Musings and Memories: Masseria San Domenico, Puglia
By Irvina Lew
Our universal stay-at-home season gave this peripatetic wellness traveler ample time to muse about places where I want to return. The boutique, five-star Masseria San Domenico Spa-Thalasso and Golf Resort in Puglia, is high on that list. Serendipitously, the south-east heel of Italy’s “boot” where it is located, escaped the onslaught of Covid-19 that so devastated other parts of Italy; plus, the hotel has already instigated ample precautions to comfort post-Covid travelers.
My colleague, his friend and I arrived in Apulia (aka Puglia) via an hour-long flight from Rome, in October, 2017; we were driven from the airport in Brindisi to Fasano, where Masseria San Domenico is located. The 30-mile coastal drive north on the flat, two-lane autostrada followed the stark, rugged shores of the Adriatic Sea. From the car, we shared a vista that incorporated windswept trees, scraggy shrubs, occasional clusters of white houses with flat roofs and long stretches of silvery-hued, centuries-old, olive groves.
Masseria San Domenico is one of five properties in Aldo Melpignano’s SD Hotel group, and wellness is at the core of each hotel’s mission. At Masseria, Melpignano’s company draws seawater used in the spa treatments from 1200 feet below sea level, then purifies and heats it for treatments; likewise, the mineral-rich seaweed is processed to be most effective. He turns old farmhouses into fitness hotels, hosting folk dances in the olive groves and, he also created a major spa resort at the dazzling white stone, Borgo Egnazia, which opened in 2010. As Mr. Melpignano explains, “We live a good life in this part of the world. I never thought specifically, ‘O.K., we need to do this because wellness will be a trend or we need to procure our foods from farms because it’s going to be trendy to buy local.’ It was just the way we did things.”
Masseria San Domenico, the Masseria, a fortified farm-house, was the Melpignano family’s forever vacation home. It’s a stunning stone 14th-century structure with a Templar tower tall enough to spot invaders from the nearby Adriatic Sea; and, it’s been restored and repurposed into the main building of a 47-room, five-star boutique hotel affiliated with Leading Hotels of the World. Its ground floor houses the dining room, a lounge and an intimate bar where I sipped a local primitivo, Bombino bianco, Le Valli, by Alberto Longo. Family stays in the upstairs bedrooms, where the property owner, Mrs. Melpignano, lives.
The hotel sits within an olive grove on which 1000 olive trees supply olio extra virgine to the hotel kitchens. From the entry piazza, it’s a short walk to a newer, separate building which houses 40 rooms and the hotel’s thalassotherapy spa, with its glass-roofed, heated, indoor pool (there’s another seawater pool outside).
I loved that my room opened out to a private patio and was about ten footsteps from the spa, with its private cabins for therapeutic services. My detoxifying seaweed wrap was followed by a soak in a Thalgojet hydrotherapy tub and a swim in the indoor pool. I can only imagine taking advantage of all the seawater therapies day after day, during an extended stay.
Here and at Borgo Egnazia, its larger and newer sister-spa property located about a four-minute drive or half-hour walk away, produce is about 80% home-grown: aubergines (eggplant), carciofi (artichokes), Friggitelli peppers and Regina, San Marzana and Pomodorini tomatoes. Other ingredients are locally sourced, such as Podolica beef from nearby Bari and fish, including spigola (sea bass) and merluzzo (cod). Many menu items are recognizable, including braciole, gazpacho, lasagna and parmigiana; others are less familiar: panzerotti (fried dough resembling ravioli, but stuffed with tomato and mozzarella) and taralli (dry, round pretzel-like biscuits).
There are outdoor, poolside and in-room dining options, but our rainy evening dinner was in the Masseria, where I ordered from its separate menu dedicated to their Mediterranean Diet. The grilled Adriatic Sea Bass was presented topped with diced tomatoes, capers and herbs and served alongside grilled zucchini and eggplant slices. Freshly picked herbs and vegetables are intrinsic to the healthy Puglian culinary heritage, which Melpignano’s mission celebrates.
My friends enjoyed some of the local specialties that predominate at the breakfast buffet, including preserves, platters of fruits and vegetables and regional cheese: burrata, a mozzarella-like sack filled with curds and rich cream, to fresh mozzarella braids, rounds of baby mozzarella and tubs of fresh or pungent, aged ricotta. Because it was still raining and I looked forward to spending the morning at the spa, I decided to order room service and dress only in a bathing suit and bathrobe. A beautiful tray arrived with house made preserves and breads, coffee and fruits.
Hopefully, I’ll get to return to Masseria San Domenico, where I’ll book a series of services for late afternoons at the thalasso spa, perhaps spend some time at Borgo. And, I’ll also arrange excursions in Puglia, hopefully for a lunch in a Trullo, in Alberobello, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, or to make ricotta in a farmhouse kitchen and, perhaps, to harvest grapes or olives.
Sometimes, wellness is simply achieved with perfect ingredients that nourish body and soul.