by Jade Conroy, The Telegraph, May 7, 2019
When it comes to booking hotels, word-of-mouth recommendations are starting to feel increasingly scarce, being replaced by other means of guidance people now take as gospel – an endearing shot on Instagram, say, or an inflammatory comment on TripAdvisor.
So when four different friends/acquaintances – whose tastes I share and who all love hotels as much as I do – sang the praises, in real life, of Sao Lourenco do Barrocal, a laid-back farmhouse hotel with soul in Portugal’s Alentejo region, I booked a stay as soon as I could. I would love to say I did this before looking up the hotel on Instagram, but alas, my curiosity (and self-confessed addiction to the app) got the better of me.
What followed exceeded my expectations. On arrival, I was driven through part of the 1,927-acre estate, which is stuffed with holm oaks, vineyards and barrocais (ancient granite rocks after which the hotel is named), before the imposing collection of linear whitewashed buildings came into view, contrasted against the cobalt blue sky.
The estate dates back 200 years. In the Fifties, some 50 families – of those who worked on the farm – lived in the same buildings which are today the guest rooms and cottages. In the Seventies, the farm fell into disuse after the Carnation Revolution, when farmland across the state was seized. It wasn’t until the Nineties that Jose Antonio Uva, an eighth-generation member of the family that once owned the estate, got it back under the familial wing and embarked on plans to reopen it as a hotel. A 14-year intensive restoration followed, which aimed to preserve the estate’s history, architecture and ecology.
Uva assembled a board of experts, including local archaeologist Manuel Calado – who has been studying the area’s Neolithic stones for years and today runs tours at the hotel – and Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, who took on the refurbishment of the dilapidated buildings. Last year he won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Architecture Biennale for his work on the property, which was light-handed, to preserve the original beauty of the place.
To stay here is to be transported to a different time. Everything echoes the past, from the original stark lines and scallop-edged roofs of the buildings, covered in vines, to the photographs of workers and their families hung up across the property – spy the vintage snaps of a wedding in the lobby bar.
Modern-day life is layered on top of history everywhere: the winery was a schoolroom; the restaurant was the kennels; the photogenic pool, with a huge barrocal rock at one end, is in the old vegetable garden and the old apiary is now strung with festoon lights for weddings. Time moves slowly. Languorous shadows grow and move under the sun, created from the plate-shaped lamps above the grey-blue doors and bicycles stood outside reception, while the chirp-chirp of birds creates an eternal soundtrack. Locals sit on deckchairs outside the bar on weekends, sipping on the estate’s own-label wine.
It’s far from slow-paced, though, owing to activities such as horse riding, biking, pottery and cooking classes, grape picking and, in summer, boating on the nearby Alqueva lake.
A tour with Manuel should be top of your list. He guides guests through the sylvan landscape, stopping off at, among other monoliths, the estate’s Neolithic menir, which was built by settlers here 7,000 years ago and could be mistaken for a piece of modern art.
Stargazing is equally as memorable. During my session I saw nebulae, new star clusters and the craters of the Moon through a telescope as big as my sofa. Go this summer and there’s a chance you’ll see the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn.
If you want to take a slower pace, the spa, run by Susanne Kaufmann, is the place to do it. It feels part Fifties schoolhouse, part bathhouse, with a cedar wood hot tub (which can be booked so it never gets awkwardly crowded) and huge treatment rooms with a simple menu using the brand’s all-natural products.
Rooms are also sanctuaries for pause. Shutters and rough tile floors keep everything cool from the Alentejan heat. Interiors reference Fifties styling, with a sensibility edging towards trendy but thankfully falling short: wall hangings by a local weaver, restored vintage lamps, zig-zag-edged coffee tables from a Lisbon-based cabinetmaker, and colourful throws by a heritage brand. Guests will return after a day out to an individually wrapped slice of homemade chocolate log – a taster of what’s to come at the restaurant.
The menu is meat-heavy, including the region’s signature black pork, often served with migas, a breadcrumb stew.There’s also fish from the lake and vegetables from the abundant garden: try the vibrant yellow-green asparagus, used in a dish of pica pau (fried beef and veg).
The best tables are those on the terrace overlooking the meadow, carpeted in thousands of daisies or wild orchids depending on the season. In summer there’s an alfresco barbecue restaurant next to the pool, and a third, smaller restaurant is planned, with a headline chef and an adults-only policy (everywhere else is thoroughly family-friendly).
More and more stressed-out city dwellers, like myself, are looking for this type of back-to-basics break where simplicity is celebrated.
When I wasn’t taking part in activities, I spent my time reading among the daisies and visiting the horses. I nearly had my skirt munched by the overly zealous – but very lovable – pet donkey, Jeronimo (a word of advice: don’t wear floral prints around him).
The hotel is around a two-hour drive from both Lisbon and the ever-chic seaside town of Comporta, should you want to make a week of it. As such, the hotel is growing a loyal fan base – one of my aforementioned acquaintances has been twice already, and a favourite designer checked in after fashion week, which I saw on Instagram (sorry).
I imagine it won’t remain a word-of-mouth place for long, not least because of the hotel’s forthcoming project, whereby 25 plots of land are being sold for private houses, some of which may be let out as exclusive-use rentals. British architect John Pawson has already signed up to design one. And why wouldn’t you want a slice of this peaceful farmstead for yourself, donkeys, daisies and all?
Original Travel (020 3582 4990 originaltravel.co.uk) offers a seven-night trip to Portugal, including three nights in Comporta, four nights at Sao Lourenco do Barrocal and time in Lisbon, from £2,020 per person, including flights and transfers.
• Read the full review: Sao Lourenco do Barrocal, Alentejo