by John Wilmott from The Telegraph, July 13, 2017
The monks never enjoyed this, I thought, as I swam a few lengths in the pool in the garden of their 14th-century monastery. Nor did the knight, who founded the holy order for which this impressive structure was the headquarters, benefit from a massage in the spa after a busy day defending his territory.
The monks did drink in the same vaulted refectory that is now a lounge-bar, though their rough wine has been replaced by smooth vintages from the surrounding Alentejo region.
Listed as a National Monument since 1910, the monastery is now a luxury hotel that is part of the Pousadas of Portugal, a chain of 34 historic buildings rescued from potential ruin 70 years ago and turned into rentable accommodation by the Portuguese government.
The Pousada do Crato is one of four pousadas included on a new 11-day tour by Mercury Holidays designed to showcase both the splendour and variety of these upscale hostelries and their surrounding regions.
With most tourists to Portugal heading either for the sunny beaches of the Algarve or the city-break sights of Lisbon, this was my chance to discover aspects of the country that surprisingly few visitors get to see.
Our small group of 14 guests had begun the tour south of Lisbon in a former convent sharing a crag with a castle, though most future guests on this tour will start by staying in the Royal Guard’s quarters beside the 18th-century National Palace of Queluz, an elaborate former royal residence close to the capital.
After a well-paced and comprehensive foray into Lisbon – the only nod to mainstream tourism on the trip – we set off in our mini-coach deep into the Alentejo region, through a gently crumpled landscape that became more forested and rugged as we neared the frontier with Spain. Sprinkled with wildflowers – lavender, poppies, yellow daisies – and indolent cattle, it seemed a long way from Portugal’s more familiar terrain of golf courses and holiday apartments.
We could see the tall stone walls of the Pousada do Crato from a mile away and minutes later were walking through the grand arch and beneath the columns of the haunting cloister to check in. Soon I was admiring its stern Gothic tower and later Renaissance touches from my lounger by the pool.
Olga, our guide, was waiting the next morning to take us to a couple of castellated hill villages that are typical of the upper Alentejo. We had already witnessed the sleepiness of the hamlet adjacent to our hotel and Olga explained that the rest of Portugal calls this remote corner the “slow country”, in mockery not just of the creeping pace of life but of its laid-back people.
She related an ancient joke: if a local wants to hang himself, he’ll put the rope around a sapling and wait for the tree to grow. Climbing a tree to hoist himself aloft is far too much effort.
Yet for thousands of years the inhabitants have not been lazy in using their environment. Dolmens and rings of standing stones – one predating Stonehenge – formed from the region’s copious granite are striking evidence of neolithic civilisation.
These days, Olga told us, the land is still harvested in many ways. Cork oak trees not only produce wine-bottle stoppers but provide the raw material for a bounty of other products, including her stylish handbag. Holm oaks drop the acorns that are food for the coveted black pigs that yield roasting joints and cured hams. Chestnuts and pine nuts end up in recipes. The tasty rustic bread I’d had for breakfast comes from the pockets of wheat. Wildflowers are used for condiments, herbal teas and medicines.
Petals also played a pretty role at our first stop, Castelo de Vide, where in the Jewish quarter beneath the fortress residents traditionally line their stepped alleyways with dozens of potted plants.
It’s here we learn why the window frames of the whitewashed houses are nearly always painted a dark yellow; insects are attracted to the lighter surfaces, so swerve away from the openings. And the plastic bottles of water on some doorsteps? Dogs are spooked by their enlarged reflections, so do their business elsewhere.
At nearby Marvão, Olga led us through a sprawling castle that played a major role in several battles between the 13th and the 19th centuries, with views across Spain to the east. We had been able to spy this fortress from the tower of its counterpart in Castelo de Vide; something our guide explained had far more significance than we realised.
Castles in this area and beyond were built within sight of each other so, if one was attacked, its soldiers could light a fire to alert their neighbours. Through the network of hilltop blazes, a warning could be sent to Lisbon in about 90 minutes – far faster then one could drive the journey today.
