Shortly after I arrived at São Lourenço do Barrocal, a sprawling farm estate recently transformed into a five-star resort in a wild corner of Portugal’s Alentejo region, its owner, José António Uva, took me on a tour of the property. The unlikely hotelier, who looks more like a distinguished university professor, skipped the long, whitewashed farm buildings that house the rooms, and instead led me directly into the surrounding landscape.
Scattered with twisted cork trees – some stripped to the red flesh under their bark – and ancient olive groves, the earth was dusty and tattooed with narrow timeworn paths, in parts obscured by scrub. We could see the medieval fortified village of Monsaraz perched on a hilltop in the near distance; Uva explained that his family land went about 4km in that direction and another two or so in the other. “When I left my advertising job in London to come back here, about 15 years ago, I moved into a little shed near the garden and just read about the region and explored the property,” he said, and then smiled. “My family thought I was a little crazy.” Although the self-sufficient estate has been in his family for more than 200 years, it was unused, and many of the farm buildings were in disrepair. Uva was the only one who felt driven to bring it back to life. “It wasn’t just familial duty,” he explained. “I really felt it was important to share the Alentejo region with others: its history and nature and traditional ways and crafts.”
Long a patchwork of vast farm estates and 16th- and 17th-century villages, more recently the Alentejo – the name translates as “beyond the River Tagus” – was an impoverished backwater from which many Portuguese fled to look for work elsewhere. That mainstream industry passed the region by is now its greatest advantage. It remains beautifully intact, a diamond in the rough – one being faceted by many inspired, careful hands, rather than a single big machine.
“The Alentejo is in a very special sweet spot right now,” said Virginia Irurita, founder and co-owner of Made for Spain & Portugal, a luxury travel company based in Madrid, and one of the best-connected people in this part of the world. “It’s very rural, yet now there are a few beautifully upscale places to stay. It has everything: design, great wine, excellent food. It represents a new, 21st-century luxury: deep connection to the past, big spaces, authenticity and access. One day you can lunch with an aristocrat and the next you can speak with a shepherd.”
And so years before the current outpouring of profound contemporary nature writing characterised by works such as Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, Uva was having his own back-to-the-land experience in Portugal; its manifestation is glorious Barrocal. He convinced the Pritzker Prize-winning Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura to help him renovate the estate’s multiple whitewashed stone buildings in a way that honours their heritage but is still very contemporary; he brought onboard cult Austrian wellness guru Susanne Kaufmann to create the monastery-like spa; he invited experimental winemaker Susana Esteban to consult on the property’s Herdade do Barrocal wines; and he approached beloved Alentejan chef José Júlio Mendes Vintém to build up the resort’s expansive kitchen garden and create a menu inspired, in part, by his own culinary memories. (The rich, tangy partridge salad marinated in vinegar and olive oil harvested on the property – one of the best dishes I had in Portugal – was his grandmother’s recipe.)
“We are on the verge of losing all the traditions and knowledge of past generations,” London-based chef Nuno Mendes told me later. The talent behind the Chiltern Firehouse and Taberna do Mercado is a friend of Uva’s, and the two of them are discussing future collaborations in the Alentejo. “Projects like São Lourenço do Barrocal revive and continue our connection with the land and our traditions. This movement is giving us the strength to build a robust identity.”
The next morning Irurita had scheduled me a visit to the quinta Dona Maria, an extraordinary grand 18th-century estate acquired by King João V for his lover, and now a family-owned winery open by appointment for tastings. On one side of an expansive lawn was the whitewashed chapel and attached wing that serves as the owners’ home; on the other was the winery, its beautiful marble lagares, the vats for treading wine, still in use. Behind both is an entrance to a grand walled garden of pomegranate trees and organic vegetables with a towering marble statue of the god Neptune. Isabel Bastos, the dynamic wife of the quinta’s winemaker and heir, Julio Bastos, showed me the intimate chapel and the front rooms of the family’s private manor home. The walls here can speak… sort of – they are all lined with pristine, elaborately blue and white azulejo tiles depicting the most fantastically beautiful historical narratives.
In the early 1990s, Bastos told me, the Lafite Rothschild group had approached her husband to collaborate in a winemaking venture called Quinta do Carmo. While it was a great success, from the beginning it irked her husband that the company replaced some of the Portuguese grapes with French varieties. “The first thing my husband did after he sold his half of the shares to Rothschild was start his own winery and plant old vines of Alicante Bouschet grapes,” says Bastos. Now, almost 15 years after the first harvest, Dona Maria is one of the most respected and accoladed wineries in the country.
For lunch I stopped in the charming town of Estremoz, at Mercearia Gadanha, a cosy traiteur overseen by the young female Brazilian chef Michele Marques. Sitting in the sun, looking out at the town’s charming whitewashed architecture, I was served one of the most delicious gazpachos I’ve ever had: tomatoes, strawberries, and a zingy slush of basil, studded with fresh prawns. You could taste the fun Marques was having in her kitchen, the modern ideas shaping the local bounty. “People here in the Alentejo are finally doing what they want to do, not what they think they should do,” she told me.
