Ease and tranquility in Alentejo

João Rodrigues spends most of his time flying as a pilot. Perhaps it’s in the sky that the muses inspire him. When he is on the ground, João runs Silent Living, a company that is reinventing the art of hospitality.

On a warm summer day, we got on the road to Casa no Tempo, a Silent Living guest house in Alentejo. It is a secluded place where only the wind brings news of the outside world.  

At first sight, the house looks ordinary. It has a rectangular geometry with thick stone walls and a roof covered with weathered orange tiles. Then, we notice that the proportions are perfect. The sinuous swimming pool confirms that this is no ordinary place. Filled with emerald water, it looks as if it is made of salt.  

The house is spacious, with large windows that frame the landscape. A light breeze flows through the rooms as if it owns the place. Walls, doors, and windows are painted with white hues that soften the sunlight. The floor is paved with cubes of orange tile that convey warmth and comfort. It all adds up to a wonderful sense of ease and tranquility.

A vaulted arch shades a courtyard with a large wooden table and some benches. While we went for a quick swim, two cooks set up the table for lunch with plates of local cheese, plump olives, and a basket of country bread. Glasses of refreshing white wine accompanied a gazpacho made from sweet tomatoes. The main course was lamb roasted with potatoes, a rustic dish that is deeply satisfying. The dessert was an appetizing fruit tart that came with cups of strong coffee. 

After this delightful lunch, we sat in the courtyard watching the sun paint the landscape with layers of golden light. The sound of bells heralded the arrival of a herd of goats that strolled by the house without a care in the world. Then, a peaceful silence returned to this place where everything is simple and everything is perfect. 

Click here for the Silent Living website.

Amália’s beach house

Portugal would be different without the fado singer Amália Rodrigues. Her voice could speak for us all, expressing feelings that words cannot describe. Born poor, she went on to sing fado all over the world. The foreign audiences did not understand her words. But it did not matter, her voice said it all. 

In the 1960s, Amália and her husband César started to look for a place to build a house that could serve as a retreat. They bought a cliff overlooking the ocean in a sleepy Alentejo village called Brejão and hired Francisco da Conceição Silva, an architect popular with high society, to design a house. The property has access to a shell-shaped beach covered with fine sand. Everybody calls it Amália’s beach.  

Whenever we came to the beach, we tried to get a glimpse of the house. But the architect made sure that the singer had the privacy she craved–the home is invisible to outsiders.

Amália had no children, so she left the house to a foundation that funds a retirement home for artists and other causes. In 2016, the foundation started renting the house to guests. It is a singular pleasure to spend time in such a unique place.

There are two bedrooms and a large sitting and dining area. The floors are paved with terracotta tiles. The ceilings, covered with exotic wood, slope down to frame the spectacular views. The furniture is sparse perhaps to make room for the sea which fills the house with its presence. Outside, a swimming pool reflects the Alentejo sky.

During our stay, the sun was, like Amália, moody and prone to stage fright. One hour it hid behind clouds, another it filled the house with its radiant warmth. But the sunset was always spectacular. 

Ana Monteiro and Rui Maurício, a charming young couple, care for the property. They are helped by Eugénia Afonso, who worked for the singer for 25 years. Eugénia told us that Amália had simple tastes. She liked to sleep late and then go to the beach. She loved flowers and preferred simple foods: vegetable soups, grilled sardines, snails, and fried codfish. 

The house has no Amália memorabilia except for a few well-chosen photographs. Still, it is difficult not to feel the strength of the singer’s personality and the void that she left.

Just as we were leaving, an adorable little girl came running towards the house. She is Ana and Rui’s daughter. “What’s her name?” we asked. “She is called Amália,” said Rui, smiling.

You can book Herdade Amália through this link.

The Vintage House

We can take the winding road that leads to the elegant bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel. Or ride the old train that stops at the local station, decorated with bright blue tiles. Our preference is to arrive by boat, carried gently by the river. But no matter how we get to Pinhão, a quaint town at the center of the Douro valley, we always feel like staying.

The perfect place to stay is a sprawling yellow edifice on the bank of the river. It was once a warehouse that stored the precious brandies used to produce port wine. In 1997, the building was converted into the Vintage House hotel. 

What makes the Vintage House unique are the generous views of the Douro. We can wake up, open the window and sense the mood of the river. Everyday is different. Sometimes, the Douro dresses in festive blues and greens. Other times, it chooses yellows and browns, to give the small tributary that named the town (the Pinhão river) a chance to shine.

