Last night I dreamt I went to Barrocal again….
Portuguese Living: A weekend in São Lourenço do Barrocal
Last night I dreamt I went to Barrocal again….
Last night I dreamt I went to Barrocal again…
It’s only a two hour drive east of Lisbon to the Alentejo, but it feels like a different land, or better yet, a different time. We drive past the artisan market town of Évora, where an African World Music festival enlivens the cobbled squares throughout the summer, and keep going, almost to the Spanish border, where the freshwater Alqueva lake divides the two countries. Here, medieval fortress towns like Monsaraz perch high on hill-tops, walled cities of stone and white where once inhabitants battled the Moorish conquerors. Tucked in the valley below is where you’ll find the ‘monte’ as they call it here, a vast estate of 780 hectares brought back to life during a 14 year passion project that saw family ruins resurrected into one of Portugal’s leading 5 star hotels by founder and heir José António Uva. Testament to the project’s audacious slowness in the fast-paced world we live in, its lead architect Eduardo Souto de Moura won a Golden Lion in this year’s Venice Biennale.
Before you even set foot on the property, Barrocal is an experience – a sweeping dust driveway framed in sentinel olive trees, beyond which ancient corks stand chunky and proud amidst the golden throws of wheat where cows weave lazily. What strikes me most about Barrocal is the birds; joyous flights of swallows whose eternal song echo across the glistening cobblestones that divide the low-slung white-washed buildings as they dart and swoop through the holm-oak trees. It’s a sign of how sensitive and slow Barrocal’s transformation has been, that they weren’t uprooted when the simple farm-buildings were converted into rooms, restaurants, a cocktail bar and a stunning Susanne Kauffmann spa. Be it while taking a hydro-bath therapy in the wooden-barrelled hot tub or sipping wine under the vine leaves in the golden hour of midsummer twilight, their enthusiastic song suspends the place in timelessness. A soundtrack for peace.
We visit around the Summer Solstice and marvel that even at 9pm the blazing heat makes it feel like 6, snacking on home-spun olives flecked with orange and lemon as golden light spills across the land. Strolling down to the vineyards, dinner is served to long tables set into the kitchen garden. A jazz band plays. It’s the Monte’s summer celebration dinner – known as an arraial, which draws old friends of the Uva’s and guests to connect over garden-fresh organic grilled vegetables, barbecued sardines and sugared almond tarts. We stay up late under the curve of the new moon, laughing with an array of renowned architects and local oenologists as Barrocal’s wine flows long after the live jazz band have gone to bed. It’s a sign of times to come.
2 years after opening, Barrocal finds itself on the cusp of its next stage of evolution, thanks to the estate’s country retreats project that will see a section of the property divided into 25 plots, allowing others that chance to share in Barrocal’s lifestyle. “I have so many amazing memories growing up here,” José António shares, “I want to offer others the same opportunity.To create a community with shared values. My kids, they each have a horse here and their summers are spent full of adventures. It’s a place to make friends and memories, to slip back to the simplicity of the land”.
Although the chic heritage interiors of the hotel may be perfect fodder for a Monocle shoot, this is a family place and it’s couples with young babies that you find chatting around the bar come tea time, sharing homemade orange cake in an array of languages, somnambulant and sun-kissed.
Ever the pioneer, Uva’s approach to development is the opposite of the majority of developers these days – even the upmarket ones – where the focus is more on how many plots a piece of land can be divided into, rather than prioritising the relationship with what already exists instead. It’s this sensitivity combined with the expansiveness of space and the combination of rural seclusion that has succeeded in attracting an interesting cross-section of new residents, from American designers to leading Portuguese chefs. And countering the remote rural seclusion of this corner of the Alentejo? Access to one of the country’s leading hotels around the corner and a growing community of creatives who crave the sort of peace you rarely find on the coast.
‘It’s an exciting time, but also a scary time!” José António half-jokes over dinner, “to ensure we maintain the same sensitivity when we develop the land as we did with the hotel. Every evolution must be done with the same care.Now, there’s even more at stake”.
Read more: The Alentejo Experience – Owning Your Own Country Retreat