São Lourenço do Barrocal - Farmscape Hotel and Retreat
There is something about São Lourenço do Barrocal; something extraordinary that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced in Portugal before. Or anywhere else for that matter. And I am beyond excited to share it with you. But please note, this is a serious act of generosity. This the kind of place that you feel disproportionately proud to have discovered and therefore rather reluctant to disclose your clever secret in fear of the masses descending and ruining everything.
Anyhow. Here goes… You can thank me in cheese orders.
It all started one grey, mizzly Sunday in February. My flat-mate, Jess, and I were on our third round of Allpress in our favourite café on Portobello, lamenting the dreariness of the English winter that stretched out before us (cue tiny violins). The only solution was to plan a summer holiday and we decided on Portugal’s super-chic and still relatively-undiscovered beach spot, Comporta, at the northern tip of the Alentejo coast. In the words of Condé Nast, this is where the 'artists, A-listers and surfers come for beach-shack revelry’. Sold.
Immediately following our coffee binge came an intense period of research into suitably spoiling places to stay. One of the links that Jess sent me was to Barrocal. Not knowing that Alentejo is a huge region and mostly inland, she hadn’t realised that the location was as far from costal as possible. Schmooshed right up against the Spanish border in one of the hottest parts of Europe, I immediately dismissed it. But a few weeks later I came across the email again in my inbox and started looking at the website… and I was hooked.
I could immediately see that this was more than a luxe hotel in a beautiful setting. For the first time, I was looking at the perfect reflection of the Portugal I know and love; a country of simple elegance, raw beauty, rich heritage and wholesome passion.
The Alentejo is one of my favourite regions of Portugal but remains relatively unknown, certainly compared to the well-trodden tourist paths of the Algarve and Douro. Perhaps this is part of the attraction. But for me, the rolling arable landscape punctuated with sculptural cork oaks, olive groves, vineyards and white-washed hilltop villages is just mesmerising and so peaceful.
Cork oak groves, hill-top villages and vineyards that dominate the Alentejo landscape
It also helps that the food is to die for. Traditionally a poor farming region, the style of cuisine is rustic – peasant food really. But my goodness, the flavours are some of the richest I’ve ever tasted.
Just beyond Reguengos de Monsaraz (possibly the most picturesque of the aforementioned hill-top villages) is São Lourenço do Barrocal.
Reguengos de Monsaraz overlooking the Alqueva Lake and the Barrocal estate
This 19th century monte Alentejano ran as a self-sufficient farming village for over 200 years. The land was originally purchased from the royal family and developed into one of the largest privately owned estates in the country. Complete with a school, chapel, bakery and even a bullring, a bustling community of over 50 families thrived here. Surrounded by 700 hectares of cereal fields, olive groves, vineyards and vegetable gardens it is easy to see why. But after the revolution of 1974 this rural idyll, along with many others, started to go into decline. Whilst the community dispersed, the estate has thankfully remained in the hands of the original owners and it is José António Uva – the 8th generation of that family – who has set about restoring the home he loves so much, giving it an entirely new lease of life.
José António Uva - Renaissance Man
"... an intelligent development required extreme sensitivity to the land. This meant the restoration of the nineteenth- century farm with the quiet presence of residential architecture and the avoidance of anything that might detract from the natural and agricultural environment that has existed here for generations. We embrace the idea of enabling the comforts of modern country living in Barrocal, while keeping the natural setting intact" José António Uva
José told me that it took him 15 years to complete his vision. In 2002 he moved into what used to be the vegetable gardener’s house and lived among derelict buildings, barn owls and big open fields, dedicating himself to the renaissance of his family home. And what a renaissance it is – jaw-droppingly stylish yet entirely authentic. There’s an art to pulling that off.
I arrived for my stay in early April and realised that I had unintentionally managed to pick the best time of year to visit. It's the beginning of the 'natural year' and spring showers have brought the land back to life in abundance; bursting with colour and awash with carpets of wild flowers. Storks and swallows had made their return from Africa and were busy building their nests – the storks precariously balanced on tree tops and swallows darting in and out of buildings singing their sweet little song the whole day through.
Pulling up to the entrance you are immediately confronted with two enormous stones, inscribed with BARROCAL. This is the Portuguese name for the ancient monoliths that have dominated the landscape for thousands of years and are recognised as a natural icon of the region.
The ancient monoliths - barrocais - of Alentejo welcome you to São Lourenço do Barrocal
I made my way down the olive tree lined drive and reached reception where I was greeted with the warmest of Portuguese welcomes. The staff, immaculately dressed in crisp white shirts, chinos and cosy bottle-green cardigans (because apparently 27 degrees is cosy-cardigan weather in Alentejo) won me over immediately, referring to me as Miss Charlotte. Adorable.