Next we crossed central Portugal, through bumpy hills and more enormous slabs and boulders of granite that provided the building blocks for many of the country’s ancient buildings as well as those prehistoric monuments. Then we were taken to hospital. No fault of our careful coach driver João; the neoclassical Pousada de Viseu was built as a hospital in the early 19th century and used for that purpose until the Nineties.
It was another treat. Passing beneath the statues of Faith, Hope and Charity and through reception, I entered the soaring atrium, now a stylish lounge hemmed in by an arcade and two decks of galleries, off which are the rooms.
Guide Carlos joined us for a walk around Viseu, a strategic centre since before Roman times. I asked him if he was born in the town. “Yes, right here. In this building, before it became your hotel,” he replied.
In contrast to middle-of-nowhere Crato, this pousada was a 15-minute walk through sinuous lanes to the town’s medieval core, where the forbidding facade of the cathedral faced that of the more optimistic Church of Misericórdia across the square.
Inside the cathedral, Carlos explained the architectural features. I was most fascinated by the grotesques – disturbing human-animals – painted on the ceiling of the sacristy, above walls of exquisite 17th-century azulejos tiles.
Moving north to our final destination, our coach crossed the Douro within view of the riverside city of Porto, and it was here that a regret tinged this otherwise compelling tour. Porto was the second landmark-packed city we had driven straight past without stopping – the other being Évora further south – arriving at our next hotel far earlier than necessary.
Any misgivings quickly evaporated as we headed through a valley and pulled up outside the Pousada Mosteiro de Amares. The formidable walls of the 13th-century monastery are joined to the twin-towered Santa Maria Church, its mildewed but still impressive facade mellowing ever further back in time.
Walking up the stone steps to the reception, I could smell the mineral in the granite and before I even checked in I was lured into the cloister, its ancient columns deliberately left unrestored, its four trees depositing oranges on to the mossy flagstones below. It was like a film set from Game of Thrones. However enchanting the other pousadas, Mercury had left the best until last.
The staff invited us into the bar for a welcome drink, where another scent lingered in the air; that of aromatic woodsmoke from the gigantic open fireplace. That evening I ate in the dining hall, a magnificent space with lofty, wooden ceiling, dominated by the most enormous stone table where the dessert buffet was displayed.
All pousadas offer regional cuisine and wines and this was no exception. My main course was an earthy combination of chunks of dark pork, chestnuts, cabbage and a “porridge” of finely shredded beef richly infused with chicken broth. The desserts, with generous use of eggs, apples and almonds, were suitably gooey.
A few of our group later wandered around the picturesque, leafy village in which the pousada is set. We ended up at an endearingly scruffy café, where we found another reason to visit Portugal; receiving change from a euro for a bottle of beer was welcome in these days of miserable exchange rates.
Another destination, another guide – this time another João, who took us deep into the Peneda-Gerês National Park that we had seen looming ever larger through the coach windows on our journey here.
The bookends of this day trip were a museum depicting the history and nature of the country’s only national park and a visit to one of Portugal’s most important pilgrimage sites, the Sanctuary of St Benedict.
In between, we drove slowly along a crooked mountain road, looking for the wild horses and eagles (and even the wolves) who roam the high ground. A surprise fog descended and we had to be content with pointing our cameras at some soft-eyed, long-horned cows, though I was bewitched by the eerie rock formations visible through the mist.
With free time at this pousada, I wanted to make the most of its charming valley setting with a decent walk. It led to my own nirvana – a narrow bridge over the gorge of the Cávado River, with a scrap of beach beside a placid pool. Scrambling down to the sand, I saw wild trout gliding through the crystal water against a backdrop of smooth grey rocks below steep ranks of deep green trees.
I soaked in the scene – literally. Now this was one swimming experience I’m sure the monks did enjoy all those centuries ago.
Mercury Holidays (0800 781 4893; mercuryholidays.co.uk) offers an 11-day Pousadas of Portugal tour including accommodation, some meals and flights, from £849pp (£899pp in 2018). Departures between September 2017 and November 2018.