At Casa no Tempo, this assertion is clear in bricks and mortar. The 5km road to it bumps along through cork groves, by the occasional small pond, and finally up a little hill to a severely minimalist, all‑white building. Inside are four bedrooms, all elementally appealing: floors of handmade brick, occasionally covered with sisal rugs; walls unadorned and painted white. Large windows in just the right places serve as artworks, framing nature – a grouping of old olive trees here, a seamless swimming pool surrounded by wild grasses there.
Casa no Tempo’s renovation was overseen by architect Manuel Aires Mateus in collaboration with its owners João and Andreia Rodrigues. I had met with Rodrigues previously at his other hotel, the exquisite Santa Clara 1728 in Lisbon, where he explained that he’s working on plans to add an unusual series of indoor‑outdoor structures to Casa no Tempo that will act as a dramatic platform for a variety of local crafts and farm activities, among them cheese‑making and olive milling. “Many people involved in tourism will go on a world tour and see a lot of beautiful projects, then bring all those ideas together in one place,” said Rodrigues. “I want to travel to the past instead, and try to understand how people lived, then bring back the memories of the crafts, the buildings and the history.”
But remarkable contemporary moments find their way into this immutable landscape too. In the Unesco World Heritage site of Evora, one of Irurita’s excellent guides introduced me to a female contemporary art curator from Lisbon who was installing an exhibit in the recently renovated Inquisition Palace building, not far from the ancient Roman Temple of Diana, that was as dynamic and thought-provoking as any I’d have found in London. That afternoon I came upon more progressive art, as well as some excellent modern Alentejan tapas and wine, at Quinta do Quetzal, a contemporary winery and art centre outside the town of Vidigueira, created by Dutch art collectors Cees and Inge de Bruin. After days of immersion in a deeply remote, bucolic setting, there was a certain exhilaration about coming across such resolutely modern buildings and provocative art.
That said, by the time I reached Comporta, the now legendary beach destination sometimes dubbed (unimaginatively) the Hamptons of Portugal, I was primed for a bit of glamour. Sublime is its best, and only true luxury, hotel, comprised of multiple bedroom suites in connected modern houses made of wood and glass, spread across 17 acres of fragrant natural landscape of local pine trees growing out of sand. The main lobby and restaurant is built to resemble a traditional rice storage warehouse; despite it being late October, I found it buzzing with stylish young French and Portuguese families down for the weekend. (While Comporta is seasonal, Sublime is open all year round, and is often booked out over Christmas and new year.)
In the tradition of many quietly emerged jet-set destinations, Comporta was – still is, mostly – situated in an area of fishing villages, with a connection to a wealthy family (in this case, the now fallen Espírito Santo clan). But even today, as you drive along the main road, there is little that hints at the abundance of privilege here. It’s only when you are invited into people’s homes or stroll the endless, often empty beaches that its exclusivity, both in terms of its habitués and its natural beauty, becomes clear.
My days were a whirlwind of engaging social appointments that included an espresso with the charming founder of PAD art fair, Patrick Perrin, who has recently bought a large property in Comporta and spends as much time as he can here. “We don’t want noise, cars, a St Tropez lifestyle. We consider the ultimate luxury to be quiet, with family and friends,” he said. Manrico Iachia, who with his late wife Vera was one of the pioneers of the area, gave me a tour of his magical estate, one of a very few allowed prime ocean proximity. The lovely winemaker and heiress Noemi Marone Cinzano hosted me for lunch at her vibrantly eclectic villa in Melides, the area’s most charming village, about 20 minutes south of Comporta. With her good friend and neighbour Christian Louboutin, she has taken over shops in the historic centre of Melides, opening much-needed boutiques, and occasionally she rents out the pair of small, two-bedroom cottages on her estate that overlook rice fields; they are vastly simplified but still charming expressions of the faultless style much on display in her own home.
After a brisk invigorating dip and a bit of crowd-watching (which included sightings of Philippe Starck and French fashion designer Christophe Sauvat; there were only about three dozen people on the beach this late in October, but about half of them appeared to be French celebrities), I headed to Sal, Comporta’s iconic beach restaurant, for a bowl of memorable fish soup loaded with garlic and saffron. One of the owners, Vasco Hipólito, regaled me with stories of the 20 or so years he has spent here. “This place is magic,” he said. “There’s no golf course; one hotel. Even at the height of summer if you just walk 30m, you’re alone.”
While I knew more hotels were imminent – I’d passed the construction site of a property co-designed by Jacques Grange earlier that day – I acknowledged that Comporta still passes, just, for a lovely secret. And I was comforted recalling that farther back in the Alentejan hinterland, it feels as if time itself has paused to appreciate the surroundings.