For Maria Ferida Fava, opening the doors to the first guests at her crimson-walled villa in the chic Amalfi Coast town of Praiano was not just about the satisfaction that comes with the completion of a long building project. Nor was it pride in the savvy business decision of creating a luxury villa in a highly sought-after tourist spot. It was the end of a journey of personal discovery and passion, of finding a new purpose in life after children have grown up. The house, she explains with poetic flair, “is my soul which has become tangible.”
Ferida has lived in Praiano for more than 20 years, and her love for the town runs deep. “It has that pure village atmosphere that’s so rare these days, where people greet each other without knowing one another, and visitors follow suit.” Born to an Italian father and Ethiopian mother she understands why visitors might travel many miles to experience the beauty of the Amalfi Coast. As a child she lived in Africa and also set up home in London and the northern Italian city of Modena (her father’s hometown) before settling for good in one of the world’s most iconic summer destinations.
Renovating a crumbling Italian villa to transform it into a chic summer retreat was not always Ferida’s goal in life. In fact, the idea never crossed her mind until she was 40 years old. With more time on her hands as her children became more independent, Ferida decided to look for a career. She found a job as PA to the General Manager at the exclusive and extremely beautiful Hotel Caruso, where she worked for five years. “The hotel became a source of infinite inspiration to me,” she says. “It encouraged me to dream and eventually realize that I wanted to open my very own place where I could put into practise everything I had learned at the hotel.”
Ten years ago, in 2006, the opportunity arose for Ferida to buy the dream villa she had envisioned. “I found the property through a friend of mine who’s a Real Estate agent,” she explains. “It was the first property I visited and the only one I wanted!” Villa Pompea, as the house is now called, is in the oldest part of Praiano, an area that dates back to the 1700s. And although the villa was in serious disrepair, Ferida could feel the potential within the walls. “As soon as I walked in, it was love at first sight,” she remembers. “The high ceilings, the original thick stone walls, to me they reflected the glory the villa enjoyed in the past.”
Within days she had completed the paperwork to purchase the villa, acting in a frenzy of excitement that she likens to “the naivety and wild spontaneity of a love-struck adolescent”. However, the honeymoon phase did not last long. A few short months into the renovation the ceiling in what is now the kitchen collapsed, sparking a restorative building project that would last three years.
She loved being on site among the builders, carpenters and painters, seeing her ideas come to life, or occasionally being vetoed. She says, “Some of my projects were ruled out by my husband, whom I would like to thank infinitely, for financing my dream and showing so much support. Especially,” she adds “when the final figure turned out to be four times the original estimate!”
The whole of the Amalfi Coast is a Unesco protected heritage site, and as such work that is undertaken must be accompanied by reams of paperwork and numerous permits. Perhaps the biggest headache in the building process was convincing local authorities that the arresting Pompeian red of the exterior walls was in keeping with the history of the area.
As Ferida recounts “The external wall was painted overnight: the following morning Praiano woke up to find the house painted a vivid red, somewhat cheeky, yet beautiful!” She and her husband were urgently summoned to the town hall to explain themselves. Fortunately, with the help of their architect (Rino Gambardella) who found original photos of the building, and testimonials from several elderly members of the community, they were able to convince the authorities that red was the building’s original color.
The effect is quite startling. The outside space with its panoramic swath of deep blue sea, crimson walls and dazzling white trim is a feast for the eyes. A square of turquoise pool punctuates the cream stone terrace, decorated with leafy green potted trees and a canopied daybed.
The completed building is both modern and sensitive to the original character of the villa. Some original features have been preserved, and others have been given a new lease of life, like the ancient rainwater cistern that has been transformed into a decadent spa pool. The painted frescos on the pool ceiling stretch up through the glass roof and into the rose lounge above, where a decorative frieze carries on the motif.
As Ferida explains, “There are features which represent every single stage of my life, from the Amalfi Coast with its colors and fragrances to the touch of the exotic that comes with my childhood in Africa.” She designed several pieces of furniture herself, including all of the headboards and the bedside tables.
Of the psychedelic Pucci-print headboard in one of the guest rooms she says, “It reminds me of elegant ladies on holidays in exclusive places, wearing colorful dresses but so delicate and stylish at the same time.” Emilio Pucci opened his first boutique on the chi chi island of Capri (just off the coast of nearby Sorrento) so the presence of his eye-popping pattern feels especially fitting here.
Ferida’s favorite place to spend time is a hidden corner of the patio. “It’s very private and you can smell the jasmine,” she says. It’s where she sits to wait for her next guests to arrive, while listening to music by her favorite composer Ludovico Einaudi. Though she has welcomed several celebrities over the years, including 2 Oscar winners (she declines to mention who), Ferida gains equal pleasure from hosting families and happy couples.
She says that guests often tell her that the house has a soul, that they can feel the the love, dedication and attention to detail that have gone into making Villa Pompea such a special place to spend time. For a woman who has truly poured her heart and soul into this house, it is high praise indeed.