The Hotel Today
Note: This essay and the history below was written by a guest at the hotel who was so smitten by The San Michele, that he was compelled to put his observations, and the conversations he had with the owner, in writing.
Father and daughter worked in harmony to rebuild and re-furbish the old house and their success is apparent from the first view of the "stately home" which looks out over the Tyrrhenian Sea - in clear weather to the most active of Italy's volcanoes, Stromboli.
It is a feast of colour with creepers adorning the front of the house facing the sea and balustraded terraces softening in the evening light; classic louvered shutters sit open wide by the Byzantine curved windows. Any observer who has seen the sights of Rome will recognise the inspiration of the Spanish Steps in the staircase to the family apartments. The principle reception rooms exude luxury and elegance in the furnishings and careful arrangements of flowers and pictures.
Much of the 44 hectares (about 110 acres) is farmed using traditional methods - known as "organic" to produce supplies for the dining room - circa 90% of what guests eat and drink. The chickens run free in their compound, cattle, sheep and goats - all locally bred - are farmed for meat and milk. Grain crops are grown to feed stock and guests so there are always fresh baked croissants and bread in the breakfast buffet, free range eggs for the discerning, jams and honey from the hotel's fruit gardens and apiary. Fresh pasta served at the dinner table is made in the kitchens and accompanied by the estate wine from the cellars.
A trip to the cellars takes the visitor into an underground world where the smells of yesteryear tease the nose. It is a short climb from the bathing pool terrace to the entry to the stone caverns quarried into the hillside that serve the house as cellars. Inside under the arched roof lit by a few fluorescent tubes are stored all the hams and cheeses of the best Italian tradition cheek by jowl with stainless steel vats, wooden barrels and bottles of wine .
Part of the land near the road is given over to a testing nine-hole golf course, which has its own bar and catering facility. The farm buildings and golf clubhouse fit discretely into their surroundings and every effort has been made to preserve the integrity of the landscape. Both farm and golf course are cared for in the most natural ways - the only chemicals used are kept just for the golf greens - the fairways of the golf course are mowed regularly to provide a fair lie but indigenous weeds sit side by side with the grass.
The Hotel has its own small beach, nestling at the foot of the cliffs. Access to the beach is by a lift designed and installed using the civil engineering know-how of the Siniscalchi family. The entry to the lift is inside the hotel gates just a short walk down the drive passing the lemon grove where the fruit trees stand in a colourful carpet of flowers. It is a smooth ride down the 450 or so feet of the lift shaft and a short walk and a few steps bring you to the shingle.
Every visitor comfort is provided on the terraces above the beach including shelter from the sun, a well-stocked kitchen and bar run with the same friendly efficiency as in the hotel. On one day of our visit the sea was stirred up by high winds and a lifeguard kept careful watch lest the unwary tangled with the waves. Again when we were there (May 2004) the improvements and modernisation programme was in full swing. A bonus from a trip in the lift is an easy walk along the public beaches to the small harbour where fishing boats share moorings with pleasure craft.
In one matter Claudia Siniscalchi is at odds with some of the work that her father did - she is determined to ensure that only plants and trees indigenous to Calabria grow in her grounds - so she will carry out a programme of "Chop! Chop!" (her words) until that is achieved.
The process of ensuring that the comfort of guests and their pleasure in the house and its many facets will continue. Ever the good hotelier Claudia will also continue to develop the uses of the hotel. The new conference centre is evidence of that, sponsors are already recognizing the value of a golf course in Calabria and from time to time the reception rooms provide an elegant and serene setting for Bridge Conventions. Who knows my wife and I may one day bid an unstoppable Grand Slam at a table there - it'll be me that has to play it!
The San Michele History
There has been a building on the present site of the Grand Hotel San Michele for centuries. The probability is that it was originally a church or a refuge. It may well once have been home to Robert the Guiscard, one of the impoverished Norman knights who went to Italy and led an army which conquered Calabria in the 11th century. He waged war against Pope Leo IX but when the Papal attitude to the Holy Roman Empire changed he allied himself with Pope Nicholas II. For his services he was created Robert "Duke of Apulia and Calabria" - he was promised Sicily as well and set out with his brother to conquer the island.
Robert died of fever on another warring expedition to Keffalonia in Greece and the house passed to his widow, Sikelgeita. She found the demands of the upkeep of her inheritance too much for her and decided that she would earn her place in heaven by giving it in heritage to the sisterhood at Monte Cassino, the Benedictine monastery, situated on the hill of the same name overlooking the town of Cassino, Italy, northwest of Naples, which featured in an awesome battle between the Allies and the Germans in World War II. Founded in 529 by Saint Benedict of Nursia on the site of an Apollonian temple, the monastery became the home of the Benedictine Order and was for many centuries the leading monastery in Western Europe.
The house became a live community of women - not a convent - and there Sikelgeita must have lived out her days. There was a small chapel in the house where the women would have worshipped - at least they would have been allowed to share in the service through the arched windows. The chapel is believed to be where the dining room is in the hotel today. You may still see fragments of the original fabric of the building carefully preserved behind glass in the reception area.
In the 17th Century the house at Centraro was home to Baron Falcone. It is with the inevitable twinkle in her eye that Claudia describes the way in which the Baron came to his property, which might well have exceeded the 44 hectares in which the modern hotel stands. Clearly troublesome to the Norman rulers of Italy he was given a "Grace and Favour" settlement that kept him well away from them in what then must have been really wild country. He would have had his hands full maintaining law and order in the area around Centraro, watching his own back and too occupied to pose a threat to his benefactors.
There is no doubt that the hotel today is on an ancient Byzantine site and such is the care taken in its construction that it reflects the glory and splendour of that bygone age and sits comfortably in the magnificent grounds that surround it in its dominating position high over the craggy coast.
It was much later in the 1920s that the house first entered into the history of the Siniscalchi family and the modern history began. In 1923 Rosario completed his studies in Rome in Civil Engineering and his first assignment was the restoration of the house some miles from the village where he was born. He set about the work and the new house was built in the style of Coppede, an architect much in vogue in that period. Coppede was renowned for his elegant designs and adding style to classic traditions. The site high on the wooded slopes above the sea demanded a sympathetic eye to blend it comfortably into the surroundings and that is what Rosario Siniscalchi set out to achieve and the work he did then has been continued to the present time. That project was never completed but the house and its charm stayed on in Dr Siniscalchi's memory.
Almost 40 years on and Rosario, now at the peak of a successful career, had a family of his own - in particular a daughter who had followed in her father's academic footsteps and was completing her studies. In 1961 he sat with her and this conversation which she will never forget took place:
"Claudia I am going to give you a present."
"Thank you father - what will it be?"
"I am going to give you a hotel!"
- with a wry smile!
"But what will I do with a hotel father...? "
- faint dismay perhaps?
The conversation developed and the grand plans for the Grand Hotel San Michele were laid. Claudia might well have been just as doubtful about the potential of a hotel in far off Centraro as her ownership of one. Calabria did not then have the infrastructure which would allow development of any of its natural resources and that most certainly would have made it an unlikely growth area in the tourist industry. But tourism was becoming an increasing contributor to the world economy. Italy - with its combination of beautiful coast and country combined with the magic of its chequered and history - well preserved in buildings and artefacts - was always in the forefront of travellers' ambitions.
Though Calabria has yet to earn the reputation as a holiday location of Italy's more glamorous regions the number of annual visitors is growing and at the Grand Hotel San Michele there is much more than simple half board accommodation in four-star hotel to delight and surprise the discerning guest.