Past Meets Present: Pousadas in Portugal
by LORRY HEVERLY
In the late afternoon sunlight, the columns of an ancient Roman temple cast shadows on the terra-cotta roof of the 15th-century monastery — our home for the evening. Although my husband and I were looking forward to staying in a venerable structure dating to 1485, we weren’t sure quite what to expect. Labyrinthine stone corridors? Cold, cell-like chambers with spartan furnishings?
But from the moment we entered the sun-washed halls hung with tapestries, we realized that our accommodations at the Pousada dos Loios would be more dreamlike than dreary. As we followed the receptionist to our room, I admired the marble stairway, interior courtyard, and hallways lined in antiquated paintings and artifacts.
Located in the old walled city of Evora, the Pousada dos Loios is one of 44 restored castles, monasteries, and other historical buildings that are part of ENATUR (Empresa Nacional de Tourism SA) Pousadas De Portugal. Established in 1942, the program has taken over and restored landmark buildings (often languishing abandoned and dilapidated), creating a network of small, unique accommodations for visitors.
In Portuguese, a pousada means a place of rest and welcome for travelers. At these intimate lodgings, guests are treated like family members, not room numbers. Two types of accommodations are included in Portugal’s pousada network. Regional properties offer scenic beauty, while historic pousadas occupy national monuments or notable structures such as castles and convents.
Not Exactly “Roughing It”
The pousadas deftly blend Portugal’s vibrant traditions with the comforts of modern-day living. At the Pousada dos Loios, for example, our room featured high vaulted ceilings, religious artifacts, and a simple bed paired with an ornately carved headboard and matching armoire. The marbled bathroom was accented with terra-cotta tiled floors. I’m pretty sure those ancient monks never had it this good.
Some of the accommodations awaiting visitors to Portugal are downright royal, such as the Palace of Bussaco, the summer residence of the last King of Portugal. Located in Meal-hada, it is reached via an ancient cobble-stoned carriage trail that winds through a 250-acre forest.
In the 17th century, the forest was planted by barefoot Carmelite monks who also built a mountaintop monastery and a wall around the forest, cutting themselves off from the outside world. Enamoured by this remote site, King Carlos from 1898 to 1907 commissioned artists and architects to build a fairytale summer palace in the midst of the woods.
When I saw the palace, I had to pinch myself to make sure that everything was real. Swans wandered in the manicured gardens, and gargoyles gazed down from the rooftop.
By day, the public can tour public rooms filled with suits of armor, hand-painted murals, and wall-to-wall battle scenes depicted in decorative blue and white tiles. At the stroke of five, the Versailles-like gardens and palace are reserved for overnight guests only. Surrounded by luxurious period furnishings, we found it difficult to leave our room. However, the prospect of a multi-course dinner in the romantic cupola overlooking the gardens finally lured us from our chamber.
Our next stop was Obidos, a medieval walled town dating to 1282. Known as “the wedding city,” Obidos was the traditional marriage gift from the kings of Portugal to their queens, a custom enduring for 600 years.
Unchanged for centuries, the city is surrounded by Moorish walls and dominated by an old castle. Narrow streets are hemmed by whitewashed houses with balconies and terra-cotta roofs.
We soon learned that medieval towns were designed for travelers on foot or horseback, not driving a small Renault. After the arched fortress gate, we found ourselves on a very narrow road — but then, lots of European streets are tiny. Soon, the narrow frittered into the impassable.
Wedged in, I couldn’t open the door to check out where we were, so I climbed out the car window. Our worst suspicions were confirmed. We weren’t on a street — we were driving atop the old castle wall. Backing up was dicey, so we were relieved no one spotted our embarrassing retreat.
We didn’t have to take vows, say hail Mary’s or join the order to spend the night in the 500-year-old convent, Estalagem do Convento. Sunny whitewashed rooms with beamed ceilings and wooden doors led to a courtyard filled with citrus trees where we relished our breakfast.
Although not a pousada, the convent is a delightful, privately owned inn. The manager, Luis Garcia, proudly showed off the impressive, well-stocked wine cellar and invited us to dine in the restaurant, specializing in regional dishes such as a fragateria (fish soup), grilled bass and braised kid. After our meal, we walked the castle walls, peeking in ancient churches and seeking out twisted byways.
For our explorations in Portugal, my husband and I had rented a car at the airport. With additional charges and compulsory third-party insurance, rental rates were somewhat higher than in the States. But filling up was the costliest surprise, with gasoline costing over $4 a gallon.
We finished our trip in Sagres, a tiny fishing village at the sunny end of the Algarve where Europe meets the Atlantic Ocean. Thankfully, it’s far from the maddening crowds who flock to this popular coast for fun-and-sun holidays.
Perched on a windswept cliff overlooking the untamed ocean, the Pousada Infante is located next to the site of the naval academy founded at the beginning of the 15th century by Prince Henry. Nicknamed “The Navigator,” Henry launched Portugal’s era of exploration, inspiring seafaring captains to secure trade routes to the East and expand the Portuguese empire.
A portrait of Prince Henry greets guests in the reception area. The nautical theme continues in the public areas, decorated with navigation charts, antique maps, and modern tapestries. In the bar, paintings commemorate sea battles fought off Sagres by commanders such as Drake, Rodney and Nelson.
From our sea-facing balcony, we watched colorful fishing boats by day and could see the faraway lights of Africa by night.
Prince Henry and his eager sea captains dreamed of exploring new worlds. But in our seaside room, we dreamed of the monarchs and monks, courtiers and consorts who once walked the corridors of Portugal’s pousadas.
The United States representative for Portugal’s pousadas and other unique small hotels is Marketing Ahead — Tel: 800-223-1356. The Pousadas of Portugal Website is www.pousadas.pt