Arriving at Villa Elia reminded me of the scene in Visconti’s The Leopard when Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale disappear together in his family’s palatial home, cavorting flirtatiously through a seemingly infinite sequence of large, airy rooms.
Villa Elia is in Puglia, not Sicily, and it isn’t the 1860s, but nevertheless the feeling of exploring endless rooms was reminiscent. It was all so quiet, so sunlit, so huge. Leading off the wide stone staircase are numerous little doors – the sorts of doors that you would normally expect to open on to a cupboard but instead led us into a series of spacious double bedrooms with opulent en suites. And that was before we had reached the cluster of master bedrooms, impressively high-ceilinged and kept cool by soft concrete flooring and huge shutters.
A little stairway branching off to the side brought us to yet more bedrooms and, eventually, to a grand roof terrace with a panoramic view over Elia’s enormous walled garden, with its orange and mandarin trees, and an expanse of olive groves beyond. Whispers of white smoke filled the air with an intoxicating scent of singed leaves mingled with fig sap from heavy-fruited trees. It was September – the season when farmers gather up the twigs and leaves and burn them in small pyres amid the olive trees. Birds circled overhead, occasionally perching on the odd messy tangle of telegraph wires, and every now and then a cloud of dust rose as a Vespa wound its way down a dirt track.
In the distance, the small neighbouring towns of Parabita and Matino – cheerful and pastel-coloured up close – appeared white-washed in the afternoon sun. I could have spent a week on the terrace alone.
Villa Elia is, in fact, not strictly a villa – it is a masseria, a fortified farmhouse estate found in southern Italy, in particular the Salento region of Puglia near Italy’s pointy heel. Masserie were usually built as summer homes for aristocratic families living in nearby seaside towns; during the hottest months the families would retreat from the humid sea front to the cool walls of their holiday homes. These huge stone houses were tended to year-round by farmers and servants who typically occupied the ground floor, alongside farm animals. The upper floors were opened up only when the family came to stay.
Built in 1792, Villa Elia was owned by the Ravenna family, aristocrats from the nearby seaside town of Gallipoli, in the south of Puglia. That was until eight years ago, when it was bought by Gaetano Castellini, son of a famous Milanese couturier, Lella Curiel. The locals thought that Castellini was pazzo to take on such a huge property in the middle of the countryside at the carefree age of 35; to them it represented a financial black hole but to Castellini it was an incredible opportunity.
“It was like meeting a beautiful, charming old lady who was waiting for someone to invite her out, so she had an excuse to do her make-up and dress up again,” he told me as we walked around the pool area, where little green lizards slithered between the cracks in the patio.
In the event, unlike many of the masserie in the region, left almost to the point of ruin by former owners, Villa Elia didn’t need much make-up (or, indeed, heavy reconstructive surgery).
Castellini, former international relations director to the mayor of Milan, has turned the farmhouse into a dazzling showcase of souvenirs from his extensive travels. A large Mexican tin man stands next to a giant bamboo pole in the hallway; papier mâché animal masks from Haiti hover talisman-like above the beds in the children’s room. There are also more personal souvenirs, including an array of framed photographs of Castellini shaking hands with various dignitaries and prime ministers around the world. “It’s a continuing evolution,” he said, as he showed me one of the downstairs shower rooms, dedicated to Chairman Mao. “A house made with my travels. When I feel there is nothing more to add, it will be time to move on.” It is beyond romantic. But if it also sounds ominously like the sort of clutter one wishes to avoid when renting a holiday villa, then rest assured: it’s artfully done.
Castellini may have made Villa Elia very much his own but, like an increasing number of masseria owners, he realised a few years ago that it is not economically viable to leave the property empty for long periods of time. The costs are high; the caretaker, Tommaso, comes every day of the year. So Castellini has begun renting out Villa Elia through Think Puglia, a leading villa rental company in the region. Villa Elia sleeps 17, comfortably – ideal for a family get-together or for groups of friends with children. The walls are ancient and thick, perfect for blocking out snoring or bickering. And the one-hectare walled garden might have been designed for games of hide and seek, guaranteeing parents half an hour of poolside peace.
Although Puglia has been on the summer-holiday hot-list for a while now, the phenomenon of the rental masseria is relatively new. Puglia is more obviously associated with trulli, those cute conical-roofed dwellings more common to the Valle d’Itria, in the north of Puglia near Bari. A handful of masserie – Masseria San Domenico, Masseria Torre Coccaro and Torre Maizza – were bought up and turned into luxury bed and breakfasts and hotels several years ago. These deluxe properties have coincided with a gradual gentrification in the region, although the south of Puglia, the Salento, still remains refreshingly unmanicured. Over the past couple of years masseria owners, particularly those from the north of Italy who have spent a lot of time and money on their properties, have wised up to the potential of renting.
