Issue No. 2 TASTE

Holy Hotel

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We met Athena and her late husband, Sir Alistair McAlpine, years ago. Our experience staying at their inn in Puglia has truly redefined what good innkeeping means to us. We try to explain to clients that innkeeping is an extension of one’s personal tastes and personality; it can influence how people react to a space and define their experience. Athena, Sir Alistair, and Il Convento di Santa Maria di Constantinopoli have understood that since the inn’s inception.
Glenn Pushelberg

Text by Athena McAlpine as Told to Ian Christie
Photography by Adrianna Glaviano


We have no doorbell. We have no sign on the door. Our guests arrive and sometimes they are perplexed because they stand outside this very austere—in fact, unwelcoming building—and it’s disconcerting. And then they knock because there is a large knocker, and in response 
are greeted by my dog barking. She died last year, but I already have a puppy. I’m hoping she’ll learn to bark. So, it’s only then that 
they enter and step into a very different world, into the embrace of our courtyard 
and cloister.

It really is an incredibly varied space. It’s a five hundred year-old building, fortified to withstand the heat and the Ottoman Empire. When people say, “I’d like a suite,” I have to explain that in fact there are no suites, there is no classic so-called room with a view. That’s what I mean: down here in the Salento, and especially the Basso Salento, the architecture is fortified. I always say that you’re trapped between the Baroque and 
the blue sea.

It used to be that I could speak to people inquiring about a visit and gauge their expectations. It led to wonderful conversations—became part of the trip for them, really. I’ve noticed, now that everything has shifted towards email, the question of expectations has become somewhat more difficult to manage. We don’t have a single TV, no WiFi, but we have a forty-foot library and piles and piles of books.

Do you know, guesthouse is perhaps 
the best of words that could be used to describe the Covento? And it’s not often used. But here, we really care for each guest and their likes and dislikes. It’s very personal 
that way. There’s no restaurant, everything 
is made made-to-measure, so to speak.

Some people love it and get it immediately. Others need some time to learn how to take the rough with the smooth. I did have one couple who came here and immediately loathed this place. They just absolutely loathed it. They wrote a scathing review, along with 23 pictures, which they posted on Trip Advisor highlighting everything they hated about it. And, you know, it actually served as an advertisement! Because everything they hated really speaks to the essence of Convento.

We built this place around my husband’s collection. He was a great collector and 
a great raconteur. He was editor-at-large 
of the ‘World of Interiors’ for 24 years. 
He wrote the back page. We have wonderful collections of African art from all over the continent, Australian art, Indian art, Indonesian textiles and ceramics. And, 
you know, some of this stuff is quite tough and more beautiful for it. And so, the couple photographed an antique chair from East Africa and wrote, “rickety pieces of furniture.”
They approached it all without any context whatsoever.

Our patched indigo cloths became, “patched furniture.” Our lush garden: “overgrown.” And so on, and so on. And, of course, I was hurt and spitting rage and indignation, but during the following year, I had so many guests that remarked, “who were those people? Oh my god!” It ended 
up having this completely opposite effect 
and probably weaned out all of the people who would have had similar reactions. 
I’m so privileged that we have such a high rate-of-return, and that so many of my 
guests have become friends. It was quite 
a valuable service!

So, it just goes to show that you can’t please them all, and perhaps “taste” is not wanting to do so.

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