We love falling asleep to the sound of the river flowing by at the Douro Riverside in Porto. Adjacent to its older sibling, the Freixo Palace, the hotel occupies the site where a company called Floral produced soaps, candles, and perfumes between 1888 and 1990.
Floral’s imposing brick chimneys, built by master Lino Soares Guedes, were meticulously restored. The formulations used to produce the scents prized by the city’s aristocracy adorn the walls. And the flowers are back, lending their aromas and elegance to the interiors.
But it is the river that plays the lead role. Its views are everywhere, from bedrooms, balconies, public interiors, and terraces. An infinity pool creates the illusion that its waters mix with the river. But the Douro keeps to itself and looks straight ahead as it flows to the sea.
The Pestana Douro Riverside is on Av. Escritor Costa Barreto nº60, Porto. Click here for the hotel website.
It is hard to believe that there’s a monastery larger than Lisbon’s Rossio plaza in the middle of Alentejo. Driving on the winding roads of the d’Ossa mountain, we almost lost faith. But we were climbing, and that is always a good omen. Convents often occupy mountain tops so that monks can be closer to heaven.
The first glimpse of the building is easy to miss. The sprawling monastery hides behind 600 hectares of olive trees, pines, oaks, ashes, and oleanders. After a few more twists and turns, we arrived at the Convent of São Paulo.
Marília Nanitas came out to greet us. She works for the foundation that manages the hotel. “Can you tell us the story of this place?” we asked with curiosity. “I can tell you a good lie, which is better than a half-truth,” she replied teasingly. Then, she lent us a book about the history of the convent.
What we learned from this tome is that it took centuries to build this monastery. The first edifice was a hermitage erected in the year 315. In 446, an earthquake partially destroyed the structure. When in 715 the Arabs invaded the region, the hermits abandoned the sanctuary.
The second king of Portugal, Sancho I, decided in 1182 to rebuild the hermitage as a monastery. In 1372, Dona Brites, the daughter of King Dom Pedro I and Inês de Castro, donated her lands near the convent to the monks. The royal family provided steady support, financing the glorious collection of cobalt blue tiles installed between 1710 and 1725.
After the state abolished religious orders in 1834, the convent was disputed for 37 years by two municipalities, Estremoz and Redondo. Before leaving the monastery, the monks protected the tiles with plaster walls. It is thanks to their ingenuity that more than 50,000 tiles have survived to this day.
When the government auctioned the convent and the surrounding lands, Henriqueta Leotte Tavares purchased it with her dowery. It was a dream to own a place like this. But also a burden, a responsibility to history. Over the next two centuries, Henriquetta’s family used their income from agriculture to restore the convent. The first generation built a factory that made tiles to repair the roof. The second generation hired carpenters to rebuild the doors and windows.
Henrique Lotte Tavares, a chemical engineer, belongs to the third generation. He has no descendants, so he decided to turn the convent into a hotel to preserve it for posterity. Between 1989 and 2009, Henrique oversaw countless renovations. In 1993, he created a foundation to manage the hotel and continue the restoration work.
How was life in the monastery? The Latin word “silentio” inscribed in the tiles reminded the monks of their vow of silence. There are many fountains, perhaps because the sound of flowing water makes silences feel less awkward. The monks could talk only on their way to lunch or dinner. To make the most out of these convivial moments, the friars walked slowly through the corridor that leads to the dining room, which became known as “passos perdidos” (lost steps).
We too walked slowly on the long corridors of the convent to savor the moments spent in this beautiful place so far from the hurries of modern life, so close to the tranquility of heaven.
The Convento de São Paulo is located at Aldeia da Serra d’Ossa in Redondo, Évora. Click here for the hotel’s website.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the most enchanting places in the Douro region is called Vale de Abraão (the valley of Abraham). It got its name from Abraão Farah, a Jew from nearby Lamego who rented the estate from João Lourenço de Seara, a squire of the king. No one knows for sure what Abraão did. Some say he was a physician, others that he was a scientist. But he must have been a remarkable person for the people of the Douro named the valley after him.
Five centuries later, the estate belonged to a descendent of the king’s squire called Laura Leitão. At the time, the Douro was remote and isolated. But Laura and her husband fell in love with Vale de Abraão and decided to make it their home. Together, they built a house and a chapel surrounded by serene gardens, graceful fountains and woods planted with exotic trees. They brought the first electrical generator to the Douro and at night their lightbulbs shined like new stars in the sky.
In the 20th century, the estate was owned by an aristocratic family from Oporto called Serpa Pimentel who lived there until the 1980s. On the other side of the valley, in the village of Godim, lived a young girl who grew up to become a writer called Agustina Bessa-Luis. Her childhood in the valley inspired “Vale de Abraão,” one of her novels.
A fire destroyed the manor house in the 1990s and the place became a romantic ruin. But the house and the surrounding gardens have since been reborn as an extraordinary hotel called Six Senses Douro Valley. It is the perfect place to connect with nature, relax and recharge.
The quality of the service offered by the 180 people on staff matches the exuberant beauty of the location. Each guest has a “gem” who serves as a guide to all the leisure opportunities available. There is much to do, from wine tastings, to helicopter tours, from cooking classes, to radical sports. But some of the best activities are the simplest: a walk in the woods, a picnic in a cabin by the river, or a lunch by the expansive pool.
Every staff member we met is terrific. Our waitress is an engineer who traded her job as a manager to work in the tranquil environment of the hotel. She spoke with enthusiasm about the excellence of the produce from the Douro valley. The head of the wine shop talks about wines with the erudition of an enologist. We asked him a few questions and soon our table was full of glasses with interesting wines for us to sample. The young chef in charge of the restaurant produces healthy, delicious food cooked with local ingredients using techniques that combine the best of tradition and modernity.
How lucky is this valley whose beauty and serenity keeps attracting such remarkable people.
The 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.