In the early 19th century, Portugal’s royal family and nobility served their meals on expensive porcelain imported from China. José Pinto Bastos, an entrepreneur, saw in this fashion a business opportunity: he decided to produce porcelain in Portugal. It was a risky venture because the process for porcelain production was a closely guarded secret. So, Pinto Bastos started by making glass and crystal to finance his porcelain experiments.
He found the name of his brand and the perfect location for his factory on a hill near Ilhavo that overlooks the “ria,” an elongated body of water where fresh water mixes with salty water. On top of the hill there’s a beautiful church built in 1696 by a bishop who liked the location because of its “vista alegre” (joyous view).
In 1824, Pinto Bastos built a house adjacent to the chapel and a factory called Vista Alegre. There, he started to unravel the secrets of porcelain making. A team of workers labored day and night to feed large ovens with coal or wood so they could burn at 1,400 degrees Celsius for 40 hours in a row.
After much trial and error, a few pieces of porcelain were finally produced. But these pieces had a light gray color which was much less attractive than the pure white of Chinese porcelain. Out of desperation, Pinto Bastos sent his son to Sèvres, the famous French porcelain factory, to ask for technical assistance. The young man came back with bad news: porcelain production requires a rare mineral rock called kaolin. Pinto Bastos was not deterred, he searched all over Portugal for this precious rock. Eventually, he found a large deposit a mere 20 km from his factory.
By 1835 Vista Alegre was producing excellent porcelain. Over the years, it became one of Portugal’s most cherished brands and a very successful business.
When, after a long sleep, China woke up to the world in the late 20th century, it flooded the market with cheap porcelain. Vista Alegre had trouble competing and for a while it looked like Portugal would, once again, buy all its porcelain from China. But Vista Alegre found new owners who modernized its factories. They also built a new hotel around the original Pinto Bastos family home, an interesting museum that traces the history of Vista Alegre, and stores where visitors can buy the company’s products.
The new wing of the hotel overlooks the “ria” and the old Pinto Bastos house was converted into elegant suites. It is a thrill to stay in this porcelain palace and enjoy its joyous view.
Click here for the website of the Montebelo Vista Alegre hotel.