The roads of the Douro valley are narrow, forcing us to drive slowly and admire the glorious landscape. There is so much to see that we crisscross the valley many times. At the end of the day, we are always tired. And we love falling asleep in the Vintage House, knowing that in the morning the river will be there to greet the start of another memorable day in the Douro valley.

The Vintage house is located at Rua António Manuel Saraiva, 5085-034, Pinhão, Douro, Portugal. Click here for the hotel’s website.

Quinta de Ventozelo

There is a new jewel in the Douro valley called Quinta de Ventozelo. The setting is not new, the estate has produced wine since the beginning of the 16th century. But there are 29 new gems–luxurious rooms with magnificent vistas located in various houses throughout the quinta. Some houses have old roofs built with the same schist used to brace the terraces that hold the vines. Others are built out of giant balloons that once stored 80,000 liters of port wine. 

The sprawling estate is the perfect place to create wonderful memories. Of the rolling hills descending towards the river to bade in its green waters. Of the breeze caressing the silvery leaves of the olive trees. Of the restful silence punctuated only by the sounds of nature. Of the joy of sitting outdoors at sunset savoring a glass of wine in the company of friends. 

You can drive to the quinta, but it is much more spectacular to take the boat from Pinhão and arrive at the dock by the river. Arriving is the easy part. Leaving is hard to do. 

Quinta de Ventozelo is located in Ervedosa do Douro, S. João da Pesqueira. Click here for the quinta’s website.

Breakfast at Six Senses in the Douro valley

Sixsenses Breackfast

Breakfasts come in many different forms. Some are quick, others leisurely. Some are frugal, others abundant. But most are quickly forgotten. A breakfast at Six Senses in the Douro valley is different because it lingers in our memory as a moment of relaxation and gastronomic pleasure.

The breakfast is served in an expansive room with a granite floor. In the back, a rectangular window frames the views of the Douro valley. There’s a large wooden table set with all sorts of culinary delights, from fruits, seeds and nuts, to milks, yogurts, juices, kombuchas, kefirs, jams, and compotes. Behind it, another table offers a dazzling array of breads and pastries. In the back, there’s an open kitchen where chefs prepare made-to-order dishes, from omelets to waffles. Many herbs, fruits and vegetables come from the hotel’s garden to the table. This freshness is integral to the quality of the food that is served.

Next to the dining room, there’s a place with cheeses and charcuteries. You can travel from the north to the south of Portugal through the taste of these products.

The meal is orchestrated with great care, from the seamless service to the skill with which the ingredients are curated and prepared. The result is an unforgettable breakfast.

Six Senses Douro Valley is located at Quinta de Vale de Abraão, Samodães, Lamego, tel. 254-660-600. Click here for the hotel’s website. 

L’and vineyards

L'and Vyneards

We arrived at L’and Vineyards blinded by the midday Alentejo sun. It was soothing to step into the cool shade offered by this elegant hotel surrounded by vineyards.

There are no normal hotel rooms at L’and. Each guest stays in a expansive suite that has an outdoor tub and fireplace. The ceiling on top of the bed opens at the touch of a button to reveal the star-studded Alentejo sky.

Early in the morning, we saw the first sun rays arriving at the vineyards. We then took a swim in the resplendent pool.

The service is seamless, the food delicious. We felt completely at home in this spacious, gracious hotel in the heart of wine country.

L’and vineyards is located in Montemor-o-Novo in Alentejo, tel. 266-242-400. Click here for their website.

 

 

Convento do Espinheiro

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The origins of Convento do Espinheiro (the convent of the thorn bush) remount to the 12th century when a shepherd reported seeing the Virgin Mary on top of a burning thorn bush. Inspired by this vision, the shepherd sold his flock to build a modest chapel where he lived as a hermit. Two centuries later, king Dom Afonso built a convent for the order of Saint Jerome in the place where the chapel stood. The convent’s white walls reach towards the blue skies of Alentejo with an exuberance of forms and decorative details.

According to legend, in 1490 the convent was the site of a romantic encounter between Afonso, a Portuguese prince, and his wife-to-be, Isabel of Castile, a few days before their wedding. The bolt of lightning that destroyed a convent tower during the night was interpreted by the monks as a sign of heavenly displeasure with the pre-marital affair.

