In 10 years of publishing Dream of Italy and some 30 visits to this country, I've had the privilege of staying in many celebrated hotels. I'd never wept as I left one until I checked out of Palazzo Margherita.
My eyes welled up as I say goodbye to the new 9-suite hotel Francis Ford Coppola has opened in his ancestral hometown in the southern Italian region of Basilicata. Staying at the hotel felt like witnessing the result of one man's profound passion and soulful connection to the past. I have experienced a blurring of the lines between what was then and what is now.
Best known as the Academy Award-winning director of the "Godfather" trilogy and "Apocalypse Now," Coppola first came to the town of Bernalda in 1962. His grandfather, Agostino Coppola, left "Bernalda Bella" as he always called it, in 1904, never to return. From that first visit, when he spoke little Italian and knocked on doors to find his relatives, Coppola was regularly draw back to the place he calls "the real Italy."
It was his desire to share the authenticity he felt here that led Coppola to purchase Palazzo Margherita, originally built in 1892, and transform it into the most personal of the handful of hotels he owns through Coppola Resorts. In doing so, he has perhaps fulfilled the fantasy of every descendant of a poor immigrant from Italy's Mezzogiorno to return to this land and give something back.
While few people can afford a night at Palazzo Margherita, most can appreciate the sentiment and drive behind what might be considered one of Coppola's greatest works.
"Running a hotel is like making a movie; it's all about putting on a show," Coppola recently told Vogue. "You start with an idea, a theme--a leisure palazzo, for example--and then you pay attention to a million details. And whether you're staying in a hotel or watching a film, it's those details that provide the experience."
Step inside Palazzo Margherita with me and see some of the details that make it so special.
My favorite of Palazzo Margherita's suites is #4, where Sofia Coppola stays (Coppola's daughter, also an Academy Award-winning director). She and famed interior designer Jacques Grange created the magical gold trompe l’oeil lining the walls and ceiling. It gives the sense of stepping into a light and airy Belle Epoque garden. (Photo by Tim Beddow)
Suite #9, where Francis Ford Coppola and his wife stay, is a departure from the other suites in its Arab motif. Coppola designed the colorful, airy room it as an homage to his Tunisian grandmother. One wall is filled with French doors leading out to a huge terrace above the garden – truly the best view in the palazzo. (Photo by Tim Beddow)
Though now also a hotel, Palazzo Margherita is still a family home. Coppola's daughter, director Sofia Coppola was married in the garden (under this pergola) last August. She tied the knot with longtime love Thomas Mars, the front man for the band Phoenix. The mayor of the town of Bernalda officiated in front of 80 guests.
Each guest at Palazzo Margherita gets a cooking lesson with Chef Filomena. (Coppola had been eating her food at a local agriturismo for years before he recruited her for his own hotel.) Here Filomena teaches me to make orecchiette, the ear-shaped pasta that is a favorite in Basilicata. It is harder than it looks but Filomena has great patience in teaching foreigners!
With the flicks of a few switches, the chandelier goes up and the movie screen comes down in Palazzo Margherita's salon, turning it into a screening room. Coppola has personally selected 300 Italian movies and documentaries that are available on demand. I watched Christ Stopped at Eboli (directed by Francesco Rosi in 1979) - the true story of Carlo Levi's exile in Basilicata.
Francis Ford Coppola first came to the town of Bernalda in Basilicata some 50 years ago to see the place his grandfather Agostino Coppola had left about 50 years before that. After emigrating to America, Agostino Coppola invented the Vitaphone, the first device matching sound to images in movies. This corner of Palazzo Margherita is devoted to Coppola's grandfather.
The secret loft attached to suite #5 in Palazzo Margherita, likely belonged to Palmetta, the maid for the Margherita family during the early 20th century. Palmetta was rumored to have had a love affair with Agostino Coppola (Coppola's grandfather). before he left for America. Now the room houses Agostino's small wrought-iron bed.
Each guest suite at Palazzo Margherita features full-size bath products and a candle from the famous perfumery and pharmacy Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Coppola personally selected these items which guests are welcome to take home. Sitting atop of the candle is a matchbook from Sofia’s wedding, another touch that makes the palazzo feel like a home rather than a hotel.
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