Horses, gin, cathedral roof tops, medieval castles, human bones, and ancient stones...
As I gingerly ease myself into a chair to begin sharing the details associated with the above list, the first thing I want to do is acknowledge how difficult it is to get on (and off) a horse. If you don’t ride horses very often you forget how challenging that can be. For me, I didn’t give it much thought until I realized my butt needed to be at the same height as my head. But (pun intended), that experience comes at the very end of this story, because I like to tell things in chronological order.
So, let’s start at the beginning.
Won and I chose to celebrate our 22nd wedding anniversary by taking a short trip to the Alentejo region and splurging on a stay at L’AND Vineyards, a 5-star resort hotel set on a beautiful piece of property located just outside Montemor-o-Novo. We set out Friday morning, June 18 after dropping Sweet Pea off with Gerry and Eva, the owners of Luxury Pet Sitters Cascais. We knew Sweet Pea was in capable and caring hands, and that confidence allowed us to relax and enjoy the weekend. The hour and a half drive to the hotel was uneventful and very pleasant. Once we were across the Ponte 25 de Abril (25th of April Bridge) in Lisbon we passed through tranquil rolling hills dotted with cork oak trees and peaceful pastures with grazing cows and sheep. It was uneventful that is, until we got close to the hotel.
I think the Google gods are playing games with us. Once again, the app routed us down dirt tracks – twice – as we attempted to find the entrance to the hotel. At one point the “road” was so rough, narrow, uneven and pitted that Won simply refused to drive any further. Out of complete frustration, he called the hotel. The young woman who answered immediately knew what was wrong, she asked if we were using Google Maps. Yes. She suggested we switch to Waze. That did the trick and we were at the front gate in a few minutes. Knowing that Google Maps has done this to us before, Won even set the app to avoid dirt roads before we left the house. (This is why I think someone at Google is toying with us…)
All of that frustration melted away once we arrived. The modern architecture of L’AND is expertly set into a serene landscape. We were given a tour of the common areas before being shown to our Sky View Suite. The hotel offers three types of accommodations – Suites (Sky View, L’and View, and Lake View), Villas (each comes with a large terrace and private swimming pool), and The Retreat, a house located in a preserved natural area outside the resort offering complete seclusion. As a working vineyard, L’AND is committed to bio farming practices and eco-sensitivity. A personalized bottle of their wine was waiting for us in our suite and we were gifted a jar of honey produced on the property when we checked out.
I’m pretty sure you have already discerned that the rooms are not attached to the main part of the hotel. Thankfully, it wasn’t raining most of the time we were there – even though it threatened constantly as you can tell from many of the photos. To round out a tour of the property, here are a few more pictures. There is an outdoor infinity-edge pool, exterior pool lounge (located just outside the indoor pool), massage pavilion, and a lake. We saw bunnies hopping in and amongst the grape vines every evening. It took me a few times to get a shot because they would scurry off the minute they saw or heard us coming. I had to max out the zoom on my phone and be very still, but I finally got a shot of a doe and her kitten. It’s hard to see because they blend in so well with the foliage, but they’re so cute!!
The Sky View Suites are a very generous 120 m2 or 1292 ft2 (that’s bigger than our current apartment, future apartment, and even our first house in California!). Each Sky View Suite comes with a huge skylight over the bed allowing you to stargaze, a massive bathroom with a tub built for 20 (OK…maybe not 20, but its pretty big), a little plunge pool in a private back walled terrace, outdoor shower, and a fire place on the front terrace. Here are a few pictures of our suite and all the amenities, including a short video.
Pretty awesome, right? Mostly. Here’s my gripe. While there was a lighted makeup mirror in the bathroom (a real plus), the black slate and wood that was used everywhere sucked up all of the available light — even though there was a large sliding glass door leading to the back terrace. You think I’m being overly dramatic? One day after we had left the hotel, Won looked at me and told me I had missed putting makeup on my nose. I had no idea. Not good, people! My nose can’t go out naked unless the rest of my face is naked too! Here’s another example; the shower door was made of thin wood slats with no internal door handle making it nearly impossible to shut, plus it was dark (I lightened the picture above considerably). I had a similar problem with a dark bathroom when we were in Porto. While I appreciate a good moody design aesthetic, practical aspects of use must be equally considered. Personally, I think men should be banned from designing bathrooms forever – and yes, I looked it up. It was a man who did the interior design for the hotel. ‘Nuff said.
For anyone who may not know, the Alentejo (pronounced “allen-tay-zshoo“) is a geographical, historical and cultural region located in the south-central and southern parts of Portugal. It is very large, covering more than one third of mainland Portugal, yet only accounting for about seven percent of its population. The Alentejo is known for olives and wine, but mostly for cork. The majority of Portuguese cork oaks are grown here. The name “alentejo,” literally, means “beyond (além) the Tagus (Tejo)” river.
After checking in and unpacking, we jumped back in the car and headed to Estremoz, pronounced “shtrruh-mozsh” (be sure to roll that ‘r’ and remember, anytime a word begins with an ‘es’ it is pronounced as ‘sh’).
