Eternal beauty in the heart Alentejo

Composit São Lourenço

We hope the gods of the sea will forgive us, but São Lourenço do Barrocal made us forget the ocean and its waves. We were dazzled by the exuberant fields covered with white daffodils, surrounded by the simple elegance of the old farm buildings.

São Lourenço has been in the family of its current owner, José António Uva, since the 19th century. It once employed 50 families who lived and worked on the farm. The estate was occupied in 1975, the year in which José António was born, as part of the wave of expropriations that followed the 1974 revolution. After the property was returned to the Uva family in 1984, the abandoned fields were replanted and the farm was brought back to life. But the buildings that once served as cellars and accommodation for the workers remained in ruins.

After studying in Paris and working in London, José António returned to Alentejo. While thinking about his future, he rebuilt a small house for his own use and a water tank that served as a swimming pool. He decided to devote four years to turning the estate into a hotel. Instead, the project took 14 years. Eight of these years were spent working with Eduardo Souto de Moura, the Pritzker laureate architect who oversaw the reconstruction project. Instead of using the property as a canvas to design new buildings, Souto de Moura followed a humble approach: he preserved and highlighted the beauty of the vernacular buildings that were there.

The interiors were decorated by José António’s wife, Ana Anahory. She used a wide range of artifacts, from antique agricultural implements to the heads of animals once hunted on the property. Her exuberance contrasts with the restraint of Souto Moura’s style. But, somehow, this creative tension works, making the space interesting and alive.

There are great hiking trails on the property with beautiful views of Reguengos de Monsaraz and the surrounding country side. One of the highlights is a menhir that is 7,000 years old.

It is heartwarming to see the natural beauty of a place where humans lived in the distant past so well preserved for the future.

Click here for the web site of São Lourenço do Barrocal.

 

The blessing of the breeze

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When you look out the window from your room at the Pamela pousada, you understand why the medieval king Sancho I built a castle on this location. You see mountains and valleys and the sea in the distance. Who would not want to conquer this piece of paradise? A castle was needed to ward off invaders.

The pousada and the surrounding castle are a spectacular wedding venue. There is a terrace called Pátio do Pessegueiro with a fabulous view of Troia and Setúbal and an indoor courtyard that is perfect for a banquet.

The restaurant staff told us how much they look forward to the wedding services. “It’s hard work but it is very rewarding to see two people start a happy life together.” How do you know the marriage will be blissful?, we asked. “There’s an old belief that when the wedding is blessed by the breeze the marriage is happy. And there’s always a breeze in Palmela.”

Here’s a link to the pousadas’ website. You can find a large collection of photos of the pousadas at www.mariarebelophotography.com.

Portuguese pousadas

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It was so hard to travel in old times! There were no hotels or restaurants. Some towns had modest inns where guests could rest and eat a simple meal. But on many nights, travelers slept under the stars hoping they would find a village in the morning where they could buy some food.

The only way to travel in style was to be a member of the royal family or high nobility. You would then have access to an informal network of palaces, castles, and convents that took great pride in their hospitality. The arrival of an illustrious guest was a cause for celebration. A banquet would be prepared and the best wine brought out of the cold cellars and warmed by the fireplace.

The meals ended with elaborate desserts which William Beckford, a well-traveled English nobleman, described as “an admirable dish of miracles, well seasoned with the devil and prettily garnished with angels and moonbeams.”

This informal network of convents and palaces worked well in Portugal until the 19th century. But after the monastic orders were abolished in 1834, convents felt into disrepair. In 1910, the monarchy was abolished and many noble families could no longer maintain their palaces.

The tradition of hospitality was never lost, because it is an integral part of the Portuguese character. But the beautiful buildings and the recipes perfected for centuries in their kitchens seemed condemned to oblivion.

In the 1940s, the Portuguese government started buying old palaces, castles and monasteries to convert them into historical hotels called pousadas. Vintage furniture was restored. Old recipe books were dusted and their secrets put back into use.

With their fairy-tale locations, these hotels offer unforgettable experiences. You’ll find great food and wine, the best dessert tables in the country, and a staff that treats every guest as an opportunity to celebrate the traditions of Portugal.

Here’s a link to the pousadas’ website. You can find a large collection of photos of the pousadas at www.mariarebelophotography.com.

 

The Guimarães pousada

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The narrow, meandering road that leads to the Guimarães pousada is good at keeping secrets; it gave us no glimpse of what this historical hotel looks like. When we arrived late in the afternoon, we were stunned to see the imposing granite facade of the church adjacent to the monastery bathed in golden light. Did the architects position the church to benefit from the sun’s exposure or did the sun move so it can shine on the magnificent building?

The origin of this monastery is intertwined with the early days of Portugal as a nation. It was built in the 12th century in fulfillment of a promise. Dona Mafalda, the wife of the first king of Portugal, vowed to fund the construction of a monastery for the order of Saint Augustine if she gave birth without complications. The monastery was named after the patron saint of expectant mothers, Santa Marinha.

