Most visitors to Portugal head for the southern Algarve coast to indulge in hedonism, jostling with crowds on sunny beaches and in festive town squares.
But there is another side to Portugal that transports you to a higher plane by offering a peaceful, almost spiritual, experience that leaves you at rest with yourself and the world. I am referring to an innovative system of hotels called pousadas that have been carefully designed to combine history, tradition, and luxury. They are well worth a visit for there is nothing comparable in North America.
My wife and I caught our first glimpse of the Pousada at Arraiolos as we crested a rise and looked down into a green valley dotted with sheep whose bells tinkled in the warm air as they wandered amongst olive and cork trees. Nestled in the bottom amongst small orchards of orange trees and grape vines, its white-washed walls gleaming in the sunlight, was the monastery de Nossa Senhora da Assuncao. As we descended the narrow lane we caught tantalizing views of a tall church belltower, courtyards, and immaculate gardens.
Entering the pousada was like taking a giant step back in time for the monastery was originally built in 1527. The thick stone walls retained coolness, the corridors and portals were elegantly arched, and the chanting of monks echoed hauntingly through the cloisters. As we explored we discovered the pousada is built around two courtyards, but with the most enchanting madcap asymmetry, for many additions have been made over the centuries, almost as afterthoughts. Modern rectilinear geometry is at a minimum. Instead there are vaulted ceilings, alcoves, pillars, abutments and strangely-angled walls and corners.
It was like living in a museum for every nook contained a painting or some relic retained from the original monastery: a carved figure of the Madonna, a group of earthen jugs, a piece of 17th century carpet, or a candle as thick as your arm on a four-foot-high ornate holder. It was delightful to sit in one of these alcoves and quietly reflect, surrounded by history and soothed by the timeless chanting that emanated from the dark, cool recesses.
Our room, in contrast to the rest of the pousada, was elegant and modern with a balcony and floor-to-ceiling picture window looking out over the swimming pool and grounds. Behind this the valley was laid out like a beautiful green tapestry. High on the northern side we could see the white-washed houses and red terracotta roofs of the town of Arraiolos surrounding the dark crenellated walls of a castle, which guarded this peaceful scene.
The focal point of the pousada is its church with a soaring ceiling, ornate nave, and simple wooden benches on which people have worshipped for almost 500 years. The walls are dominated by wonderful murals done in the blue tiles that are a characteristic of Portugal.
My favorite place to sit and meditate was in the cloisters, with its graceful multi-arched corridors and rotund unglazed jugs standing like sentinels of the past. Pillars form part of the arched doorways that lead into the courtyard. The garden is formed of hedges and four trees placed symmetrically around a central fountain, all surrounded by high stone walls with gargoyles to direct rain water. To one side stood a small lemon tree, so laden with heavy yellow fruit that it leaned against a sturdy wall for support.
Outside, the monastery was surrounded by freshly plowed fields, orchards and vineyards through which footpaths lead to little oases of meditation. We sat in quiet reflection at a shrine and fountain set in the shade of a trellis awash with the fragrance of purple wisteria. Then we wandered higher up the valley and sat alone with our thoughts on an ancient stone seat looking down at the white monastery.
Later, Domingos Lameiras, the manager, explained that pousadas were initiated in the 1940s to boost tourism in Portugal. There are now 46 pousadas scattered throughout the country, each restored to luxury standards and preserving the history and culture of their region. Personal service is a cornerstone he noted with pride. "Because we only have 32 rooms, by the second day of their stay, my staff and I know all the guests by name."
We experienced that personal touch firsthand over a dinner of regional specialities of pork loin in paprika sauce, dogfish in a coriander sauce, and a delicate local white wine. The food was succulent and the service impeccable. Our meal was accompanied by the sadly haunting sound of the fado, sung by a tall gentleman who, along with two seated musicians, formed a dramatic tableau in front of a large painting of the Last Supper.
Next day, as we drove up the valley side we were at peace, mentally and spiritually rejuvenated, ready for the hustle and bustle of Lisbon and the Estoril coast.
Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's
Parliament Past & Present. His work is often featured in Osprey and CANWEST papers.
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