Although the Italian territory has a long and illustrious history, Italy’s identity as a country has a much shorter history. That’s because prior to Italian Unification in 1861, Italy was divided into a number of city states and kingdoms vying for power. The country, in fact, is home to hundreds of castles and royal palaces that belonged to powerful noble families – and many of these have been passed down for generations. These historical monuments often possess austere exteriors, fortifying them against intruders, while others have since been transformed into luxury hotels that welcome guests inside with a warm and convivial atmosphere.
Castello di Ugento, a 17th century castle located in Puglia’s southern Salento region, is a perfect example of this. The honey-colored fortress towers over the sleepy town of Ugento but within its walls lies a dynamic space that unites the best of Italian hospitality, gastronomy and design. Originally built on ancient Messapian remains, the castle was destroyed and rebuilt over centuries until the Marquis d’Amore, a nobleman and successful merchant, purchased the castle in 1643. The castle has remained in the family ever since.
“The story of the Castello di Ugento is a real storia d’amore, no pun intended,” begins Diana E. Bianchi, former Marketing Manager at Colgate Palmolive as well as at iconic brand Christofle. Together with her partner Massimo d’Amore, former PepsiCo CEO, they embarked on restoring the property in 2014. “Massimo was always drawn to this home. His grandfather lived here, and he always dreamed of restoring it so we decided to embark on the project together.”
The $14-million restoration process began in 2014 under the direction of the Carafa & Guadagno Architecture Studio in Caserta who had previously worked on castles and properties around Italy. “Restoring the Castello posed a lot of technical challenges and it was important for us to approach the process with a lot of respect for its heritage,” Ms. Bianchi explains. “Rosa Carafa and her son Vincenzo Guadagno had a lot of experience working with historical monuments and we made sure to hire the best artisans to restore frescoes in the property’s grand halls.” The before & after images of the castle are impressive.
The final result is a property that has a historic soul with modern touches. The décor is design-forward and fresh – juxtaposing contemporary design elements with antique and vintage family pieces. Rooms are equipped with the latest technology and the property was designed with sustainability in mind: solar panels produce hot water, geo-thermal wells generate heat and LED lighting technology is present throughout.
“We are definitely here to exalt Italy: its design, creativity and craftsmanship. Almost everything you see is Made In Italy and we’re very proud to have our guests come and experience the beauty of Italian excellence,” says Ms. Bianchi. The Master Suites on the first floor have soaring vaulted ceilings and original 18th century decorated alcoves that frame the king-sized beds, while bathrooms feature the “pietra leccese”, the traditional stone of the area. The Alcova di Diana also has a separate living room and a private terrace for sunbathing.
Despite its grand size, the Castello di Ugento is an intimate hotel with just 9 suites, making it an evocative stay for those seeking romance, reflection or relaxation. “Massimo and I are often here to greet guests and welcome them with an aperitivo outside in the garden. Many guests end up mingling and even forming friendships; it’s one of the benefits of having a small property,” says Ms. Bianchi.
With backgrounds in business, both Ms. Bianchi and Mr. d’Amore strove to create a home that was not only luxurious but also innovative and self-sufficient. “We wanted to ensure that this beautiful monument would live all year long – we didn’t want it to be just another hotel open during the beach season,” explains Ms. Bianchi. “In order to offer the level of service and quality we were looking for, we had to stay open through the winter months, too. That’s how the cookery school came into the picture.”
Overseen by Chef Odette Fada, the Puglia Culinary Centre is a state-of-the-art cooking school for professionals and food enthusiasts alike. From September to March, the school hosts students from the Culinary Institute of America for an intensive concentration in Italian Cuisine that introduces them to the country’s diverse regional cuisines, with an emphasis on seasonality and local ingredients. Hotel guests can also take part in cooking classes or enjoy a meal seated at the Chef’s Table, a private dining experience held in the Castello’s kitchen.
Food and wine are an integral part of experience and Il Tempo Nuovo, the hotel’s gourmet restaurant, is another shining example of this. Helmed by Chef Tommaso Sanguedolce, the menu changes daily based on his creative inspiration and the seasons produce, freshly picked within the Castle’s Walled Garden. Ravioli with pecorino in a minty zucchini scapece sauce, sesame green beans with cilantro, and a curry cake with grilled peaches and almond sorbet are just some of the highlights you can look forward to. The breakfast spread is equally tantalizing, with savory tarts, freshly baked cakes, homemade fruit preserves and an à la carte menu.
“We have the hospitality side, the culinary side and now we’re developing the artistic and cultural side of the property,” says Ms. Bianchi. “We like to exhibit artists in our space and currently have works by Nathalie Decoster on display. We’re also developing an artist-in-residence program to invite artists to come interpret the region.”
Just two years since the opening, Castello di Ugento is booked up through the fall, much to Ms. Bianchi’s delight. “Just like Tuscany is a beautiful region even when it rains, there are many wonderful reasons to come visit Puglia outside of the summer season.” Some experiences guests can look forward to this fall include participating in a grape or olive harvest, horse riding through dunes by the sea and exploring hidden artisan workshops in nearby towns and cities.
Castello di Ugento
Rooms start at €310.