What leads a young, ambitious head of marketing and communication for luxury and the accomplished general manager of a bank to leave their well-established lives in Milan behind and move to Muro Leccese, a small village in the hinterland of Salento, in the region of Apulia?
We have asked Annamaria Altamura and her husband Enrico Mercanti, owners of the Palazzo Muro Leccese Relais de Charme & Wellness residence and spa.
Muro Leccese is the heart of Salento! Strategically located 17 kilometers from Otranto, 30 from Gallipoli and 30 from Lecce, this hamlet offers unique sensations and grandeur to anyone wishing to lose themselves in its urban fabric of winding streets brimming with 27 centuries of history! The first traces of its identity date back to the Messapians in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.
Muro Leccese is also an expression of Lecce’s Baroque, which can be admired in the marvelous Piazza del Popolo, one of the most beautiful squares in Salento, where two churches face each other in fortuitous harmony.
If every little alley in Muro tells the story of the village, its people’s kindness, generosity and hospitality tell its personality.
“It would have maybe been enough to end our research of a buen retiro here,” Annamaria tells us enthusiastically, “but Muro Leccese is much more than just that to Enrico and me: it is the place of our destiny!”
An intriguing description… tell us more!
One day Enrico, who was not my husband yet at the time, told me: “Anna, how about getting a new life?”. I believe it was his direct question that forced me to come to terms with reality. We were both living in Milan back then, and both our jobs were draining us of our time and energies beyond measure. In that period, I was head of the worldwide marketing of a renowned fashion house; there were no working hours, no days off, no holidays, no Christmas, no summer, no vacations.
I loved my job more than anything, but I also loved Enrico dearly, and our project of a life together did not have any real chances to take off and become real in those conditions… Moreover, we had a dream: buying a “masseria” farm in my homeland, where my beloved golden retrievers, Frisella first and now Pittula, could run free.
I was born in Salento, in Otranto, and I had always dreamed of a place there that could become “our” place, where to shape our dreams and make them come true. Had Enrico not stepped in, maybe mine would have just remained a secret wish.
We got married instead, and we set off for a relentless research of our special place here in Salento. When we first entered this palace dating back to the 17th century, when we realized its potential, we knew we had reached our goal. For us, this palace is the place where love and work can express themselves and fuel each other. At first, we launched the palace as a relais de charme residence offering fascinating stays. Two years later, we opened our kitchen to our guests with tasting experiences; last, we added our Wellness Area. In Schopenhauer’s words, “Fate shuffles the cards and we play”. Today, I am proud to say that our residence is a unique location for truly exclusive stays.
From a “masseria” to an aristocratic palace: your dream has changed over time!
Our palace was originally built in 1623 A.D., as a still visible stone engraving reads, and was first restored in the 1920s, when it was embellished with Art Deco details. Later on, in more recent years, a British couple added sophisticated interior design solutions including refined English fabrics; last, we have redecorated it ourselves, and we constantly are, in order to preserve and enhance its authentic, absolutely unique style. We constantly strive to maintain the subtle charm of these modes, blending together for the ultimate sophistication.
The structure of the palace is typical to 17th-century buildings, as well as the courtyard, overlooked by stables in the past and by rooms now, the well, the washtub (called “pila”) with its still visible grooves (called “stricature”), and the exquisite garden that hosts breakfasts and dinners in the summer, in the shade of three majestic Jacarandas blooming with lilac flowers, just like the flowers on the railing, Lantana bushes, and big Agapanthus trees. In an area adjacent to the Palace and dating back to the 16th century, we have created an evocative wellness area, meant to be used by a couple only, or by four people maximum. The breakfast or dinner area is one of the most beautiful spaces. It includes two rooms with high vaulted stone ceilings and a large fireplace where people would sit to enjoy its warmth, and expresses the splendor of the building. A purely poetic corner is the 19th-century reading hall, treasuring books in English and Italian, and the tea room, a place where time really does not exist!
Last, the five rooms, all different in furnishings and styles, but all equally showing eclectic compositions of English antiques and vintage pieces from Salento. Every room combines modern comforts and real pieces of history, like a colorful glass window featuring Queen Victoria and the splendid floors in cement tiles hand-painted by local craftsmen. A stay here is an authentic royal experience…
Why have you decided to work in hospitality?
You see, Enrico and I are living proof that the pace we are forced to live at constantly wears away spaces for relationships and dialogue. This is why we invite our guests to rediscover and taste what we have lost sight of again by naturally indulging in it. We have divided the palace in areas where we recommend whispering, and areas where we even invite to silence, in order to listen to our emotions. We try and promote dialogue in every way: even culinary preparations can invite to give to others before giving to ourselves, to take care of others with love. We respect the rhythms of nature, use its scents, and balance nutrients and taste for pleasure and wellbeing to be one. Pleasure is not a “sin”, but a source of physical and mental wellbeing. We nourish minds and souls with beauty and attention to details; plating is not a mere style exercise either, but a piece of a beautiful world. We want friends, spouses, parents and their children to start sharing their emotions again, looking each other in the eye, stroking each other tenderly, and talking. It is so rare that we have lost these habits, and we want our guests to rediscover the pleasure and importance of them during their stays at our palace, and beyond.
Well-being is our goal: this is what “Naturally indulge” stands for, being the philosophy that guides us. Careful and invisible, we are the guardian angels of this recovered pleasure.
You told us about your tasting experiences. Who is taking care of this part of your offering?
We both are. If cuisine is one of my passions, Enrico is a wine taster from AIS (Associazione Italiana Sommelier, the Italian association of wine waiters and tasters), so it is up to his ability to create extraordinary individual tasting experiences by finding the most appropriate combinations, and making the night special through an excellent service. For what concerns me, every tasting experience involves me from conception to planning and creation, which satisfies both my rational and creative sides. I adore everything that is about my homeland’s tradition, but there are excellences everywhere in our country, so while respecting Salento’s heritage, I still like to offer dishes that come from other top-class locations. An example? I love Sardinia, and my time in Cagliari with chef Luigi Pomata, the “king of tuna”, has enriched by emotional, technical and educational background, constantly blending with my experiences in my homeland. When two excellences meet and mix at heart, they can only give their best on the table.
There is legacy, then, but there is experimentation, too.
We are constantly experimenting in order to prepare healthy, light dishes without compromising on savor and pleasure, because enjoying something that you know not to be harmful makes the pleasure of tasting it even more intense. At the moment, if our guests are staying for several days, as it often happens, they can try a different tasting experience every day. A discovery and emotion that are renewed every night. We approach breakfast in the same way: every morning, a tasting experience, both savory and sweet, which is always different and complete. As a review by a fun guest of ours reads, “A 13-day stay, 26 different dishes”; all prepared with the same creativity and passion, meeting all needs as to allergies or intolerances, and to vegetarian, vegan or raw-food diets…
What does the future hold for Enrico and Annamaria?
We have had a project in the works since 2018, but life and the pandemic have not given us the time to make it happen yet. When the right moment comes, “God willing”, as my father used to say, we will open our restaurant to the public, for guests to have a chance to taste our cuisine, too. I cannot say anything more for now, you will have to come back to find out more… What I can say is that it is about love, and about Vincenzo Mollica’s comment on a writing of mine… “Ah! What a great writer, fate is!”