Palazzo Margherita, Italy: Inside Francis Ford Coppola's hotel

Knowing this is where the great man slept and, er, used the bathroom, preoccupies this guest.

The bath is one of those wonderful free-standing things, big enough to hold a horse's head and a couple of dead hitmen, but all I can think about is Francis Ford Coppola's bottom.

After all, we are in the great man's bedroom in the Palazzo Margherita, his up-market hotel in Italy's Basilicata region. And this is HIS bath. Which means … The Godfather director's bum has been in here.

Oddly, when we are later shown Sofia Coppola's bedroom just across the way, there isn't the same reaction. It seems I care not for Sofia's nethers whereas I feel an unexpected and inordinate reverence that Francis' (I feel we should be on first-name terms, given the subject matter) has rested in this otherwise prosaic bathroom furniture.

It's not unlike standing in the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana, Cuba, and gazing at the typewriter Ernest Hemingway wrote on when he stayed there. Thus is the quotidian made, in the modern parlance, awesome.

The Coppola hotel sits on Corso Umberto I, the avenue that runs the length of Bernalda, a small medieval hilltop town in the little-known southern Italian region of Basilicata.

It was from here that Coppola's grandfather, Agostino, set forth to seek his fortunes in America many years ago – and to where Francis returned in 2004 to restore the Palazzo Margherita to its former glory.

Bernalda (population about 12,000) doesn't have a lot else going for it in tourism terms. Which is what makes a visit so worthwhile. Here is a genuine Italian town pretty much bereft of tourists, a town where old men sit and smoke outside the local opera society building during the day and where, as the sun sets, the young and not so young hit the streets for la passeggiata.

There is a large castle here complete with moat and drawbridge, built originally by the Normans in the 11th century but enlarged and fortified in the 15th century. Sitting on the very edge of the steep hill on which Bernalda perches it intimidates the surrounding countryside with a squat and aggressive stance that reminds me somehow of a giant cane toad.

Right next to the castle is a large piazza fronted by what's known locally as the Mother Church (built in the 1530s) and a slightly creepy bronze statue of San Bernardino da Siena.

Advertisement

And that's about it. All that's left is the Palazzo Margherita and a genuinely sleepy Italian town full of family restaurants, shops and bars.

Francis bought the palazzo in 2004, intent on restoring it and turning it into a luxurious boutique hotel, and believing it was time to introduce visitors to this stunning but still undiscovered region. On the hotel's website he is quoted as saying the result "is a dream come true".

If you can forgive the cliche from such an auteur, it's true there's something otherworldly about the place. With its walled garden and beautiful, hand-painted wall and ceiling frescoes throughout, it's quite magical from the moment you step through the large wooden doors and into the central, wisteria-fringed courtyard (which is positively begging to be dined in at night).

The rooms – there are nine in all, including three suites in the garden close to the swimming pool – are bright and airy and all impeccably decorated and furnished, from the luxurious fittings to the elegant wallpaper, the hand-painted frescoes and the high, chandeliered ceilings.

They're all very different, too, having been designed by the various members of the Coppola tribe with the help of French designer Jacques Grange.

Francis' room (suite nine) is all blue-and-white tessellated floor tiles and amazingly detailed ochre ceiling designs which evince a subtle North African vibe in honour of Coppola's Tunisian-born grandmother. Sofia's (suite four) is softer, more feminine, and features a palatial bathroom with its own steam room.

At the front of the palazzo is the Cinecitta bar, which is open to the public, and provides a real and intimate connection to the locals and the life of this quiet little town. It's a traditional Italian bar with an old wooden counter, juke box, gleaming espresso machine and white walls covered in black-and-white photographs of famous movie stars and directors.

The piece-de-resistance, though, is the imposing salon on the first floor where, at the touch of a button, the chandelier retracts into the roof and transforms into a small cinema where you can watch any of 300 movies specially selected by Francis Ford Coppola himself.

Yes, the Godfather movies are available. And that is an offer you can't refuse.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/italy

southernvisionstravel.com

STAY

Palazzo Margherita is situated at Corso Umberto I, Bernalda. The room rate includes breakfast, all taxes, in-room bar, Wi-Fi, in-house bikes, a cooking lesson and daily shuttle service to the palazzo's partner beach club on the Ionian Sea. See thefamilycoppolahideaways.com/en/palazzo-margherita for more details and prices.

FLY

Brindisi and Bari airports are both about 90 minutes away by car. Alitalia offers several connecting flights a day from Rome Fiumicino and Milan Malpensa or Linate. Other scheduled carriers include Swiss Air, from Zurich, British Airways, from London Gatwick and Heathrow, Lufthansa, from Munich, Easyjet, Ryanair, Volotea, Vueling and German Wings.

TRAIN

Metaponto station is 11 kilometres away from the hotel, about a 10-minute drive, and links to major Southern Italian cities. There are no taxis in Bernalda but a private shuttle service is available on request.

TOUR

Southern Visions Travel are experts in creating bespoke travel experiences in southern Italy. They specialise in culinary and active experiences, especially cycling, but will design a holiday around your wants and needs. For more details visit southernvisionstravel.com

In May Southern Visions is partnering with Australian TV personality, author and cook Lyndey Milan for a week-long journey through the cuisine of Basilicata and neighbouring Puglia. Prices start at $4999 a person, twin share.

Keith Austin was a guest of Southern Visions Travel.

Comments