Venetia van Kuffeler learns the fascinating family story that lies behind the creation of one of Portugal’s most exciting new hotels
After an early start, we arrived at São Lourenço do Barrocal, the recently restored nineteenth century homestead in the heart of Portugal’s unspoilt Alentejo region on a miserable January day. The sky was grey and threatening the worst. Still, the sight of this historical farmhouse hotel was enough to cheer the weariest of souls.
At the end of a long drive flanked by ancient olive and cork trees, the property stands blissfully silent, aside from the amazing chatter of birdsong and the clatter of storks. This 780-hectare estate has remained within the same family for over 200 years but fell into disrepair following the forced collectivisation of farms in the region in the 1970s. After reclaiming the property, the family discovered squatters were living there, that farming had ceased and even the roofs had fallen in. Having spent much of his childhood at Barrocal, eighth generation owner José António Uva was determined to bring the community back to life, while respecting its unique ecology and ancient history. Working with a passionate team of architects, designers and archaeologists, he spent the past 14 years painstakingly restoring the estate and transforming it into a 40-room hotel, set amidst ancient olive groves and vineyards.
Understated yet unmistakeably luxurious, the spacious guest rooms and cottages (originally cowsheds) are housed within the farm buildings along a central cobbled street. Sensitively restored, the owner had someone collecting original roof tiles for the project for two years. Found in the original chicken coop, the farm shop stocks a collection of stylish local homeware and lifestyle brands alongside wines and olive oils produced on the property. The olive mill has been transformed into an events space. Interiors are decorated with traditional terracotta brick floors and whitewashed walls, with soaring vaulted ceilings, handcrafted Portuguese wool throws, and walls adorned with family photos and pages from books found on the estate. Supremely comfortable, it felt like we were staying at the home of a friend.
Housed within the original dog kennels, the beautiful farm-to-table restaurant reflects the rhythm of the changing seasons. Organic produce is sourced from trusted local suppliers – including locally-farmed acorn-fed black pig, fresh goat’s cheese and traditional Alentejo breads – and a vast array of vegetables, fruit and olive oil sourced from the estate’s own organic garden. Breakfast rolled into lunch and dinner, and we would have happily eaten there for days. Staff are local, efficient and friendly, and there was even a former bullfighter working in the restaurant. The thriving winery is at the heart of the estate’s regeneration, and 15 hectares of vineyards produce first-class single-estate wines under the regional Denominação de Origem Controlada, or DOC. Guests can enjoy tours of the winery to learn about the process and discover its oak barrel-lined room, which produces up to 30,000 bottles per year.
The exquisite Susanne Kaufmann Spa offers indulgent results-driven treatments, tailored to the needs of the individual, using her line of all natural, organic products. My aromatic oil massage tackled the knots around my shoulders and neck, leaving me blissfully relaxed but energised for the day ahead.
And if wine and spa are not your thing, there are so many other things to do. Located in the Alqueva Dark Sky Reserve, São Lourenço do Barrocal is the world’s first dedicated Starlight Tourism Destination. Bicycles are available to explore the many trails and local villages, or perhaps spot the 75 species of birds living on the estate. As well as a 20-metre outdoor pool, Barrocal has its own stables. Nearby there are boat trips on Alqueva Lake, or the picturesque medieval hilltop town of Monsaraz to visit. Guests can enjoy picnics in the shadow of a gnarled, millennia-old olive tree, or a guided walk of the historic barrocais (boulders) and pre-historic monuments scattered about the estate with renowned Alentejo archaeologist, Manuel Calado. The region’s fascinating megalithic heritage includes the largest menhir — megalithic ceremonial standing stone — on the Iberian Peninsula.
Only original buildings have been used to create the São Lourenço do Barrocal of today. The grounds are natural and un-manicured. And the results are majestic. Chic, understated and down to earth, I hadn’t enjoyed staying somewhere this much in years.
Just an hour and a half from Lisbon, we combined our trip with 24 hours in the Portuguese capital. The fourth cheapest place to visit in Europe; the city houses eight Michelin-starred restaurants, the space-aged Museum of Art and Technology (MAAT) and endless chic boutiques. Furthermore, Lisbon enjoys more sun than anywhere else in Europe.
São Lourenço do Barrocal T: +351 266 247 140