Homes and Houses: La Mortola, the tower and the glory
The sweet sound of the church bells of La Mortola drift up to the sun-kissed terrace where Carlo Maria Maggia is sipping his espresso. The view is breathtaking, taking in the coast from Capo Nero on the far side of Bordighera to Cap Martin past Menton and beyond. Earlier that morning, the snows of Monte Cinto glinted as the first of the sun’s rays struck Corsica, 100 miles away.
Behind Carlo rises the 500-year-old La Mortola Tower, 10 years ago a crumbling ruin, now transformed by its owner into one of the most imaginative and beautiful homes on the two Rivieras, Italian and French. Below the time-locked pastel hamlet of La Mortola, the Hanbury Gardens, one of the greatest English legacies on the coast (see Reporter 160), run down the cape to the sea.
In the days of coastal piracy, the tower was a vital lookout. Danger would be signalled by smoke from the roof terrace, alerting the Ligurians in the hills behind. Today the Mortola Tower is a beacon of another sort. Step inside past the metre-thick walls and you enter a realm where the art of living has been turned into living with art.
Carlo is a sculptor of international renown. Describing what he has done to his home as interior design is rather like slapping the home decor label on the Sistine Chapel. Much of the furniture was made especially for the Tower, and it will be sold with the property.
Exquisite 18th-century tiles from Naples cover the floor. A 16th-century safe of great beauty stands proudly in the entrée. We move upstairs via a spiral staircase with every step a flower petal, through a shell-encrusted shower and Jacuzzi room, on to the master bedroom where Carlo has taken the concept of the bateau-lit a stage further, using an old Ligurian gozzo – a small fishing boat – in the design.
Carlo has a phrase for his creation, a French one. “You could call it un cabinet de curiosité,” says the 49-year-old. Being Italian, Carlo has made sure that his “cabinet” features the most mod of designer cons, to make this home as comfortable as it is spectacular.
Carlo is as skilled at moulding living things as he is at working with stone, glass or metal. The Tower sits atop two hectares of terraces hewn from the plunging hillside. Trees and shrubs, many of them exotic, create a natural haven. Boundaries and neighbours have simply vanished. Plenty of effort and technology went into this “wilderness”.
“I worked out that in the restoration of the building and land I used 25 kilometres of pipes and ducts of various kinds, including the watering system, but also there are 200 lights in the grounds. Ten thousand new plants have gone in.” The new owner will become a custodian of one of the most noted private gardens in Italy.
Sharing Carlo’s paradise, hidden a little way down the hillside, are goats and chickens. With the help of a gardener and a housekeeper, who live in a separate ancient building on the property, which Carlo modestly refers to a “rustico”, Carlo and his family grow a lot of what they eat.
But now the adventurous Carlo has decided that for him mid-life means a change. “My sculpture commissions are coming more and more from the Caribbean, I really need to have a base there and it will be too expensive to run two properties. My wife Patricia’s work as a lawyer keeps her in Milan a lot. Our daughter Maddalena is now at university in Spain.
“I have a clear idea of the right sort of family to take over the Tower. People who want to live in a very rich way, but also very poor – by that I mean living with nature, simply, eating what they grow, appreciating the calm beauty of the place. People who are not interested in showing off their wealth, and are delighted that they are not surrounded by flashy villas, knowing that the property sits on the preserved coast between Menton and Ventimiglia which can never be developed in the way that Cap Ferrat, for instance, has.
“Even though there is the space to build a swimming pool, even a helipad, I wouldn’t want to sell to jet-set types who would want to cover everything in gold,” says Carlo, who, when he and his dogs fancy a dip, takes a path down the hill to a secret beach on the headland.
“There is a great Anglo-Saxon tradition here, started by Sir Thomas Hanbury. La Mortola was home for the many staff in the gardens. The British seem to appreciate rare places such as this where the mild microclimate means that all sorts of exotic plants can thrive.
“I have an Egyptian papyrus that is very happy – they cannot survive even in San Remo.”
Carlo says in parting, “Of course I will miss this wonderful place, but I will be happy if I can find a buyer who will cherish it in the same way I have.”
La Mortola Tower is for sale at €8m (Spring 2014) Here or contact Tim Clark at Leggett Immobilier 06 76 59 25 88.