Think Puglia has four masserie on its books, all notably high-end (owners include an architect and an art dealer), and done up with immense style. They also all have sizeable outdoor pools, such as the one at Masseria Curti Vecchi, which, at 20 metres long, is designed for serious swimmers, while the 14-metre-wide square pool that dominates the garden at Masseria Acquadolce is clearly intended for decadent pool parties. Curti Vecchi also has a spacious outdoor lounge area; billowing curtains can be pulled across to keep out scorching sunlight or a fresh breeze when guests want to use the al fresco cinema.
Marble bathrooms and state-of-the-art kitchens are the norm. Local cooks can be hired too, so you never have to set foot inside a supermarket. Villa Elia even has a pizza oven and, on request, a local pizzaiuolo will come and give a pizza masterclass in the garden.
Unsurprisingly, these masserie draw some illustrious visitors. Jude Law and Sienna Miller stayed at Villa Elia a couple of years ago, causing quite a stir at the local beach club. Indeed, wherever we went there seemed to be a framed photo of the once-happy couple, bronzed and relaxed with their arms around some beaming restaurant owner.
Our week at Villa Elia went by in an indolent haze of al fresco meals, dips in the pool and regular house explorations. As there were only two of us, we chose to occupy the former servants quarters on the ground floor and slept in a silent chapel-like room where the farm animals were once kept.
Roberta and Luigi, Castellini’s cook and housekeeper, prepared an eye-watering Italian feast for our arrival lunch: freshly made parmigiana, minted potatoes and courgettes, and still-warm ricotta and buffalo mozzarella, collected from the dairy that morning. We ate on the patio under the vines, calming the white noise from our Ryanair flight with a delicious chilled white wine from Castellini’s honesty cellar. It was quite an introduction to masseria-living.
As anyone who has been there will tell you, it is hard to talk about Puglia without waxing lyrical about its cuisine, and the good thing about the relatively undeveloped Salento region is that food shopping and eating out won’t bankrupt you: a coffee still costs well under a euro. “It’s like Italy in the 1950s,” as Castellini puts it.
Each day we left our walled paradise for “essentials”: wonderful pasticiotti – custard-filled Pugliese cakes – from the award-winning Arte Bianca bakery in Parabita; fresh bread and taralli biscuits (the perfect apperitivo accompaniment); fish and sea urchins (for tagliolini ai ricci) from the lively port of Gallipoli; and extremely cheap fruit and vegetables from dusty roadside scooters.
Aside from these excursions, we managed a few early games of tennis with Mino Pino, Castellini’s jovial tennis coach, at some well-kept local courts, as well as a couple of day trips – to the stunning baroque university town of Lecce and to Santa Maria di Leuca, the pearl at the tip of the Salentine peninsula.
As it was out of season, Leuca, as it is known, was all shuttered-up: it is very much a July-to-August sort of place – the rest of the time it’s practically a ghost town, albeit a very pleasant sugared-almond-coloured one. We also took in a pit-stop at the charming little town of Ugento, before stopping for a four-hour lunch at a waterfront restaurant called Lo Scalo, recommended to us by Castellini.
Lo Scalo is the sort of restaurant you talk about for years afterwards (Jude and Sienna apparently went several times – their photo loomed over the cash till). Overlooking a turquoise bay, animated by local kids springing off the rocks into the water while their parents sun themselves, this family-owned establishment is famed for its seafood antipasti. After a pre-prandial splash, we sat down to an extraordinary spread: first up was a platter of raw seafood – not only raw but in some cases live. Clams, mussels and oysters twitched and recoiled as we picked them up and slurped them from their pearly shells; the langoustines, thank goodness, had been put out of their misery.
After these briny amuse-bouches, we were urged to munch a bit of strong cheese and down some 18 per cent Primitivo red wine, to kill any possible bacteria. Never mind the bacteria, the wine very nearly killed us off – it’s a good thing we were sitting in the shade. The main course was a huge sea bass to share and local custom dictates that the lady is presented with the fish’s head. I admired it duly but declined when the waiter proffered a spoon with which to scoop out the eye.
Dessert was that classic Pugliese duo: spumone and sorbetto – a delicious chocolate and hazelnut ice-cream bomb, doused with Marzano liquor and a limoncello-soaked lemon sorbet. We waited a nominal 20 minutes before having another dip and heading home. It’s funny how quickly one gets used to calling a palatial Puglian farmhouse that sleeps 17, has an 18-metre pool, and 10 hectares of olive groves “home”.
Rebecca Rose was a guest of Think Puglia (www.thinkpuglia.com), which offers a week at Villa Elia from €5,460 for up to 10 people or €7,220 for up to 17. The nearest airports are Brindisi and Bari