The pousadas of Portugal — historic inns with character

This is subscriber only post.
Get one year of online-only access — only $15!
Below is a sample of the article.
Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Arline Wills, Lynnfield, MA

It had been 20 years since our first visit to Portugal. When we returned in September ’04 we found that not a lot had changed, especially in the northern area. Women still carry baskets and bundles on their heads, men are seen leading donkeys laden with wood or market produce, and elderly widows are still all in black from head to toe. However, since becoming part of the European Union, Portugal has seen a great deal more road building than we found in 1974 and rivers are now navigable due to the dams and locks built for that purpose.

As we had previously, we sought out pousadas for overnight stays and were happy to note that the three chosen this time were just as satisfactory as those chosen on our first trip. We also found that more of them have been established throughout the country.

For those who are not familiar with the pousadas of Portugal, they comprise a group of 42 hotels, formerly managed by the Portuguese government, that have been renovated from former convents, monasteries, castles, palaces and mansions. Spain has done the same; they’re called paradores there.

A little background

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal was the world’s third-largest colonial empire. Explorers such as Prince Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama and Magellan sailed the world, bringing back treasures to fill the royal coffers. Provinces abroad, like Angola, Macao, Mozambique and the Cape Verde Islands, contributed to the country’s wealth. Merchants and traders built extravagant mansions, and religious orders built churches, abbeys and monasteries.

As Portugal’s fortunes declined, so did these handsome buildings. Some were left abandoned, in many cases for decades, until being rescued by the government and made available to travelers, who were beginning to discover them. The interest aroused was due to their elaborate architecture, unique furnishings and historical heritage. Of no less attraction were the very reasonable rates, subsidized by the Office of Tourism.

The first such renovation took place in Arraiolos, a city well known for its carpets. There, a 16th-century convent became the historical Pousada of Nossa Senhora da Assunção.

Changing hands

Over the years, as many more buildings were renovated — furnished with antiques and tapestries and equipped with baths and restaurants — the Portuguese government found their maintenance a costly burden. When higher rates could not take up the slack, a significant change was demanded.

Consequently, the management of the pousadas of Portugal was put out for bids and on Sept. 1, 2003, the winner was the Pestana Group, currently the largest Portuguese tourism and leisure organization. In business for 30 years, they also manage 33 hotels on three continents. Plans are under way to renew the network and expand the holdings, adding to the present sites through large-scale investments.

Two pousadas, Solar da Rede in Mesão Frio and Convento de Belmonte in Belmonte, are still privately owned and operated.

Choices

Pousadas are classified into four categories, each with a different character:

• Historic — encompassing 14 so-called “jewels” in the national heritage. An example of a historical pousada is Santa Marinha, a 12th-century convent in Guimarães that won the National Architectural Prize in 1985 after being rebuilt and restored. With gardens, fountains, cloisters, balconies and terraces, it is indeed a jewel.

• Historic Design — including four pousadas with additions and extensions that integrate the shape, colors and designs of the original buildings. The Flor da Rosa pousada in Crato was once a castle, a convent and a palace, each built in different periods. Today, it’s a hotel with modern amenities which incorporates the original styles.

• Nature — featuring 10 pousadas in places of special natural beauty. In Manteigas, on top of the Estrela mountain range, is the São Lourenco pousada, built of stone and with far-reaching views. Sports enthusiasts love it.

• Charm — 14 pousadas offering a carefully created warm atmosphere. The medieval town of Marvão, with narrow streets and village houses, encloses the Santa Maria pousada within its 13th-century walls.

What to expect

While we can’t speak for each and every pousada in Portugal, our experiences in many of them have been extremely favorable. Rooms were spacious with large baths, often of marble. Beds were comfortable, with good reading lights, and everything was as I would expect for a 5-star hotel. In the dining rooms, the managers had made an effort to offer regional selections of foods grown and preferred in the area.

Many Portuguese people take their holiday or weekend getaway at a pousada, much as we might at a resort or fine hotel here at home. Consequently, the menu selections there are familiar to them but often not to American visitors.

As is often true in other countries in Europe, fruits and vegetables are not big on their menus. Seafood is plentiful and very good, with cod dishes a specialty. Wines are locally produced, for the most part, with vinho verde (green wine) and port offered in the north and the heavier wines of the Alentejo region available farther south.

Cost

The pousadas of Portugal offer several rate enticements. One is the Golden Years program, which gives a 40% discount from Sunday to Thursday to visitors 60 and older. The special Three for Two benefit available at selected pousadas offers a third night for free. Another promotion gives a 50% discount if you choose the pousada selected for the month and stay two successive nights with half board.

As might be expected, rates without discounts vary considerably, generally ranging from €120 (about $151) to about €320 ($403), depending on the season and location. Rates are per room per night for two people, including breakfast and taxes.

Many of the pousadas are small, with only about 20 rooms, and require reservations many months ahead. Reservations can be made through a travel agent or directly at www.pousadas.pt (or phone +351 218 442 001). Pousadas can also be booked in the U.S. through Marketing Ahead, Inc. (New York, NY; phone 800/223-1356 or visit www. marketingahead.com).