The convent was converted into a luxury hotel in 2005. The spaces once used by the monks, from the courtyard to the dining room, were carefully restored. An ancient water deposit was turned into an elegant wine shop where guests can enjoy daily wine tastings.

Surrounded by vineyards, Convento do Espinheiro exudes peace and tranquility. Over the centuries, many Portuguese kings spent time in this convent. Perhaps that is why a stay inside these ancient walls feels like a royal privilege.

Convento do Espinheiro is located five kilometers outside of Évora. Click here for the hotel’s website.

 

 

Lumiares, our home in Bairro Alto

Hotel Lumiares Composit

The grand palace built in the 18th century by the powerful widow of the count of Lumiares languished in ruins in the middle of Bairro Alto, an ancient neighborhood in Lisbon. Two years ago, the derelict building was transformed into a boutique hotel. The new structure preserves what remains of the old palace: imposing marble staircases and decorated doorways. But it adds to them a modern decor with humorous touches, such as  the green shades painted on the portraits that hang in the restaurant.

Instead of rooms, the hotel offers small suites equipped with everything we need to feel at home. The walls are adorned with cozy artisanal Portuguese rugs. The fridge is stocked with complimentary white wine, water and beer. The coffee machine is ready to pour a fragrant blend of arabica and robusta into elegant Vista Alegre cups.

The hotel’s best-kept secret is the wonderful rooftop, a place where we can seat above the hustle and bustle of Bairro Alto to enjoy panoramic views of St. Jorge’s castle and the Tagus river. How sweet it is to stay at Lumiares!

The Lumiares hotel is located at Rua do Diário de Notícias 142, Lisbon, tel. 21 116 0200. Click here for the hotel’s website. 

Santa Clara 1728

Silent Living Composite - 2

When João Rodrigues opened the doors of Santa Clara to greet us, the sun rushed in, eager to revisit this 1728 building that laid in ruins until two years ago.

João lives a double life. He manages Silent Living, an expanding group of exquisite hotels, while flying around the world as an airline pilot. We expected a short conversation, but instead we spent a leisurely afternoon getting to know him and his project.

This act of making time for his guests tells you why João’s hotels are so unique. “When people stay with us, we receive them as friends. If I could afford it, I wouldn’t charge for the rooms,” João explains in his soft voice. “We ask guests to pay in advance, so we do not have to collect money during their stay. That is also why everything is included, our breakfast, the drinks in the mini bar, all the amenities. Prices are constant throughout the year because our goal is not to generate high returns but to find a sustainable way of offering an extraordinary experience.” João pauses and then he reveals that “We like to surprise guests by picking them up from the airport in a vintage Rolls Royce. It is a gesture that sets the tone for their stay at Santa Clara, a way to tell them they will be cared for.”

We ask João how he finds time to do everything, renovate an historical building, create a team to run the hotel and operate Ceia, a high-end restaurant. He shrugs his shoulders and smiles with the equanimity of someone who often sees the world from above the clouds.

The hotel was designed by architect Aires Mateus, who is João’s habitual collaborator. The interiors are decorated with wood and stone, the same materials used to erect the nearby Pantheon. The colors used in the rooms seem to come from old black and white photographs. These monochromatic hues provide the ideal framing for the glorious views—the contrast of the blue river with the orange roofs punctuated by the white marble of the Pantheon.

A stay at Santa Clara offers the rarest of gifts: ease, simplicity and serenity. It took someone who constantly travels to create a place that is so hard to leave.

Santa Clara 1728 is located at Campo de Santa Clara, 128 in Lisbon, tel. 964 362 816, email booking@silentliving.pt. Click here for the hotel website.

 

The river of forgetfulness

Tapeçaria -106 - Pousada de Viana do Castelo, Monte de Santa Luzia - @mariarebelophotography

The bar of the Viana do Castelo Pousada has a beautiful tapestry designed by the great artist Almada Negreiros and produced by the Portalegre Tapestry Manufacture in 1957.

The tapestry depicts the arrival of roman armies, commanded by Decius Junos Brutus, to  the left bank of the Lima river in 135 BC. The beauty of the place convinced the romans that they had found Lethes, the mythical river of forgetfulness that erased all the memories of those who crossed it.

The army stood still, no soldier dared to cross the river. Holding the roman banner in his hand, Brutus crossed the river. Once he reached the right margin, he called each soldier by his name to prove that his memory was intact. Reassured, the rest of the army crossed the river.