by Gaynor Flynn
A prince is waiting for me - finally. Prince Belmonte to be exact. He lives in a grand palazzo by the sea nestled on the shores of the Cilento peninsula, south of Amalfi and north of Sicily. It's a stunning location, and the prince has spent the last decade converting the family residence into a luxurious holiday destination. I've been invited along to experience it for myself. It's certainly a unique idea, one that I can't imagine the likes of Prince Charles replicating. But then from all accounts, Prince Belmonte is not your run-of-the-mill prince.
I arrive by train into Salerno. It's well past midnight but I'm told by Beatrice, the palazzo's verylovely PR woman that two gentlemen, Gino and Raffaele will be waiting for me. "Don't be alarmed that there are two of them," she says. "They keep each other company when driving late at night." Gino and his travelling companion are both in their 60's, and neither speaks a scrap of English. My Italian is notmuch better. We say bon journo, nod a lot to one another and agree that the luna is indeed bellatonight. The trip to the palazzo will take an hour, not that I know that at this stage. I look out for signs to the Belmonte residence. There are none. As the road twists and turns into the night, I thank godI decided against driving myself."
Angelo - as he prefers to be called - is the 13th and last Prince Belmonte. He has two daughters, Sophia and Francesca, but no sons, which means when he leaves this earthly realm it's the end of the royal line. At 68 he's full of vim and vigour and has enough plans to keep him "busy for the next 50 years", still its something to think about. Right now however, his mind is on other matters.
There's been a hive of activity at the palazzo this last winter. Angelo has had the architect in turningone wing of his home into seven new luxurious apartments. They're stunning and each one has its ownuninterrupted view of the coastline. (You can even lie in the oversized bathtub (built for two) and gazeout at the vast expanse of sea). There's also a new bar and restaurant being built in the courtyard, andthere are plans to expand the bar by the pool, "so guests can sit and watch the sea," says Angelo. "Ortake a drink or chat to the bar tender if you are lonely."
The palazzo is the only one of its kind "on the water in all of Italia", I am told, and yet despite it'sunique positioning, it's still one of Europe's best-kept secrets - and has been for some time. A history buff holidaying at the palazzo, (who studied at Cambridge so I'm sure he knows what he's talking about) told me that Tiberius vacationed on these shores and even Odysseus thought about dropping oarshere for a bit of R&R before he went off to Troy. Not far from here is also where those naughty mermaidssupposedly tried to lure Ulyssus to his watery death.
The main palace sits on the hill high above the lodge, up at Castellabate. Built in the 1300s it remained in the family until the 1930's when Angelo's great grandfather got the heebie-jeebies about the place and decided to sell it. His sixth sense proved spot on however, when the new owners died horrible deaths.
No such evil lurks in the palazzo - although it is apparently haunted. Angelo however assures me thatthere is only "good energy" here. "I'm never worried," he laughs. Even when the piano mysteriouslybegins to play itself in the middle of the night? "You only have to be worried about the bad energy, that is a bad ghost. This is a good ghost."
I'll take the prince's word for it. But the good energy probably stems from the fact that the palazzowas built for pleasure. It was a hunting lodge in days of old and European royalty were regulars here.Kings of Spain and Italy were particularly keen on the game rich forests and the clean tranquil sea. Thepalazzo was a place to retreat to, away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Today the clientele might be somewhat less regal but no less appreciative (having said that, the Queen's niece did holiday here). They come from all over the world, to enjoy this little bit of paradise, and of course holidaying in the residence of a real life prince, is not without its appeal.
The original holiday suites - all named after one of the heavily perfumed flowers that grow across theterracotta balconies - are located in the main palazzo. Angelo lives on the north side, in his ownprivate residence, but you'll often see him strolling around the 16th century grounds. He doesn't stand on pomp or ceremony ("detests it"), and he greets all guests so warmly that it's easy to forget that you're actually in the presence of royalty. If you happen to take a stroll with him around the picturesque harbour town of Santa Maria di Castellabate, the working fishing village that lies just outside the gates ofthe palazzo you will however, be constantly reminded that he is indeed royalty. The locals call him'Principe' and nod their heads with respect as he passes, and for a moment you appreciate the weight of the name he bears.
"King Farouk's saying was that titles are very good only for restaurants," Angelo tells me with a laugh. He should know, he has enough to get him into any restaurant, anywhere in the world for the rest of hislife. The 13th Prince of Belmonte is also the 6th Prince of Muro Leccese, and the 13th Duke of Acerenzaand Grandee of Spain 1st Class, 12th Count of Copertino, 14th Baron of Badolato, 15th Marquess ofGalatone, 9th Marquess of San Vicente, 7th Marquess of Castellabate, 14th Baron of Belmonte, 6th Duke of Corrigliano d'Otranto, 10th Marquess of Argensola, Baron of Rocca Cilento and Tresino, Seigneur of Veglie and Leverano.