I was escorted through the estate to my room, which turned out to be one of the old farm worker’s cottages. Mine was at the end of the row and opened right up onto an expanse of olive groves and old cereal barns, like a row of tin-man soldiers standing to attention.
Early morning magic - cereal barns, mist rising in the valley and the view of Reguengos de Monsaraz from my bedroom, its dramatic silhouette outlined by the morning sun
Understated luxury at its finest, the design has remained true to the original style of the buildings but with added personal touches which give you that feeling of 'home from home’. Hand-woven blankets made by local craftsmen add a touch of colour to the crisp white bed linen, freshly squeezed orange juice from the citrus orchards arrives each morning and organic botanical treats from their Susanne Kaufmann spa make the bathroom a haven for indulgence.
Modern luxury and comfort embraces original purpose and design
Once I had got over the initial excitement of my new home – welcome cake devoured, bubble bath soaked in, fluffy bath robe and slippers broken in and bed bounced on (true) – it was time for a drink. So I made my way to the bar for a little aperitif where the cocktail list is as sexy as the Rosewood’s Scarfes Bar – not what I expected in the middle of Portuguese farming country.
The achingly stylish bar and lounge. Let me recommend... um... all the cocktails?!
I did, however, already have great expectations for the restaurant having poured over this particular part of the website back in London. And I was not disappointed. A farm-to-table concept on an estate like this had to mean exceptional produce and when it comes with a promise of ‘authentic local cuisine infused with Alentejo flavours and subtle contemporary twists’, things become very exciting for me.
The meal started, as one might expect, with freshly baked bread, estate olives and olive oil. Galega olives are the prominent variety here – a small, firm textured fruit with intense flavour and dressed in orange and herbs, they really are exquisite. An amuse-bouche of partridge escabeche – a very traditional Portuguese technique, similar to pickling - was beautifully tasty, unsurprisingly so, as we are in the heart of game country at Barrocal. This was followed by wild boar with roasted fennel and pomegranate, served with a sweet and smooth chestnut puree and seasonal vegetables from the kitchen garden.
The Farm-to-Table Restaurant - design and culinary heaven
And then the pudding… OH the pudding…. We all know by now that Portuguese sweets are manna from heaven, but this was something else. An olive oil and honey ‘pudim’ (akin to a very, very dense crème caramel) served with a basil sorbet and a cacao and nut brittle, crushed almost to a dust. All washed down, of course, with the Barrocal estate wine – a rich, smoky red that I could actually just bathe in. More on that to follow (the wine, not my bathing habits).
Walking out of the restaurant and into the quiet of the night, I looked up to see the most beautiful velvety sky, scattered with a million stars. This place just keeps giving and giving.
There are plenty of activities to keep you busy at Barrocal - if busyness is what you desire; horse riding, hot air ballooning, water sports on Alqueva Lake or even some retail therapy in their beautifully curated farm shop. But one of the highlights for me was a simple, four-hour walk around the estate. I set out at midday and the charming staff, rather than telling me I was mad, supplied me with a straw hat, beautifully hand-illustrated map and bottles of water. I meandered through landscape that changed dramatically at every turn - from olive groves alive with wild flowers and honey bees to open fields of cork oaks designed, it seemed, for picnicking to perfection. Stumbling upon a small, glassy lake I took some shade under an oak tree and watched turtles dive off rocks into the water, herons gliding in and wild horses enjoying the lush pastures. Eden, I feel, cannot have been too different.
Enjoying a shady spot in Alentejo's 'Garden of Eden'
And then of course, there's the wine tasting tour, which was obviously a must. Although by the time I got around to it I had already tasted most of the collection in the restaurant... but I thought it would be good to learn a little something whilst I was there too. My guide, Joana, was a brilliant teacher, sharing the story of the wine of her homeland with pride and passion. Wine making is a very important part of Barrocal's history and the adega is home to a lovely collection of old-fashioned equipment, including a grape-stomping vat where guests can roll up their trousers and make themselves useful during vindima season. They have succeeded in growing a combination of indigenous grapes alongside other varieties such as Syrah and Viognier. With the help of esteemed wine-maker, Susanna Esteban, they have created a very fine collection indeed. The combination of the granite and schist soils, a careful blending of grapes and maturation in French oak casks results in structured elegant wines, both red and white. They are currently working on a sparkling rose, which wasn’t quite ready to taste when I was there, but a very good excuse to return next year. Just to make sure they're keeping up the good work, of course...
A tour of the adega followed by wine tasting in the farm shop with estate olives, olive oil and local fresh cheese. If it grows together, it sure as eggs goes together
After three days of eating, drinking and sleeping gloriously, breathing the freshest of air in the midst of the most beautiful nature I was well and truly restored. But more than that, I had fallen in love (again) with the country that I can proudly call home.
Barrocal, I cannot wait to come back. I just hope that all the people I have shared this secret with will have the decency to stay at home when I do...