If the idea of staying in some large, anonymous hotel leaves you feeling more than a little chilly, those lovely people in Portugal can offer you something a lot more authentic and alluring, without having to sacrifice on the style or comfort. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of the pousada.
Anyone familiar with the Spanish concept of the parador will pretty much have the gist of this already. Simply put, a pousada is a historically significant building- typically a chateau or, in my case, a twelfth century monastery- that has been upgraded to provide a unique holiday experience, while preserving as much of its original character as humanly possible.
The result is an experience that mirrors the warmth and hospitality of the best hotels, while at the same time providing you with a unique insight into a way of life that has largely vanished, But, bear in mind that a pousada is not a purpose built hotel; only so many modern creature comforts can be shoe horned into an establishment whose parameters were defined many centuries ago. And, indeed,one that was created for an entirely different purpose altogether.
I stayed in the amazing Amares pousada up in the quaint, picture perfect village of Santa Maria do Borbo. It was originally a twelfth century monastery. It remains a singularly stunning building complex, with its history seared into every stone wall around you.
The rooms are not huge, but they are surprisingly comfortable. There are no balconies, but the rooms retain the original stone window seats once used by the monks that inhabited them. I was surprised by just how large the bathrooms were. The windows came complete with motorised blinds. And the bed was as comfortable as anything I’ve ever slept in.
Elsewhere, the downstairs public rooms included a huge, comfortably furnished lounge, complete with a cavernous, wood burning fire place that would be quite magical on a chilly winter evening. There’s a huge dining room that offers up the typical Portuguese regional fare; dishes that revolve heavily around meat, potatoes and hearty vegetable soups. The desserts are as sinful as you’d expect- probably the most wickedly indulgent things to ever go on offer in a monastery. And the breads, fresh baked each day, were just gorgeous.
There was also a separate television room, and a snooker table. All of these facilities were encased within the original stone structure of the monastery itself. There’s a vast, expansive terrace facing out over the lush, mountainous scenery all around; an absolutely picture perfect place for pre and post dinner drinks.
The extensive, beautifully manicured grounds also contain a circular swimming pool, surrounded by a swathe of inviting sun beds. But nothing- and I mean nothing- beat the cloisters in the middle of the complex for sheer haunting, atmospheric beauty. Here, time seemed to have stopped around the year 1300.
A quadrangle of vast, vaulted stone archways still frame what was once the epicentre of the monastic complex. It’s a spot of incredible, atmospheric peace and beauty, with its torchlit, ancient arches framed perfectly against the gentle, purple glow of a perfect midsummer twilight. The silence and the sense of wonder is almost electrifying.
There’s a beautiful seating area out here, and one of the waiters will be more than happy to bring your drinks outside for you. It’s so perfectly frozen in time that it is easily possible to imagine a slowly processing line of robed monks drifting past in the early evening ether. It;s an incredibly powerful and serene space, and no hotel- in Portugal or possibly anywhere else- has anything quite like it.
And this is the essence of the pousada experience as a whole. If you’re looking for loud, lively bars, discos and late night casino action, then this is not for you. Nor are there any of the extensive spa and shopping facilities of the big hotels. Here, the key is just unwinding totally amid spectacular natural surroundings.
And what scenery it is.
Here, in the Douro Valley of northern Portugal, the country’s premier wine growing region is literally right on your doorstep. Acres of lush green terraces, stepped against plunging mountain sides, march down to the river that cuts a languid, serpentine swathe through the valleys below. And, while Portugal remains largely a devoutly Catholic country, the production of the exquisite local port wine is almost a religion here in and of itself.
The village of Santa Maria do Borbo (see previous posts) is literally straight across the road from the pousada, and the huge church that is attached to the complex. Life here is slow, pared back and mellow; there are only two cafe bars and one restaurant outside the pousada complex, but the prices are so cheap here that you’ll begin to believe in miracles.
The nearest large city is Braga, the third largest city in Portugal after Lisbon and Porto. It’s about an hours’ drive away. From there, you can take a train to and from Porto. If it sounds remote, that’s exactly the point.
Downsides? There are quite a few steps to climb to access the pousada itself. Anyone with mobility issues should bear this in mind. Passageways are long, and dimly lit at night. I thought it atmospheric; you might think it’s spooky. Public transport is almost non existent; two buses a day connect the village to Braga. And taxis are very, very thin on the ground out in this part of the world.
This would make a great, two centre holiday when combined with a few days in vibrant, cosmopolitan Porto, or even with a short river cruise on the long, winding mass of the Douro itself. As a region, it is relatively undiscovered in comparison to the playgrounds of the Algarve coastline that lie quite some way to the south.
It’s also very different in temperament to lively, sophisticated Lisbon. But there are several pousada strung right across the length and breadth of the country, like a string of random exclamation marks.
Each one of these is as individual as a human fingerprint. And each one has a story to tell that is all its own. Go enjoy.