Monday, 29 July 2013

Weekend Life....Villa Extramuros, Alentejo, Portugal

Villa Extramuros, Arraiolos, Alentejo, Portugal, June 2013.

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!

Activities:

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 beaches.

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.

13 comments:

  1. This is the epitome of style and class. I really like the pictures especially the red door.

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  2. Such a wonderful post! I lived in Lisbon for 5 months but I never managed to make it to Alentejo, something that's on my to do list for sure. I actually just got back from a week in Lisbon and it won't be the last time I'm visiting. Just like you I'm head over heels in love with this beautiful country and I'm already thinking about my next visit. Thank you for this post and for reminding me of my beautiful second home, where I still have so much to explore!

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  3. I love Portugal, it's less touristic, more 'raw' and the people are friendly without being over-bearing.

    http://angeliquejennifer.blogspot.com

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  4. Incredible, you've captured it so well. I'm inspired :)

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  5. I grew up very near Alentejo, near enough that the blinding white summer light and the cries of the cicadas still live in my memory. This is a wonderful post. Sadly very often I see visitors enjoying Portugal more than the nationals do... I guess sometimes it takes a certain distance to truly experience things.

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  6. @Wilson Paul - I totally agree. Honestly when we walked in, it was like wow, wow, wow! It was just incredible (and all of the other guests that were there at the same time felt the same way). The innate sense of style that Francois and Jean-Christophe have is very evident in their interior design (Jean-Christophe is in the fashion industry...). But I should emphasise that it isn't one of those places where you feel you can't touch anything or relax property: it felt very homely and relaxed and for the duration of our stay, it felt like our (dream) home.

    @auxpaysdesmerveilles - Ooooo I would love to explored more of Lisbon (next time!). It is such a beautiful city - you are so fortunate to have lived there for 5 months! I think I need a week in the Alentejo to properly explore - to see Evora, to visit markets (Francois was telling me there are some great weekly food markets nearby), to spend some time in the little villages and see the cork trees etc. Argh! Too much to do.....too many places to visit.

    @Jennifer - I would agree with you that it definitely doesn't feel overly touristy (although admittedly I didn't visit during July and August where I am sure everywhere with sun goes a little crazy with tourists!) and the people are super friendly. Lots of smiles....very open and welcoming.

    @Kate - It was such a beautiful place Kate. Hard to take a terrible photo I think!

    @patuxxa - ahhh the sound of cicadas always signals summer in Australia for me! I know how powerful that sound can be and how many memories it can bring back. I think that very often you appreciate what you have more when you have been away from it....or if you are a visitor. You grew up in a very beautiful country....

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  7. Beautiful Post!
    I will bookmark it for my hopeful travels out there to Spain and Portugal

    Xo

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  8. What a wonderful post! I couldn’t be happier seeing this pictures of my country, represented (even if just a part of it) so well. I just wanted to thank you with all my nationalist proud crying out loud because we do have a wonderful, powerful country and sometimes we need to dig our heads outside this cloud of negativity that we’re in and remember that we have so much to offer. Please come back again, enjoy our amazing coast and take a deep breath as you enter Serra de Sintra and its amazing natural landscapes, discover the vineyards of the Douro Valley in Porto …oh so many places!
    Again thank you because you have the power to reach out the world through your photos and words and let them know that we may be a small country but every part of it has an undiscovered and captivating beauty.

    Catarina Lopes, 24 years old. Student from Portugal.

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  9. Good on you for getting up with the sparrows...love those shots of sheep and gentleman! The cat is just like mine, but mine's fatter and her ears stand up :) That door shot with all those gorgeous tiles..beautiful & Love the modern villa xx D

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  10. @Catarina - You live in a beautiful country, Catarina. I really was blown away by the friendliness of the Portuguese and how gorgeous the countryside and beaches are. I think it is telling that both boutique hotels we stayed at, Fazenda Nova and Villa Extramurous, are owned by people from other countries who fell in love with Portugal and wanted to create a life there......and share it with others. I think the Douro Valley is on the agenda for next year :)) Thanks again Catarina for your lovely comment......I am excited to travel more in Portugal in the future.

    @Debra - ha ha! Yes, I think it was about 6:30, 6:45am that I took the first photographs of Alfredo (Francois let me know his name!) and then I went back down later as well. Weirdly the weather was very cloudy, misty that morning but for literally a couple of minutes the sun came out and I was able to take his portrait. Then, the sun was gone again! Ooooo your cat sounds gorgeous! Is she a Scottish Fold cat? I googled cats with no ears and came up with that breed :)

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  11. thanks to you
    i'm in love of Portugal
    ahhh the colors, the view, the way of life
    thans vanessa.
    un beso desde lima peru
    cecilia

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  12. Alfredo, nice to know his name. My cat is a British Shorthair with loads of attitude, they have gorgeous gold eyes and lovely blue/grey coat. I looked up Scottish Fold cats, they look so cute & hysterical with their little ears folded. xx

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