Pousadas of Portugal

Posted by on April 28, 2004
Travel & Leisure’s 2003 cover story on the Pousada of Don Afonso, at a town called Alcacer do Sal south of Lisbon, left a lot to be desired. It was called “edgy” in the article, whatever that means, and was given a scant paragraph. The story did not give anything like a real feel for this former castle/convent overlooking the Sado River in a historic town.If you like the idea of going to Portugal, and you should, you’ll be making a big mistake if you don’t spend your first night at this charming place. Portugal, now in the common market, may soon become just like very other place in Europe. One of the nice things about being in the EU is that some money has been spent to make Portugal’s highways much better, and access to and from Lisbon easier. This pousada is just under two hours from Lisbon airport, and is part of a connected national system. This group of (mostly) restored castles, palaces, convents and monasteries was organized by the Portuguese government many years ago.

All of the pousadas, like the paradores of Spain, have a high level of comfort and quality. The Don Afonso has contemporary decor, featuring natural materials and colors, and is furnished with antiques combined with local handcrafts. Within the old convent walls is a very contemporary hotel, as is often the case with the newer pousadas.

Let me give you examples from our recent experience. We arrived in Lisbon early one morning in January. (You know the drill: jet-lagged, sleepless, new language, find the car rental and the ATM, nothing to it.) We drove in zombie fashion through city traffic, found the vast new Vasco da Gama Bridge over the Tejo River, and headed for Setubal to the pousada I remembered driving by in 1984. We got lost getting there using Portuguese directions (“right over there”.) Once on the trail, it was easy to drive up the enormously long and beautiful drive to the pousada. Only it was the wrong one. I had remembered incorrectly. They could not have been nicer when I suggested we would rather go further down toward the south, to the new pousada at Alcacer do Sal. They telephoned for us, got us a very nice room, and off we went.

This time I’d made the correct choice. We were not staying at the original choice (in Palmela) but in a completely new place, at least to us.

We arrived and were immediately greeted by Pedro at the desk, who seemed always to be available for any need. We were taken up to a room with a great view of the river Sado, very nice modern decor, a very good bathroom, with a good showerhead, welcome and rare. We also had two easy chairs with an ottoman to share.

The whole atmosphere here was exactly what every visitor to Europe longs for upon arrival: cosseting, comfortable bed, warm fire in winter, AC in summer, warm, friendly people, not much lugging of anything until you revive from the journey.We enjoyed it heartily.  In fact, I had to recommend it to friend who were arriving one week later, aso I immediately emailed then with Pedro’s help to be SURE they came here.

The two other young personnel, Michael and Luis, were also very enthusiastic in their desire to make us very comfortable here. They quickly managed to get our luggage upstairs in the tiny elevator, and they made sure we got to see the former chapel, with its blue Portuguese tile walls. They were also proud to show us the grounds, including a modern pool, planted around with lavender, mint and rosemary, under flowering almond trees and cypresses.

The town was new to us, though we’ve been in Portugal twice before. From up at the pousada, we could see several inviting routes through town streets down to the river. In fact, there was a new footbridge crossing the river. This place was settled by the Phoenicians, and then resettled by the Romans. The Berbers came, and then Crusaders in 1217, then eventually the Portuguese, and now, here we were, with all this history waiting for our discovery.

We were given information about the area, and several day trips we could have taken from the town. We left wishing we had time to stay for a couple of more days to take advantage of all that beckoned.

We had occasion to stay in two more pousadas as we re-entered Portugal from Spain two weeks later. We drove from Seville to Lisbon through Beja, a provincial town near the Spanish border. Here the pousada was right in the historical center of town, in a 13th century Franciscan convent, with parking. Our room in Beja was well decorated. Despite rain and fog outside, we felt cozy and comfortable. White walls complemented the brick tile floor with red trim around the door and window frames, and yellow and cream bedspreads, soft chairs and a table in the shuttered window alcove. The dining room was charming, and we had an interesting garlic infused meal, which was easily digested with the Planalto wine of the region. At our breakfast of toasted sourdough bread, and tiny croissants, following banana yogurt and fresh orange slices, we met an English couple that has just bought a house in the Algarve in Lagos, one of our favorite towns on the sea. That lucky couple can come to Portugal all the time!

The next evening with the help of the pousada staff, we reserved at the well-positioned pousada at Queluz, very close to Lisbon. This is a real gem: a fairly new pousada at the famous pink palace at Queluz. The pousada is in the building  formerly used by the Royal Guard of the Court. This is a very chic place, and a great location if you want to visit the Sintra and/or Cascais areas west of the city. We were also just across the street from the exquisite restaurant known as the Cozinha Velha. (The old kitchen.)

Twenty years ago I had a marvelous sole dish, baked in cream with onion, at the Cozinha Velha. Memories of it caused me to ask about it at dinner that evening. Sure enough, it is still on the menu, as Linguado Suado. It took all the charm I could muster and my few Portuguese words to get two waiters and the Maitre d’ to persuade the chef to part with the recipe. I now have it written out in Portuguese, with the Headwaiter’s English translation written by me in the hen scratching which inevitably follows two glasses of wine.

Every pousada at which we have stayed has had its singular charm, coupled with a very dependable class of service, in historical and culturally significant areas. I wish every country had such a system, and I look forward to adding to the eight pousadas we have already experienced.

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