I never expected to fall in love with
Portugal . . . . but I did. I think for many Australians dreaming of a European
jaunt, thoughts of long lazy summer days in France or Italy spring to mind.
Portugal remains less obvious, a little more under the radar. And it is all the
more magical for it.
If Fazenda Nova Country House seduced me, staying
at Villa Extramuros in the Alentejo region of Portugal, truly cemented my love
of Portugal. Nestled in 12 acres of olive and oak trees, Villa Extramuros is a
visual (and architectural) masterpiece. Driving from the pretty hilltop village
of Arraiolos, we get slightly lost (my legendary navigational skills at work)
but spy Villa Extramuros in the distance: a magnificent contemporary
white-washed structure – all bold, clean lines and angles - which contrasts
beautifully with the golden landscape and brilliant azure skies. Bearings
restored, we are soon driving along the curving gravel driveway to the Villa. Up close, Villa Extramuros is even more
impressive – the juxtaposition of modernist design against rural backdrop is
simply breathtaking. Greeted
warmly by Parisian owner and host Francois, our jaws drop a little further as
he guides us inside. The interiors of Villa Extramuros are something special –
so sublime that I was (selfishly) reluctant to write this article for fear that
we might never be able to secure another booking*!
Wandering from room to room, the interiors
are a visual smorgasbord (and a photographer’s dream) with seamless integration
of French antiques, reflecting Francois and his partner Jean-Christophe’s heritage,
with quirky contemporary and retro objet
d'art. Later in our stay, after I have
had the chance to explore properly, I remark to Francois that Villa Extramuros
is almost like a private gallery where all of the beautiful (and often playful)
objects, books, photographs, vintage magazines and artwork that he and
Jean-Christophe have collected over the years, have a home. Francois laughingly
admits that their former home in Paris was rather cramped and it was difficult
to display their collection due to space constraints. No problem with space
here! The communal living rooms, which flow seamlessly around a central pebbled
courtyard, are generously sized, with high concrete ceilings and walls (perfect
for displaying two magnificent chandeliers and the mounted head of a bull, who
Francois assures me died a noble death in a bullfight) and cool, waxed concrete
floors. Enormous windows and sliding glass doors help to blur the line between inside
and outside, while letting in breeze and oodles of glorious natural light.
With only five guest suites at Villa Extramuros (on the upper level and reached by an external set of stairs in the
courtyard) and many areas in which to lounge both inside and out, this is not a
boutique hotel where you feel claustrophobic and need to go off-site to escape your
fellow guests. The clever design of the Villa, spacious guest suites and size
of the estate means that you can be as social or as private as you wish.In fact one couple we met (who were on
their second visit to Villa Extramuros – the first was during the winter
earlier this year), were planning to remain ensconced at the Villa for the
entire week of their holiday save for short excursions to the local village.
Our suite, no. 5, was fabulous: sleekly
furnished, light-filled and huge. Cork panels (which had a rather lovely woody aroma)
and silky white marble threaded with dramatic ribbons of grey – both sourced locally
in the Alentejo region – feature in the design of the suites. Ours featured a sumptuous marble
finished rain shower with views through a horizontal picture window to the castle-topped
village of Arraiolos, a super comfortable king sized bed with beautiful heavy
linen sheets, gorgeous-smelling Aesop toiletries (so happy that these wonderful
Australian products have reached Portugal. Francois knew I would be pleased to
see this little piece of Australia in the Alentejo!), separate dressing room,
private back patio plus an enormous front patio with 250º views of the village,
fields of olive trees and surrounding countryside. A huge wall around the patio,
seemingly suspended without visible support, dramatically frames the panoramic
view giving it an almost cinematic feel. As night falls, the sky turns to a mass
of stars and we stay up until well past midnight, sipping wine on the patio and
counting shooting stars.
As tempting as it is not to leave our
suite, the infinity pool (together with a smaller paddle pool for littlies) set
in a field of wheat-coloured grass, wild flowers and olive trees, awaits.Slipping into the glistening water in
the early evening, just as the sun is dipping behind the olive grove, our
breath is momentarily taken away by the chill of the water. A few hasty laps
and we are soon acclimatised, the heat of the day soothed away instantly. We
dry off on a giant marshmallow-like beanbag that sits at one end of the pool,
under the wary gaze of grazing rabbits, and marvel at the magical setting in
which Francois and Jean-Christophe have built their dream home…. so thankful
that they have made the (unselfish) decision to share it with others too.
