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No Hurry at All

Blissful downshifting in Portugal’s undiscovered Alentejo region.

From Virtuoso Life, Jan/Feb 2018.  Photography by Sivan Askayo.
By Kim Brown Seely

IT'S ONE OF THOSE luminous Portuguese afternoons when everything seems to glow from within: the yellow fields of cork trees, trunks casting long shadows; the hotel pool, glimmering like a limpid lake; and the chalk-white towns, buildings opalescent under an Iberian sky. 

As dusk descends over São Lourenço do Barrocal, ice cubes clink in Aperol spritzes. Navy-and-white-striped beach towels drape chaises scattered beneath umbrellas. You may have had ambitions the week before (bicycling through vineyards or touring white-washed villages), but the surprising thing is how easily you’ve succumbed to the region’s extreme tranquility. A trio of French girls in cowboy hats and not much else loll about by the pool playing cards. Even the Americans you’re traveling with are half-asleep, having finally abandoned their iPads. 

Welcome to the Alentejo, one of the quietest places in western Europe, as well as one of the most up-and-coming. If you’re used to exploring Mediterranean landscapes aged like fine wine, you’ll register this scene with deep satisfaction – and, perhaps, astonishment. For consider where you are: The Alentejo, a Belgium-size swath of land a short drive from Lisbon, has long been one of Portugal’s poorest regions. The parched landscape, dotted with medieval castles and forts meant to repel Spanish invasions, covers about a third of the country, but holds only seven percent of its population. Traveling here feels like traveling back in time 40 or 50 years. 

What’s so surprising is that you’d never expect to find a new wave of design-conscious hotels on these sun-drenched plains – or in-the-know travelers seeking them out as stylish getaways. But, accessed via the super-speedy A6 highway from Lisbon, the Alentejo transports you to a dreamy, ancient world that’s long on allure, short on crowds, and delightfully affordable. 

TRAVELERS OFTEN OVERLOOK PORTUGAL in favor of France, Italy, or Spain, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so disarmed by a country. Land in Lisbon, spend a day or two exploring the capital, then sail across the Vasco da Gama Bridge – the longest in Europe, stretching more than ten miles across the Tagus River – and without warning you’re flung into a countryside so deep and silent, it almost demands you decelerate. My husband and I recently joined a Backroads bike trip through the Alentejo, pedaling for six days through expansive cork forests (Portugal exports 63 percent of the world’s cork), soft rolling hills, and vineyards. Occasionally a small town would appear, or a farmhouse, its white walls outlined in bright-blue trim. Riding down empty roads past faded-green olive trees, black pigs munching lazily on acorns, then rows and rows of grapevines, we learned that the Alentejo is rapidly becoming one of the world’s top wine destinations. 

Its rich and fruity reds – mainly syrahs, cabs, and trincadeira blends – are gaining popularity. We also discovered a host of fantastic, newly launched wine-estate hotels. The first, set in peaceful vineyards outside the town of Montemor-o-Novo, had a Michelin-starred restaurant and spacious suites with retractable roofs that opened so you could sleep under the stars. We then rode on to Évora, the region’s capital, a stunning UNESCO World Heritage city. There, in Enoteca Cartuxa, a contemporary wine bar, we feasted on Alentejo specialties: roast rabbit salad, wild mushrooms, locally made cheeses, and wines from the nearby Cartuxa Winery.

A trio of French girls in  cowboy hats and not much else loll about playing cards.

After a night at Convento do Espinheiro (a Luxury Collection property), a romantic monastery-turned-hotel with historic cloisters, expansive gardens, and winetasting in the Gothic wine cellar, we biked across undulating plains toward the Spanish border. Scenes unfolded like a mildly hypnotic dream: bright-white churches framed by deep-blue sky, centuries-old villages where sturdy men and women with walking sticks eyed us, towering eucalyptus trees with their tangy scent. On the fourth afternoon, we rolled into São Lourenço do Barrocal, an immense estate reached by a long gravel drive lined with Alentejana cattle and holm oaks. 

