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.
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.