A 15th-century Italian convent converts to a B&B.
Visitors don’t need an address to find Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli in Marittima di Diso. After all, there aren’t that many remodeled 15th-century convent-turned–bed-and-breakfasts decorated with collections of global folk art and run by a British peer and his young Irish-Greek wife.
Although the hotel is located in the center of a tiny village 30 minutes’ drive south of the Baroque city of Lecce, in the Puglia region—the heel of boot-shaped Italy—the former convent maintains its original seclusion. Surrounded by an expansive garden of olive trees, it offers the privacy for which guests yearn.
“Privacy is the ultimate luxury,” states the owner, Lord Robert Alistair McAlpine, Baron McAlpine of West Green, best known as Alistair McAlpine.
Clearly, many agree. Although the couple refrains from name-dropping, its guest list is said to range from pop icon Madonna to Indian princesses and British politicians.
But, while seclusion is a draw, what is most attractive about the B&B are the personalities of its owners. McAlpine travels around the world and has a passion for collecting ethnic art that blends with his wife Athena’s aesthetic sense and love of interiors. Her Greek roots translate into the B&B’s relaxed mood, free from stiff dress codes, and a Mediterranean passion for fresh produce and healthy eating.
Meals include local dishes, such as mashed fava and cicoria, but the McAlpines make sure their chef, who’s considered a family member and is known only as Pierluigi, will occasionally turn to traditional English recipes such as bread and butter pudding or lamb with mint sauce. Guests are free to wander into the kitchen to make tea or observe the goings-on.
“The kitchen is not an off-limits room,” says Athena McAlpine. “It is the heart of the building.”
One entrance to the inn is actually through the kitchen, which overlooks one of the four dining rooms, set with tablecloths from Kenya or napkins from Romania, for example. “The house may be fully booked, but you might not even be aware of it because it offers a number of different common areas that are independent and withdrawn,” she adds.
Alistair McAlpine bought the convent, which was in dire need of refurbishment, 12 years ago. The McAlpines began its makeover in 2002 and, in the fall of the following year, moved in. The restoration was extremely conservative, and the McAlpines made sure to maintain the original configuration of the rooms. Although the two continue to travel around the world, they prefer to live here for most of the year.
The guest house accommodates up to 16 people. Each room is different, embellished with a selection of artifacts that offer a literal global tour. There are African shields, Amazonian baskets, 17th-century spears, Tunisian and Moroccan bridles, cushions made with silk from Chinese jackets or Vietnamese baby carriers, Mali puppets, Togoland abstract wood statues, Native American tribal masks, West African barbershop banners, Indian marriage dolls, Tibetan lamps or Ethiopian chairs, to name a few.
“Alistair is the collector. I love looking at [the objects], but I don’t have the right instinct. I’m more comfortable arranging them,” says Athena McAlpine.
“More is more,” says her husband in his understated tones—often seeping with humor—and gentlemanly ways. “Things look better as a collection.”
He should know: Over the years, McAlpine has gathered together a staggering 3,500 fabrics from around the world, and he’s renowned in his native Britain for his collections ranging from stuffed monkeys to rare butterflies.
The pair lovingly underscores each other’s talents. “He’s got tremendous vision and imagination. He’s a builder. He’s got the practical experience and was less intimidated by the task of restoring the convent,” says Athena McAlpine of her husband, whose family founded the Dorchester Hotel in London.
McAlpine, 65, is a prominent Conservative peer (he was knighted by then–Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) who has been both treasurer and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party in England, and also has developed large parts of Australia, creating Perth’s first luxury hotel. His background includes book publishing, acting as an editor at large of The World of Interiors, serving as a member of the House of Lords and even farming for pearls. He’s also still involved in the family-run construction firm.
But McAlpine attributes the B&B project to his wife’s imagination and praises her for adding the right interior touches. Pointing to the bright red walls of the cloister, which serves as a regular venue for music concerts in the summer, McAlpine says his wife thought of the color as a natural enhancer of the tribal art displayed throughout.
The McAlpines believe in a noninvasive relationship with their guests, although many are—or become—friends. Perhaps it’s the benefits of all that seclusion.
“We’ve calculated that 65 percent of visitors return, and, although there are no electronic appliances at the convent, no television, phones or computers, we like to think we offer something different and that the house is conducive to reading and good conversation,” says Athena McAlpine.
Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, Via Convento, Marittima di Diso, Lecce, Italy; +44.77.3636.2328