“Opening a hotel,” says Francis Ford Coppola, “is a lot like shooting a movie.”
We are sitting in the ground-floor bar of Palazzo Margherita, which opened last Thursday in Bernalda, the small hill town in Basilicata, Italy, from which Coppola’s grandfather, Agostino, emigrated to New York in 1904.
“A film needs a big idea. After that it’s a matter of incredible attention to detail,” he explains. “Here the concept is a 19th-century palazzo with a patina of age. But then there are a million details to get right if it’s to work as a 21st-century hotel. In a movie, the details are the things an audience will notice. In a hotel it’s everything the guests experience.”
Palazzo Margherita has been in production for six years, longer than it took to make Apocalypse Now, and Coppola has been closely involved at every stage. “I like to make decisions,” he says, and goes on to describe choosing everything from china and cutlery to what will be in the mini-bars. “I am not just a person who licenses his name.” But then he’s been thinking about Bernalda since childhood, having grown up with stories of this “mythical” place. “‘Bernalda bella’, my grandfather called it. We believed it must be like Brigadoon or something.”
A week before opening, however, he’s preoccupied with practicalities. Over lunch he had given the kitchen staff “notes” on how a “New York mafia dish” of chicken, mushrooms and rustic Italian sausage might be improved. It needed rosemary, maybe some oregano and the addition of little artichokes. The salsiccia secca should be sliced more thinly. And it should be served sizzling on a cast-iron platter, not in a terracotta dish. Later, our conversation is interrupted by the delivery of a sample shower door: the etching of the hotel’s monogram needs refining, he thinks, so back it goes.
For Coppola likes to get things right. It’s an abiding regret, he mentions as an aside, that the paterfamilias in the first two parts of The Godfather is addressed as Don Corleone, when correctly he should have been Don Vito (“don”, like “sir”, precedes a first name). Fortunately Dean Tavoularis, the Oscar-winning production designer who first worked with Coppola in 1972, is on hand to advise on issues such as the positioning of shaving mirrors in the bathrooms. “Dean”, says Coppola deliberately, “has a very good eye.”
Palazzo Margherita is Coppola’s fifth and most obviously luxurious hotel. The first, Blancaneaux Lodge, a jungle retreat in Belize, opened in 1993, after 11 years as a family holiday home. It was followed by Turtle Inn, again in Belize, on the coast, and La Lancha in neighbouring Guatemala. I have stayed at all of them and still consider them among the loveliest places I know: simple (no phones, no TVs, no air conditioning), rustic, sensitive to their wilderness settings and decorated in impeccable taste. In 2009 he also opened a six-room townhouse, Jardin Escondido, in Buenos Aires.
In contrast, this one feels appropriately like a palace. Its splendid new interiors are the work of Jacques Grange, whose last hotel was the recently revamped Mark in New York, and subtly recall the great baroque palaces of the Castelli Romani near Rome, with exquisite new wall paintings, original frescoes, chandeliers, specially designed tiles and marmorino, a kind of stucco made from powdered marble, buffed to look like the real thing.
It’s a far cry from the humble village home Coppola stayed in when he first came here in 1962, soon after graduating from the film school at UCLA. He’d just won the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award and “from being totally a pauper”, he suddenly had $2,600 as well as a job as a soundman on a movie Roger Corman was shooting in Europe. “So of course I bought a brand-new Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider to be picked up at the factory in Milano. When we finished the movie, I took a ferry to Brindisi and drove my nifty sports car to Bernalda.”
There he found his grandfather’s first cousin and many other relatives – today he reckons perhaps a quarter of the town’s 12,000 population are relations at some remove or other (another cousin, Donato Coppola, is renovating the palazzo next door) – and so began half a century’s association with the place.