When Sofia Coppola wed her rockstar boyfriend Thomas Mars of the French band Phoenix in 2011, the couple sought an ultra-private setting that would be far off the path of the paparazzi. Her family’s recently restored palazzo in the town of Bernalda in the remote, agrarian province of Matera in Southern Italy was the perfect fit.
Once word got out about the wedding — attended by a small but very famous circle of close friends and family — it was the first time most people around the world had heard of Matera, much less the tiny town of Bernalda.
Francis Ford Coppola’s grandfather was born in Bernalda, and the Hollywood legend still had distant relatives in the region so he felt a connection to the place. He purchased a 19th century palazzo in Bernalda in 2004 and spent most of the following decade meticulously restoring it under the supervision of celebrity designer Jacques Grange. Palazzo Margherita was originally built in 1892 by the Margherita family, a family so locally powerful that anyone else in Bernalda with the name Margherita was strong-armed into changing theirs to Margharita, with an “a” instead of an “e.”
Needless to say, this is the biggest palazzo in town. But to put that into perspective of this charming hilltop village, the Palazzo Margherita boasts merely nine bedrooms. So in the grander scheme of Italian palaces, this one is modest. From the street, its nondescript facade looks like any other house on the block. The house faces Corso Umberto, the town’s central boulevard, which is where pretty much everyone in the village gathers come sundown, socializing on sidewalk benches, buying loaves of bread at the bakery, and riding vintage bicycles up and down the length of the street.
Less than a year after the wedding, the Coppolas opened their private palazzo to the public as a hotel. The family still uses the house privately from time to time, closing it temporarily to outside guests, and as such several of the rooms are named after the family members who use those specific rooms when they are in residence. Each suite is uniquely designed, and most include a balcony or terrace. The Francis suite (#9) is the largest, of course, and it is decorated in the Moorish style, an ode to the filmmakers’s Tunisia-born grandmother. In the very feminine and romantic Sofia suite (#4), hand-painted frescos were inspired by the palazzo’s own misty gardens at dawn. Meanwhile, the suite reserved for Roman (#7) is a calming, minimalist twist on Art Deco as viewed through a 19th century Italian lens.
There is no sign out front announcing the hotel. Just a discreet street number, 64, marks the address. Once visitors pass through the front gate, the grandeur of the two-story home becomes more clear. The palazzo wraps around an interior courtyard and opens onto an adjacent garden, which is manicured in that lush, shaggy-chic style typically associated with Italy’s finest rural villas.
The hotel operates two utterly unpretentious restaurants, one of which is reserved strictly for overnight guests. The public restaurant, the very casual and quaint Cinecitta Bar, is hands-down the best pizza parlor, and probably the nicest cocktail bar, in all of Bernalda. Remember, it’s a tiny town. The private restaurant, the Kitchen, is precisely that, a petite kitchen with a rustic family-style table adjacent to the wood-burning oven where hotel guests can mingle with the chef and staff as they work. This the only kitchen in the hotel. This is where all food is prepared for the Kitchen, Cinecitta and even room service. Guests who prefer more privacy or romance can dine just outside the kitchen at small tables scattered around the interior courtyard. There is also a small, fully-stocked bar on the second floor, just outside the Francis suite. Guests are encouraged to pick up the phone in the bar and call the kitchen; a butler will scurry upstairs to mix a drink, brew an espresso or bring whatever kind of snack might be desired.
The sparsely populated province of Matera (in the state of Basilicata) borders the Ionian sea to the south, a coastline that’s home to some of Italy’s most deserted and pristine white-sand beaches, a 20-minute drive from the hotel. Much of the countryside around Bernalda is dedicated to growing Aglianico grapes, used to make earthy regional wines of the same name. There’s not much to do in Bernalda except bike around the village or explore a handful of excellent little restaurants. Tourism here is still very much in its infancy here, so go now while that’s still the case because the word is trickling out. And it won’t remain unspoiled like this forever.
Getting there: The closest train station and airport is in Bari, in the neighboring state of Puglia, a little more than an hour away. Private planes can also fly into Brindisi airport in Basilicata, which is slightly farther away but much more charming and without the hassle of navigating the confusing freeways of Bari.
Palazzo Margherita +39 0835 549060. Rates from Euro 530 to 1,800 per night, with a 2- or 3-night minimum
See also: Ultimate Guide to Basilicata