Eat + Drink:
A lovely breakfast (included in the tariff)
is served in the courtyard under the shade of citrus trees between 8:30am and (a
very civilized) 11:00am. With the warm morning sun on our backs and Nina Simone
playing softly in the background, we are served freshly squeezed orange juice,
croissants, traditional Portuguese cake (orange-scented, custardy and very
yummy), a bowl of plump, deep red cherries, ham, creamy, delicately flavored
local sheep’s-milk cheese, toast with homemade preserves and local honey, and
of course, strong, hot coffee.
Francois and Jean-Christophe also offer the
option of an evening meal which the other guests told us was delicious. They
can also make suggestions of local restaurants for lunch and dinner.
Restaurante Herdade do Esporao at Esporao winery. We had a fabulous lunch here after an excellent wine and olive oil
tasting. The meal was the best we had in Portugal (and very well priced). To
start, traditional Alentejo bread with olives, a flight of olive oils and
housemade spreads, followed by the most unctuous, fall-apart Iberico pork
confit served with creamy potatoes (so, so good!). Apart from terrific wine and olive oil, the winery also sells
a lovely selection of local products which are nice to take home as gifts. I
was also “lucky” enough to see a (harmless) snake while wandering around the
vineyards after lunch. The wine I had consumed at lunch thankfully dampened my
alarm at this occurrence!
Restaurante Barraca De Pau, Evora. This was
our second best meal of the trip but the most authentic and rewarding experience.
After our aborted attempt at exploring Evora (see below), and ready to gnaw our
own arms off in hunger (or resort to a stop at McDonalds a local
takeaway joint), we drove past this place (basically a truck-stop!) and saw lots
of cars and a couple of trucks parked outside, as well as some
generously-bellied men heading inside. Sensing that this could be a local’s
lunch venue, we ventured in. The result was a wonderful meal of bread, olives
and hard sheep’s milk cheese, followed by rice, salad, fries and steak sautéed
in olive oil and herbs. Delicious. And definitely a local’s restaurant as
everyone else inside was Portuguese!
Explore the local village of Arraiolos with
its 13th century medieval fort; the UNESCO world-heritage listed city
of Evora is only a 25 minute drive from Villa Extramuros (we had difficulty
finding a park in Evora and then when we did eventually find one, we had no
coins for the parking meter and the card machine didn’t work! Argh! We will have to explore Evora on our
next visit instead); Lisbon is an hour drive away as are some beautiful
Francois and Jean-Christophe have a beautifully-edited
selection of gifts available for purchase at the Villa: Aesop products, local
cork bowls and boards, Villa Extramurous honey, and Portuguese wines and olive
oils (including a fabulous extra virgin olive oil from Esporao winery).
A note on the photographs:
There are waaay too many photographs in
this post (as always!)….. my apologies for that. I need a photo editor!
Francois and Jean-Christophe’s very sweet
cats are called Lulu and Toto and I spent an age chasing Lulu around trying to
take her photograph…..I may have said an unkind word or two about her funny
little ears in the heat of the photographic moment (apologies Miss Lulu!).
Meeting the gentleman (I didn't find out his name - oh dear) with the flock of
sheep was one of the highlights of my stay in Portugal. I always wake really
early when I am doing these articles in order to capture the early-morning light…..and
this particular morning I was rewarded with the sound of sheep bells in the
grounds of Villa Extramurous. Wriggling out of my pj’s and grabbing my camera,
I headed downstairs to explore. The gentleman was tending his flock as they
munched through the grass in the fields of the Villa (a few tried their luck
with the young foliage on some newly planted olive trees but were swiftly
discouraged!). I stood watching for a while (he probably thought I was quite
mad…. fascinated by his sheep) and then we started chatting (mainly by miming
as neither of us spoke the other’s language!). These are the moments I treasure
the most when I travel…….when I return to Villa Extramurous, I want to give him some prints of the photographs I made to thank him for his kindness.
Francois later told me that when he and Jean-Christophe purchased the property, the gentleman asked whether he could continue to graze his sheep on their land. Of course they readily agreed as it keeps the grass "mown" and well-fertilised and is also such a wonderful tradition which Francois and Jean-Christophe (and their guests!) love.
*Although given that Villa Extramuros is already
on the Conde Nast Traveler Hot
List and has been featured in numerous design and architectural magazines, I
fear the word is already very much out!
We were hosted by Villa Extramurous during our stay in the Alentejo region of Portugal.