Franz.

Day Two

Early Market: Foodies can’t miss a visit to the Rialto Market to see the freshest fish and vegetables. 

Islands:  Spend a half-day touring the neighboring islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. Watch the glassblowers at work and visit the workshops along Fondamenta dei Vetrai. Bring your camera to snap great shots of the rainbow rows of houses in Burano. Stop at the Burano Lace Museum, located at the historic palace of Podestà of Torcello, in Piazza Galuppi, which was the seat of the famous Burano Lace School for 100 years up to 1970. Here you will find rare and precious pieces showcasing the history and artistry of the Venetian and lagoon’s laces.In Torcello, visit Santa Maria dell Assunta, Venice’s first Cathedral. 

Lunch: Some say it’s worth going to Murano just to have lunch at Ai Frati or at Osteria al Ponte del Diavolo in Torcello.

Sweet Tooth: Choose between two of the best gelaterias in Venice at Nico  or Gelateria Alaska.

Peaceful: Escape the crowds and take a late afternoon launch to Giudecca Island, a small island in the lagoon just across from the Grand Canal.  Once home to Jewish merchants in the 12th and 13th century, though never a ghetto as the name implies.  This is a lovely neighborhood for a stroll along the waterfront with lovely views of the Grand Canal and city. Walk around the narrow streets and admire the old houses and churches.

Dinner: Dine at Cip’s Club in Giudecca for a romantic dinner with an incredible view. Or head back and go to casual Aqua Pazzo for delicious Neapolitan pizzas, great fish and must order sorbets. Arrive by gondola or foot to tiny, cozy Da Ivo on the canal not far from St. Mark's. Order the Florentine Beef and be sure to check the daily specials.

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