In the 16th century, the monastery was transferred to the order of Saint Jerome. The monks offered university degrees in the arts and the humanities that attracted students from the royalty and nobility.  It was during this time that the chapter room, the place where monks read chapters of the bible, and the famous Saint Jerome terrace, an outdoors meditation space, were built.

In 1834, when the state abolished the religious orders, the monastery was sold and became a private residence. In the 1950s, a fire destroyed part of the building and turned it into a ruin.

In the 1970s, the Portuguese government bought the monastery and hired architect Fernando Távora to convert it into an historical hotel. Távora did a masterful job of restoring the old and integrating it with the new.

Every morning we took a walk in the romantic woods that surround the pousada. It is a place with no traces of modern civilization, where damsels in silk dresses and knights in shining armor would not be out of place. We returned to the pousada summed by the chanting of the waters that flow from the fountain in the Saint Jerome terrace. Every minute spent in this terrace was a moment of zen.

The pousada has a proud gastronomic tradition. Its kitchen staff has accompanied the president on foreign diplomatic visits to showcase Portugal’s culinary heritage. The restaurant, decorated with elegant blue tile panels, occupies the space that was once the cellar. We tried two delicious entrées: baby goat rice and roasted black-pork shoulder. They were followed by an artisanal ice cream based on a traditional dessert from Guimarães: toucinho do céu. It is the kind of divine treat you would expect from a convent.

The Guimarães pousada is a history lesson, a gourmet destination, and the perfect place to rest and recharge.

The Guimarães Pousada is located at Largo Domingos Leite de Castro, Lugar da Costa, Guimarães tel. 351 253-5112-49. Click here for the pousadas’ website.

 

The Queluz pousada

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Once upon a time, there was a prince called Pedro who was calm and handsome. As the younger brother of the king, he did not expect to have to perform royal duties. So he devoted his energies to the construction of a palace in the village of Queluz where he could host hunting parties.

The king died and his daughter Maria inherited the throne. Her volatile temperament made many fear for the future of the kingdom. Pedro was asked to marry his niece, so that he could help rule Portugal. The prince accepted this arranged marriage as an obligation. But the queen fell in love with her dashing prince and her devotion was such that he fell in love with her.

The Queluz palace became a royal project, financed by the river of gold and diamonds that flowed from Brazil. A French architect, Jean Baptiste Robillon, was hired to build a palace that would rival Versailles. The original plan was inspired by the harmonious royal marriage: it included two symmetrical buildings that complemented each other.

After the first edifice was built, the royal couple spent as much time as they could at Queluz. They lived a blissful life, surrounded by their six children in one the world’s most graceful palaces.

Before the construction of the second building began, these happy times came to an end: Dom Pedro died of a stroke. The queen never recovered from this loss and her elder son replaced her as the prince regent.

In 1819, to mark the birth of a granddaughter of the old queen, the royal family built the watch tower of the second building planned for Queluz. Later, a private theater and servant quarters were later added to the tower.

In 1995, the watch-tower building and the old palace kitchen were converted into an historical hotel called Pousada Dona Maria I.

If you’re planning to divide your time between Lisbon and Sintra, Queluz is a superb location. You can wake up in the morning to the singing of birds, enjoy a wonderful breakfast, and walk to the Queluz palace before other visitors crowd in. You can drive or take the train to Lisbon (12 km) or Sintra (16 km). And return in the evening to this enchanting place that preserves the romance and splendor of an age gone by.

 

The Pousada Dona Maria I is located at Largo do Palácio Nacional, Queluz, tel. 351 21 435 6158. Click here for the pousadas’ website and here for a large collection of photos of the hotel.

The convent of the blue monks

Composit Évora

When we entered the Pousada dos Loios in Évora, we stepped on grounds that have seen war and peace, creation and destruction. The Arabs built a castle on this site that was destroyed by fire during the Portuguese war of 1383-85. In 1485, a local noble built a convent for the order of Loios on top of the castle ruins.

The villagers called the members of this order the blue monks because of the color of their robes. These religious men lived an austere life, working and praying in silence. Their serenity and wisdom led the royal family to choose them as confessors.

The convent was severely damaged by the 1755 earthquake and later rebuilt through the efforts of an enterprising priest. In 1834, Portugal abolished religious orders and the convent was closed down.

In 1963, the ancient building was converted into an historical hotel.  The cells of the monks were turned into comfortable rooms and elegant suites. The courtyard became a spacious breakfast room.

The Pousada is in the center of Évora and yet inside its thick stone walls the clatter of the city vanishes. Staying here for a few days felt like a long vacation. We were content and at ease in the convent of the blue monks.

The Pousada dos Loios in Évora is located on Largo do Conde de Vila Flor, tel. 351 266 730 070. Click here for the pousadas’ website and here for a large collection of photos of the hotel.

 

Wedding by the sea

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If you can, get married by the sea. You’ll see boats sailing trough the waves without a care in the world. And you’ll realize that boats have keels that keep them stable during storms.

That is what marriage is. Two people who are each other’s keels so they can remain steady in the face of storms and sail joyfully through the waves of life.

The photo is from the Pousada de Angra do Heroísmo, located in the beautiful São Sebastião fort in Azores. Click here for the Pousada’s web site.