It was here, checking into our room at the year-and-a-half-old hotel, that I realized we’d arrived someplace out of the ordinary. An assortment of ancient manuscripts, old family photographs, and vintage objects hung on the lobby walls in a chic arrangement. Our room, a fresh breath of understated refinement in this old-world landscape, occupied a converted farm building with an exquisite reclaimed tile roof. Soft rugs graced kiln-fired terra-cotta brick floors, cool and porous underfoot. French doors painted a milky green opened onto a private terrace. Everything had a cohesive, rustic simplicity that perfectly echoed the rural surroundings.

São Lourenço, it turns out, is a 1,927-acre farm that has belonged to the family of co-owner José António Uva since 1820. Like many properties in the region, it was expropriated by the Communist government in 1975 after Portugal’s Carnation Revolution. 

“Out of the blue, my mother, who was seventh generation on the property, was ordered out,” Uva tells me later by phone. “My family had to flee the country. We went first to Spain, then to Brazil.” 

It took until 1991 for the family to regain control of the land, and by then their nearly 200-year-old herdade (a working farm estate) was uninhabitable. “It was a long journey getting it back into production, starting with the wines,” Uva says. In 2002, after working in both corporate finance and advertising in London, Uva embarked upon what would become a 14-year labor of love.  

Without warning you’re flung into  a countryside so deep and silent, it almost demands you decelerate.

The result is marvelous. The vast property has been reclaimed
as a low-key farm resort that strikes just the right note of pastoral
elegance. The foreman’s original house and a row of farm workers’ quarters (where we stayed) have been converted into bedrooms and cottages by Eduardo Souto de Moura, one of Portugal’s top architects. Uva’s wife, designer Ana Anahory, and her business partner, Felipa Almeida, commissioned Portuguese artists to create custom pieces to tell the São Lourenço story. It’s a delight to notice these details: illustrations inspired by Alentejo fauna and flora on nineteenth- and twentieth-century manuscripts that belonged to the estate, or a cabinet containing objects from the family archives placed in the restaurant. 

Everything feels welcoming and unpretentious and rooted in the surrounding culture, including the staff. That’s the one element guests accustomed to high-end destinations and service should be forewarned about: The Alentejan pace is slow. Except for the hotel’s general manager and spa manager, both Four Seasons alumni, and a few other staff members, the majority of Uva’s 80 employees have never worked in hospitality.

So if you should find yourself waiting for a wine list in the Alentejo (we found service to be slow everywhere) or for, say, a cappuccino the next morning, just remember that your waiter might be a bullfighter. Or a teacher. Then take a deep breath, let time slow to its natural state, and accept the local pace. Quiet is always just around the corner, and soon you’ll be in another hushed little hill town. As dusk falls, you’ll watch the sky grow pink. You’ll leave the pool and dress for dinner. Someone will ask the time, and you’ll barely understand the question.

________________________________________________________

Into the Alentejo

Set a course for Portugal’s countryside.

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STAY
The quiet courtyards of a fifteenth-century monastery await travelers at 92-room Convento do Espinheiro, set on a country road just outside the historic city walls of Évora. Opt for one of the Heritage rooms in the old wing of the property. Doubles from $195, including breakfast daily, a $100 spa credit, and a bottle of the hotel’s olive oil.

São Lourenço do Barrocal is a gem with 40 rooms and cottages on a Portuguese family’s vast estate just beneath the hill town of Monsaraz. Guests can enjoy its Susanne Kaufmann spa, exploring the estate by horseback or bicycle, hot-air balloon rides, archaeological walks, guided stargazing, and winetasting. Doubles from $200, including breakfast daily and a $100 spa credit or a one-hour horseback ride. 

GO
Bikers on Backroads’ new Portugal trip spend six days exploring the Alentejo with a group of 18 to 26 people. The journey includes rides through vineyards and olive groves (with multiple route options each day ranging from 25 to 50 miles), punctuated by farm lunches, winetastings, and plenty of pool time each afternoon. Departures: Multiple dates, April 8 through October 28; from $4,098.

Butterfield & Robinson’s new six-day Alentejo biking itinerary is a private trip for groups of four or more. It includes local guides during the day; at night you’re free to explore on your own. Departures: Private tours available year-round (April through June, and September and October are recommended); from
$4,995 per person for a group of four.  

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Kim Brown Seely.  All rights reserved.