Francis Ford Coppola wants you to come on his family vacation
It could be anytime between noon and four, and my stomach grumbles. I pad barefoot down the cool marble stairs and pop into the kitchen at the Palazzo Margherita, in southern Italy. I raid plates of cheese, smear hunks of bread in jam, ask for sweets and leftover tangerine juice, even though dinner’s fresh pastas and sauces are well under way.
This deliciously languid, come-as-you-are ease is rarely the province of a five-star European hotel, especially one with a celebrity pedigree. But this hotel is owned by Francis Ford Coppola, Hollywood’s most legendary family man, and he wants you to make yourself comfortable here in his ancestral home of Bernalda, smack in the middle of boot-heeled Italy’s arch.
Coppola never meant to be a hotelier. He just liked taking his family on vacation.
After falling in love with the jungle while filming “Apocalypse Now” in the Philippines, he decided to get a little piece of it closer to the United States. In the early 1980s, Coppola picked up a run-down lodge in the mountainous rain forest of newly independent Belize and outfitted it with four-wheel drives, good beds, and, perhaps apocryphally, the country’s first pizza oven and espresso machine to entertain his brood in style.
“What I realized afterwards was that I was accidentally creating the infrastructure for a hotel,” he says over the phone from his Napa, Calif., home. The 20-room Blancaneaux Lodge opened in 1993.
Four more properties followed – another on the beach in Belize, and the rest in the seemingly disparate locations of Argentina, Guatemala, and, of course, Italy. A fifth, based out of a French Quarter mansion in New Orleans, has been in development limbo for years. What unites them?
“Just me and my family,” Coppola says. “They’re all things that we love, food that we find wonderful, places that are chosen not out of practicality or anything sensible, but just out of love.”
For Coppola, family, travel, and work are inextricably linked. His earliest memories are of the cross-country road trips his father, a flutist and composer, would take the family on in the 1940s and ’50s.
“My father had a habit of writing a song for every location we were in – a song for Amarillo and a song for the Ozarks – and we kids would have to sing a song for every location we were in,” Coppola recalls.
He has created similar memories for his children.
“My dad bought a 1913 Model T Ford, and we drove it from San Francisco to Bolinas, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge,” son Roman Coppola says over the phone from the set of “Mozart in the Jungle,” the show he created with cousin Jason Schwartzman and Alex Timbers. “It overheated and broke down, but it was the most wonderful adventure.”
Coppola always brought his family along on shoots – his daughter Sofia’s earliest memories include living on a chocolate plantation during the filming of “Apocalypse Now” – and those adventures became family lore, filtering into his children’s future films and artistic sensibility. Consider Sofia’s classic meditation on Tokyo, “Lost in Translation,” and Roman’s coming-of- age “Moonrise Kingdom” (co-written with director Wes Anderson and starring Schwartzman).
It’s here, squarely in this intersection of travel, family, and storytelling, that the Coppola family’s hotels sit.
“Ultimately, a resort is a movie. The place is the setting – the ruins, the body of water – the city is the star, the staff is the cast,” Coppola says.
His hotels all manage to feel at once intimate and sublime, a backdrop for a grand adventure meticulously curated as only a filmmaker can. But because they double as family homes, there’s something effortless and familiar, from the staffing to the subtle design choices. It’s a relaxed sort of luxury – the best kind.
“They’re all things that we love, places chosen not out of practicality or anything sensible.”
Coppola recently came to New York for what was supposed to be a speech for travel journalists. But in typical fashion, he transformed it into a dinner party, arriving at the homey Il Buco restaurant with a multigenerational brood, including his 98-year-old Uncle Kiki (an opera composer), his aunt (a former ballerina), and a flurry of nieces. Sofia popped in for a hug when she dropped off her mom. And Francis invited everyone to stay for dinner while he spun family yarns with Uncle Kiki.
They sat by candlelight, a two-man stand-up routine, trading well-worn tales of Francis’ first trip to Bernalda. At the age of 20, he showed up in town and introduced himself as a Coppola. He was immediately surrounded by cousins (and cousins of cousins), hugged, and fed.
“I was trying to figure out where the hell am I going to sleep tonight – there were no hotels,” he said.
Eventually they sent him home with his newlywed cousins. He shared a bed with the groom, while the bride slept “who knows where, in the barn.” And he never forgot the warmth of the reception.
You go to Tuscany and Amalfi for those big beautiful postcard views, but Bernalda is for escaping the tourist circuit. What you may trade in brain-melting beauty, you gain in chance encounters at the local gelatería, the cinematic purr of everyday life. Fifteen minutes away there’s a beach, where fishermen pull up with their boats and grill up the day’s catch fresh, right on the sand.
It’s easy to settle in, which is the point.
Coppola’s purchase of the Palazzo in 2004 grew out of his family connections there – “The five thousand million cousins in Bernalda felt that I should own it,” he jokes – and became a family project with designer Jacques Grange, opening as a nine-suite hotel in 2012. It’s his Godfather property, a family business, spanning generations.
“We approach each hotel as though it’s a family home, so it’s our custom to let each kid have input as to how they want their space to be.”
The result? Blushing pink walls and hand-painted frescoes in Sofia’s room echo a summer palace. Geometric floors and a vintage Grand Prix poster (found by Sofia) lend Roman’s suite a masculine deco flavor. And Tunisian tiles in the patriarch’s suite pay homage to Francis’s mother.
“My wife and children are such creative people, and their particular points of view really come through. So I love to stay in Sofia’s room. And Sofia loves to stay in Roman’s room to experience more of his personality,” Coppola says.
The Palazzo also traces family history further back.
“My grandfather Agostino was known in Bernalda as ‘Salta Balcone,’ or ‘Jumps Balcony,’ because he was always trying to get into houses to have affairs with the maids,” Coppola says, noting that he thinks the Palazzo was the site of an affair with one such woman called Palmetta. Now the servants’ quarters have been dubbed the Palmetta room, and Agostino’s portrait hangs there above his childhood bed.
The Coppola family has already started contributing to the Palazzo’s story arc – Sofia celebrated her wedding in the garden in 2011, and Roman’s son ate his first birthday cake in the courtyard. And that familial warmth infused every aspect of my four-day stay there, from a lazy breakfast beneath Sofia’s lemon tree to rainy-day movies in the salon to a rustic alfresco lunch that the Palazzo arranges at a nearby farm (pizza in the grass with the workers, generations of whom had toiled here).
Now Francis has turned his eye on a new family project.
“We have a beautiful property in New Orleans that I have always wanted to make into an inn for artists, a sort of French- style creative auberge,” he says. “We have a building, but we don’t have the right to create a hotel. But in a city like New Orleans, you never know what can happen.”
And after that?
“A hotel in Corsica, a resort in Sardinia, the Colombe d’Or in the south of France. I love Dublin, I love Ireland, I love everywhere. I love this magnificent, diverse earth that we have, where you can’t look out in any direction and not see beauty,” he says.
“It’s part of this incredible experience of life.”
© 2015, Bloomberg News
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