Il Convento di Santa Maria di Constantinopoli
The Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli is the home of Athena McAlpine, an Irish born Greek, educated in England, who has lived in London, Florence, New York and Paris.
In 2002 she married Alistair McAlpine, the Lord McAlpine of West Green, builder, collector, writer, patron of the arts and former Treasurer and Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher.
He was also responsible for building and developing the Cable Beach Resort in Broome, the Parmelia Hotel in Perth and the Sydney Inter-Continental, Australia.
In the same year of their marriage, Alistair and Athena moved to Puglia where they lovingly restored the 500 year old Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, an ex-Franciscan monastery, making it their home and a dramatic setting for their extensive cross-cultural collection of textiles, ethnography and tribal art.
Located on the outskirts of the village of Marittima, situated by the sea, on the Adriatic coast of the Salentine peninsula, on the tip of the heel of Italy, the Convento is just about as far south-east as you can travel in Italy.
Abandoned by the monks at the end of the 19th century, for the first half of the 20th century it was used as a tobacco factory, gradually decaying into a more derelict state until it fell into the ownership of a local scrap merchant who won it in a card game and used it for his livestock and old farming equipment.
It was in this wretched condition that Alistair McAlpine found it and sensing its potential bought it.
Not long after its restoration, the McAlpines decided to share their sanctuary with a wider circle than just friends and family and began welcoming paying guests as well, turning it into a very special Bed & Breakfast indeed.
Visitors from all over the world and from different walks of life have knocked on the large double doors of this rather austere and forbidding building and stepped into this unusual oasis.
Once settled within the Convento walls, guests roam its rooms and corridors hung with textiles and art from Japan, Korea, Africa and India; admire the paintings of Sidney Nolan and the drawings of Aboriginal artists; walk barefoot on Moroccan carpets and browse through the library containing over 14 tonnes of books; explore the gardens or simply sit on the Ethiopian benches in the courtyard filled with rare ferns, cactus and succulents, listening to music watching the swallows swooping in and out of the arches of the cloister…
Guests sleep on hand embroidered linen sheets, under Welsh blankets in the colder months or traditional handwoven Salentine bedspreads in the warmer months.
Food is served in Afghan ceramic bowls and local pottery, fruit on African and Indian platters made of wood or stone. The tablecloths are made from lengths of West African fabrics and the napkins from bolts of linen or hemp sourced in France, Eastern Europe or Southern Italy.
For although much of this collection has been described as ‘museum quality’, there is nothing about the Convento that suggests the roped-off, ‘please do not touch’ atmosphere of a museum.
This unique backdrop breathes life into all these objects. The way they are arranged and used makes them more accessible and gives them fresh purpose.
Always happy to share their home, stories and knowledge of the local area with their guests, the McAlpine's long oak dining room table has become a scene of lively and animated conversation and it should come as no surprise that breakfast is served until 1pm!
Sadly, Alistair McAlpine died in January 2014.
Athena continues to live at the Convento. Beautifully supported by a wonderful team of staff, they work together, looking after and curating its collections, tending the garden and welcoming and caring for the guests.