He reels off the long impressive list as he shows me around the 4,000 square feet he calls home. Thecorridors are dotted with historical artefacts. There's an ancient parchment with signatures from thesuccessive Kings of Spain; antique prints of the Gulf of Naples and Paestum. There's even documents relating to ambassador Antonio Pignatelli who signed the peace treaty between Napoleon and the King of the Two Sicilies. One corridor is lined with busts of his uncles, grandfathers and great grandfathers who were cardinals, bishops, ministers and generals'. There's even a pope, papa Innocenzo XII provided spiritual guidance from 1691 - 1700.
I wonder what the ancestors would make of Angelo turning the palazzo into a commercial enterprise?When he was younger, he did consider a career in the foreign office, but he didn't get in. "It was fateluckily," he grins, "because if I was going as a diplomat all around the world I would never have doneanything of use." He also decided against politics, despite it being "in my blood" because "politics isfilthy in this country" he says.
It's twenty years since he returned to save his family home. Back then he was a highflying New Yorkstockbroker. When his father died, the local council tried to sell off the family land to the hotel nextdoor. "People have the wrong ideas of a prince," he laughs. "They have ideas that a prince must be stupid generally because everybody says they are so they think they can take them for the ride and then you have to explain to them that they cannot take you for a ride" - particularly not a prince with a law degree.
Angelo took on the local architect, the council, the hotel and won. "I became the crusader of this place. It took four or five years but I did it. I always fought in my life and that was a very big battle that I won."
Since then, there have been other battles. Inevitable perhaps when you have local bureaucrats who like things the way they are and a forward thinking prince like Angelo. He is brimming with ideas for thefuture; and has any number of projects on the boil at any one time. For instance, this is a perfect placefor weddings, and he hopes to see more of those at the palazzo. There's the gourmet vacations, where "guests come for three days and they stay in a villa and eat gourmet food," he explains. "Each meal lasts for around three hours but you only have little portions but of many different things." Then there are the culinary cooking trips to organise (Head Chef Natale and his assistant Luca will teach you their best kept Sicilian secrets). There might be painting tours on the horizon, and scuba diving adventures. It means more tourist dollars for the area, but it also means more tourists and potentially more bureaucratic haranguing.
You have to wonder why Angelo bothers. After all he's a prince, why not just live a leisurely existence? "I am a prince who works," he says. "I work 12 hours a day but I love it. Other princes probably enjoy the money that they have inherited but I'm a prince who builds up things."
It's seven years since he had 15 additional villas built within the grounds of the palazzo. The roomcount now totals 50, not that you'd know it. The apartments are nestled discreetly within the fiveacres of lush tropical garden and such is the size of the place that even when the palazzo is full, yourarely run into another living soul, unless of course you want to.
That's how the prince likes it. He admits he was reluctant to expand, and had nightmares about being"invaded" by hordes of people, which is why there are no street signs to the palazzo. "This is a specialplace. People who want to find the place they look for it. No? And they might get annoyed with the [lack of] instructions but when they come they know why. This is a place to discover."
It's true that while you might lose your way on the dark windy roads to the palazzo, the moment you enterthe large iron gates, you realise it was worth the headache. Entering Palazzo Belmonte is like enteringanother world. You can barely see the buildings for the foliage and you hear the sound of waves crashing long before you reach the sea. You can't help but feel instantly re-energised.
"This is not a hotel", says the Prince. "First of all it's not a hotel because it has its own soul. Hotelshaven't got souls. Secondly, this place is really blessed, because people find peace here, they findthemselves here. This is also why it's not like a hotel, this is like a sanctuary. You forget everything while you are here because the gate closes and you are out of the world. Then you have the freshair, which is like velvet air. So you have all this and that helps you go back and battle the worldafterwards."
Of course, if you do want to venture outside the palazzo, there is much to see in the surroundingdistricts. The magnificent Doric Temples of Paestum, built by the Greeks, are only 45 minutes north. And the archaeological sites of Pompeii, Herculameum and Oplontis are a mere 90 minutes drive away. There is also the village of Vietri sul Mare, famous for its ceramics and the delightful Positano and Capri are also within easy reach.
Guests at Palazzo Belmonte seem content however, to spend much of their stay within the tranquilsurrounds. The villas are so comfortable, leaving them seems senseless, but if you do want a bit of outdoor activity you can loll on the prince's private beach or by the pool. The staff will ensure that wherever you are, you will not want for anything.
Soon there could be another area to loll in. Not far from the palazzo is another piece of Belmonte landPunta Licosa, a picturesque patch right on the water surrounded by national park. It's a breathtaking spot, with its own private chapel. The entrepreneurial prince already has big plans for the area.
"I'm very much an environmental man and I respect nature, but you have to combine the touristdevelopment with nature," he says. "You don't build terrible things you fit in with nature. So I want tocreate this very special place on this land where people are much more linked with nature," he says. "So I have in my head an idea for a big tent, a beautiful tent for people like in India, where you cango and have meditation, have massage. I think it will be like a holistic camp but more a place for people to go who love to grow by themselves." Details:
A single room in low season (April/May and September to November) starts at approximately $235 Australian dollars (150 Euro). Double rooms $305 Aus (195 Euro). Double rooms with sea view $485 Aus (310 Euro)
To find out more about Palazzo Belmonte, or any of the special vacations that are now available visitwww.palazzobelmonte.com
Or call 0011 39 (0) 974 960 211