The region around Estremoz has been inhabited since pre-historic times and there are vestiges of Roman, Visigoth, and Muslim occupation giving it a rich and interesting history. It is located close to Spain, which meant it was caught in a kind of tug-of-war for several centuries until the Portuguese finally tugged the hardest and won.
The most surprising thing we learned about Estremoz is that it is internationally known for its highly prized marble that occurs in several colors: white, cream, pink, grey, black, and streaks with any combination of these colors. The pink marble (Rosa Aurora and Estremoz Pink) are in especially high demand. This marble has been used since Antiquity for sculpture and architecture. There is so much marble around Estremoz that it is used for doorsteps and pavements (cobble stones are made out of the marble) and even as whitewash for painting houses, giving the town its nickname of “white city.” Portugal is the second largest exporter of marble in the world, surpassed only by Italy (Carrara marble).
We stopped for lunch at Alecrim, a lovely little restaurant with an outside seating area. Won ordered a beef tenderloin that came with mushrooms, prosciutto and a fried egg on top. I selected the tagliatelle pasta with shrimp and tomatoes. It arrived under a fluffy cloud of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Won dove in so fast I had to ask him to literally freeze while I grabbed a shot of his meal! He’s still talking about how good that lunch was (mine was very good too!).
Once sated, we walked around town burning off some of those calories and admiring a lovely park, huge water fountain, and 13th century Franciscan monastery.
Then, we headed for the 13th century castle, which is still actively inhabited and completely accessible. The walled enclosure is reinforced with buttresses around the Torre de Menagem Keep, a spectacular 27 meter (88.5 ft) high tower made of white marble. It is believed that the tower was built during the reigns D. Alfonso IV, D. Pedro and D. Fernando, which is why it is known as Torres das Três Coroas (The Tower of the Three Crowns).
The statue in the image below is of Queen Isabel (1271 to 1336) who was very pious and generous during her lifetime, and who also served as intermediary between her husband and their son, Afonso the Infante, during a Civil War that took place between 1322 and 1324. The Infante greatly resented his father, whom he accused of favoring his illegitimate son, Afonso Sanchez, over him. King Denis was prevented from killing his son through the intervention of the Queen. As legend holds, in 1323, Elizabeth, mounted on a mule, positioned herself between both opposing armies on the field of Alvalade in order to prevent combat. Peace returned in 1324, once the illegitimate son was sent into exile, and the Infante swore loyalty to the King. See? Every family has a spat here and there, and armies are never the answer.
The views of the town and surrounding countryside from the castle were gorgeous.
The weather was holding so we decided to head to Arraiolos (pronounced air-rrr-ahh-loosh; remember, you have to roll those r’s and every ‘s’ at the end of a word is pronounced as ‘sh’). Your Portuguese lessons for today have now concluded.
Arraiolos is best known for two things, its circular castle and its hand made embroidered wool rugs and carpets, which have been made here since the Middle Ages. We drove to the castle first. Once again, we were totally surprised at being able to drive all the way up and park on the property. The medieval castle, built between 1306 and 1315, has not been fully restored, but the circular battlements are still in great shape. The only other thing up there is a 13th century church, which was closed. It was difficult to capture the circular shape of the structure from the ground, so I’m sharing an aerial shot I found on the Internet. There was no ticket office, gated entrance or fee for parking, so we just roamed around freely and took pictures. Here’s a compilation.
We headed for town and stopped in at Casa das Tapetes de Arraiolos, one of the many stores that makes and sells those famous rugs. The woman who was working just inside, greeted us warmly and was happy to stop and show us her work. I asked how long it took to hand embroider the rug she kindly laid out on the floor for us to admire (see image below) and she told me three months (wow!). The price for that rug was 1300 euros. The rugs are made using a 17th century counting thread process using 100% wool yarn on a jute backing. The same ancient techniques are still employed to this day, being handed down from generation to generation. The patterns for most of the rugs go back centuries.
We complimented her work, profusely thanked her for her time, and headed out to see the rest of the town, which has a great vibe; very relaxed and welcoming .
It was time to head back to the hotel. Upon arrival, we asked them for recommendations on places to eat nearby and they provided a handwritten list. Won checked them out online and we decided on one in particular. However, when we got there, they were totally booked, but suggested we try their sister restaurant not too far away. Off we went and were able to get a table. Once again, the meal and accompanying wine were amazing. Food and wine rarely disappoint in Portugal.
Back in our suite, we opened the skylight over the bed, but the clouds and rain had returned obscuring the view of the stars, so we shut it and were asleep within minutes. (Helpful tip if you decide to stay there…cautiously open the skylight in the morning. We were both nearly blinded by how bright it was! Open the drapes first and then the skylight…much easier on the old eyeballs.)
I’m beginning to realize that I have way too much to share to squeeze into a single post, so I’m going to break it up into three; the horses and gin I mentioned in the opening will come in the 3rd installment. However, next week’s post will cover a return to Évora, where we walk on the roof of the cathedral (!), visit a chapel of bones (creepy, but compelling), and marvel at ruins that look like they come straight out of a fairytale (wait till you see the pictures). But, even before all that, we went to see Cromlech of the Almendres, an ancient megalithic complex of granite stones thousands of years older than Stonehenge. Portugal, you never cease to amaze me.
Until then, I hope you stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch.
From Portugal with love,