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Arline Wills, Lynnfield, MA

It had been 20 years since our first visit to Portugal. When we returned in September ’04 we found that not a lot had changed, especially in the northern area. Women still carry baskets and bundles on their heads, men are seen leading donkeys laden with wood or market produce, and elderly widows are still all in black from head to toe. However, since becoming part of the European Union, Portugal has seen a great deal more road building than we found in 1974 and rivers are now navigable due to the dams and locks built for that purpose.

As we had previously, we sought out pousadas for overnight stays and were happy to note that the three chosen this time were just as satisfactory as those chosen on our first trip. We also found that more of them have been established throughout the country.

For those who are not familiar with the pousadas of Portugal, they comprise a group of 42 hotels, formerly managed by the Portuguese government, that have been renovated from former convents, monasteries, castles, palaces and mansions. Spain has done the same; they’re called paradores there.

A little background

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal was the world’s third-largest colonial empire. Explorers such as Prince Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama and Magellan sailed the world, bringing back treasures to fill the royal coffers. Provinces abroad, like Angola, Macao, Mozambique and the Cape Verde Islands, contributed to the country’s wealth. Merchants and traders built extravagant mansions, and religious orders built churches, abbeys and monasteries.

As Portugal’s fortunes declined, so did these handsome buildings. Some were left abandoned, in many cases for decades, until being rescued by the government and made available to travelers, who were beginning to discover them. The interest aroused was due to their elaborate architecture, unique furnishings and historical heritage. Of no less attraction were the very reasonable rates, subsidized by the Office of Tourism.

The first such renovation took place in Arraiolos, a city well known for its carpets. There, a 16th-century convent became the historical Pousada of Nossa Senhora da Assunção.

Changing hands

Over the years, as many more buildings were renovated — furnished with antiques and tapestries and equipped with baths and restaurants — the Portuguese government found their maintenance a costly burden. When higher rates could not take up the slack, a significant change was demanded.

Consequently, the management of the pousadas of Portugal was put out for bids and on Sept. 1, 2003, the winner was the Pestana Group, currently the largest Portuguese tourism and leisure organization. In business for 30 years, they also manage 33 hotels on three continents. Plans are under way to renew the network and expand the holdings, adding to the present sites through large-scale investments.

Two pousadas, Solar da Rede in Mesão Frio and Convento de Belmonte in Belmonte, are still privately owned and operated.

Choices

Pousadas are classified into four categories, each with a different character:

• Historic — encompassing 14 so-called “jewels” in the national heritage. An example of a historical pousada is Santa Marinha, a 12th-century convent in Guimarães that won the National Architectural Prize in 1985 after being rebuilt and restored. With gardens, fountains, cloisters, balconies and terraces, it is indeed a jewel.

• Historic Design — including four pousadas with additions and extensions that integrate the shape, colors and designs of the original buildings. The Flor da Rosa pousada in Crato was once a castle, a convent and a palace, each built in different periods. Today, it’s a hotel with modern amenities which incorporates the original styles.

• Nature — featuring 10 pousadas in places of special natural beauty. In Manteigas, on top of the Estrela mountain range, is the São Lourenco pousada, built of stone and with far-reaching views. Sports enthusiasts love it.

• Charm — 14 pousadas offering a carefully created warm atmosphere. The medieval town of Marvão, with narrow streets and village houses, encloses the Santa Maria pousada within its 13th-century walls.

What to expect

While we can’t speak for each and every pousada in Portugal, our experiences in many of them have been extremely favorable. Rooms were spacious with large baths, often of marble. Beds were comfortable, with good reading lights, and everything was as I would expect for a 5-star hotel. In the dining rooms, the managers had made an effort to offer regional selections of foods grown and preferred in the area.

Many Portuguese people take their holiday or weekend getaway at a pousada, much as we might at a resort or fine hotel here at home. Consequently, the menu selections there are familiar to them but often not to American visitors.

As is often true in other countries in Europe, fruits and vegetables are not big on their menus. Seafood is plentiful and very good, with cod dishes a specialty. Wines are locally produced, for the most part, with vinho verde (green wine) and port offered in the north and the heavier wines of the Alentejo region available farther south.

Cost

The pousadas of Portugal offer several rate enticements. One is the Golden Years program, which gives a 40% discount from Sunday to Thursday to visitors 60 and older. The special Three for Two benefit available at selected pousadas offers a third night for free. Another promotion gives a 50% discount if you choose the pousada selected for the month and stay two successive nights with half board.

As might be expected, rates without discounts vary considerably, generally ranging from €120 (about $151) to about €320 ($403), depending on the season and location. Rates are per room per night for two people, including breakfast and taxes.

Many of the pousadas are small, with only about 20 rooms, and require reservations many months ahead. Reservations can be made through a travel agent or directly at www.pousadas.pt (or phone +351 218 442 001). Pousadas can also be booked in the U.S. through Marketing Ahead, Inc. (New York, NY; phone 800/223-1356 or visit www. marketingahead.com).