Mr Smith and I have stayed in many hotel rooms over the years, but we can’t recall having had an ensuite bar before. Just outside our door is a Seventies-meets-Art-Nouveau room with little café tables and walls covered in stretched Le Manach fabric (despite belonging to film director Francis Ford Coppola, the restored palazzo is more general pattern than General Patton, thanks to the handiwork of decorator Jacques Grange). ‘I feel like I’m in Montmartre,’ says Mr Smith, eyeing up the purple and mahogany colour scheme. They say that absinthe makes the heart grow fonder, but this is southern Italy, and a glass of vivid-orange Aperol has us gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes.
We roll off the bar stools and into our suite. Mr Smith immediately sets to work fathoming the Loewe telly with the expertise of a Bletchley Park code breaker, and locates a lengthy list of movies – mainly Italian classics – which has been personally curated by Coppola. The bed is quite spectacularly large, although in this room it only just looks big enough. ‘I wonder if there’s a severed horse’s head in there?’ I remark wittily, but the Godfather reference is lost on Mr Smith. Having discovered the complimentary Santa Maria Novella toiletries, I have a soak in the roll-top Devon & Devon bathtub. Mr Smith decides to road test the shower, which is more sit-in than walk-in, with a Silvestrin-inspired marble bench.
Scented in herbally Florentine monastic cloaks, we sashay downstairs for a perambulation in the formal gardens. They are breathtakingly beautiful, with palms, fragrant climbers, a fountain and a long covered pergola. Francis’s daughter Sofia got married here, and it’s an undeniably romantic setting. Right at the back of the plot is the swimming pool. Rather than ubiquitous sea blue, the lining of the pool is an inky colour that gives the water a fabulous moodiness. ‘That’s Black Blue by Farrow & Ball,’ says Mr Smith, ‘the same as our front door at home.’ It’s good to know he’s been concentrating.
Staying at Palazzo Margherita really is like staying in a family home (if they’re a rather affluent bunch). You can eat anywhere you like, at pretty much any time you like. It’s the middle of the afternoon, and we decide to have lunch by the pool. A table is set up in the shade, with a vase of flowers from the garden, and we dine on pearl barley with herb pesto, and linguine with green beans and cacioricotta. Having devoured the palazzo’s immaculate home-made pasta, later we have a go at making some ourselves. We join some other guests in the kitchen, where we knead balls of dough around the dining table. The chef patiently shows us how to roll the knife with just the right amount of pressure to create delicate orechiette, or ‘little ears’. Mr Smith’s look more like mangled noses – perhaps something got lost in translation? Nevertheless, his efforts go into the cooking pot with all of the others, and we help to make a simple sauce with fresh tomatoes, basil and a surprising amount of the starchy cooking water. I have a go at tossing the sauce, and splatter it all over the cooker.
After all of that hard work we’re in need of a TV dinner, and we retire to the grand salon on the first floor. It turns out that the chandelier is electrically operated, and it rises seamlessly to the ceiling while an enormous cinema screen drops down behind it. ‘This is better than our local Odeon,’ observes Mr Smith. Occasionally there is a knock at the door and a new dish is ushered forth, revealed from beneath a silver cloche: paccheri pasta in perfectly al dente ribbons, tender sliced beef in sweet vincotto, and Margherita cake, a sort of Italian black forest gateau with boozy cherries. The whole experience brings new meaning to the term ‘movie theatre’.
The following day, after a breakfast of croissants, three different types of cake and a leaning tower of fruit, we motor to Matera, a jaw-dropping Unesco World Heritage site and the backdrop for many a big-screen adventure. The town is famous for its Sassi – meaning Old Stones – comprised of ancient little dwellings dug out of the rock. While Mr Smith accesses his inner caveman, I search out the local jewellery shop, having been tipped off by one of the receptionists at the palazzo. Laden down by my new copper pipe and agate necklace, we trundle off to Musma, the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture. Modern works of art are displayed inside the hewn tufa rock of the centuries-old Sassi – it’s an unexpected delight.
Back at the hotel, it’s time to eat again, and we pull up a stool at the Cinecittà Bar. This place has its own dedicated pizzaiolo from Naples. He gives us a masterclass in the art of dough-stretching before serving up a variety of tempting toppings – despite the name, it’s not just tomato-and-mozzarella margheritas at the palazzo. Surrounded by black-and-white photographs of vintage movie stars, feeling like a right couple of Coppolas, we enjoy a suitably filmic end to an Oscar-deserving stay.