Tranquility at Quinta de Guimarães

Quinta de Guimarães

The best way to experience the magic of the Douro valley is to sojourn at a local farm. It was this possibility that attracted us to Quinta de Guimarães, an estate that dates back to the year 1720. It offers rooms in an ancient manor house and in two beautifully restored country homes surrounded by vineyards.

We loved the tranquility of the quinta and the sumptuous meals that Fernanda Pinto, the property caretaker, prepares with produce from the farm. Breakfast includes country breads, homemade sausages and prociuttos, eggs from happy chicken, and traditional desserts. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner composed of spinach soup, baby goat with roasted potatoes, followed by the farm’s luscious fruit. The meal was accompanied by a bright “vinho verde” (slightly sparkling white wine) produced on the property under the label Cazas Novas.

A visit to Quinta de Guimarães is a journey to a place where time has stopped because it found perfection.

Quinta de Guimarães is located at Lugar de Miguas, Sta. Marinha do Zézere, tel. 912 915 699. Click here for the quinta’s website.

 

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A joyous view

Vista Alegre-Montebelo

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. 

A room with a view to the Estrela mountain

Pousada da Serra da Estrela (75)

The Serra da Estrela Pousada stands 1,200 meters above sea level, at the door step of Portugal’s highest mountain. It was designed in the 1920s by architect Cottinelli Telmo for those who needed to recover from respiratory ailments. The pure air did wonders. And so did the view of the mountain adorned with a mantle of snow or dressed with the grey hues of the granite and the green colors of the pine trees.

In the second half of the 20th century, the edifice fell into disuse. It was rebuilt in 2014 under the guidance of Eduardo Souto Moura, a Portuguese architect who won the Pritzker prize.

Souto Moura found ways to incorporate modern comforts like air conditioning, saunas and swimming pools into the old building. But, at the same time, he endeavored to preserve Cottinelli Telmo’s unusual design. The building is long and narrow so that most of the rooms have a view.

Almost one century after its inauguration, the pousada is the perfect place to rest our eyes on a magnificent landscape that makes problems look small and life large with possibilities.

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

A white palace in Estremoz

Composit Estremoz

Estremoz is a village in Alentejo built on a hill by king Dom Afonso III in 1258.  It was once an important citadel that guarded the Portuguese kingdom from potential aggressors.

In 1360, king Dom Dinis built a royal palace in Estremoz for his wife Isabel of Aragon. It was in this palace that king Dom Manuel appointed Vasco da Gama as the commander of the fleet that sailed to India, beginning a new chapter in world history.

The palace, converted into an historical hotel, is sumptuously decorated with antique paintings and furniture. Corridors and stairs are covered with the famous white marble excavated from local quarries.

The war trophies that hang in the dining room reminded us of the momentous decisions made in this palace. And they made us appreciate even more the tranquil days we spent with only one difficult decision to make: which of the 22 wineries in Estremoz to visit.

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

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

Pousada de Palmela.jpg

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

composit-pousadas

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.