Words & Photographs by Angela Terrell
I’d never washed my feet in vodka before but, accepting that there’s a first time for everything, delighted in the refreshing encounter before lowering my toes into a vat of vermillion-hued fermenting grapes. Delightful, warm and effervescing, in time this would become a full-bodied Syrah - a product of the Alentejo’s unique soil and sunlight. Yet at this stage it remained ‘foot-stomped wine-in-the-making’ overseen by vintner Susana Esteban, whose creativity and care have seen many valuable additions enrich São Lourenço do Barrocal’s cellars.
Sitting amongst the Alentejo’s whitewashed villages, prehistoric menhirs and thousand year old olive trees, São Lourenço do Barrocal is a magnificent retreat whose evolution from destitution to five star luxury is fascinating. Once an expansive estate supporting more than 50 farming families, political upheaval in the 70s saw it fall into ruin, until José António Uva (a descendant of the original owner) undertook his 14 year, passion-fuelled restoration. The result is not only a singular, boutique hotel, but a resurrected piece of the Alentejo’s soul.
You wish these walls could talk. Previously weighed down by collapsed roofs (two years were spent sourcing reusable, second-hand roof tiles), they’re now bright, sun-warmed and ingeniously repurposed. What was once family accommodation is now the indulgent Susanne Kaufmann Spa, the chicken coop is a playroom, and shelter for animals has been transformed into the hotel’s restaurant.
I was staying in a Farm Room, a welcoming haven where relaxed elegance and rural simplicity meet. The interiors are spacious, the terracotta-tiled bathroom large enough for two to luxuriate (and clean grape-stained feet) and the bedroom area - a stylish mix of heritage patterns and colours - is cool-toned beauty. Velvet armchairs invite conversation or contemplation and the adjoining patio, overlooking a cloud-reflecting pool, is wonderful for appreciating the view of cascading pink bougainvillea and a sun-washed landscape.
Days at São Lourenço do Barrocal are magical and being busy as a Portuguese bee or unwinding in the adults’ pool (the children’s is a fantastic reimagining of antique irrigation tanks) are equally acceptable. The choices are plentiful. Browse the shop brimming with artisanal goodies, do Tai Chi, go horse-riding, sip wine on a winery tour (or lend a hand/foot at harvest time), admire historical treasures with archaeologist Manuel Calado or amble/cycle the Olive Trees and Birds Trails - avid cyclers can pedal the 180 kilometre long track around neighbouring Lake Alqueva.
If you do leave the hotel, it’s worth visiting Olaria Patalim in São Pedro do Corval for marvellous ceramics, and Mizette Nielsen’s shop full of colourfully woven rugs and blankets in the hilltop town of Monsaraz. Mourão, Beja and Serpa are equally stunning, as is getting lost in celestial splendour at Cumeada’s Dark Sky® Observatory.
Surrounded by land where herbs grow freely and grain is plentiful, São Lourenço do Barrocal commits to serving authentic farmhouse fare. From breakfast buffets enjoyed while listening to braying donkeys, to afternoon tea in the bar and picnics by the Roman lake where turtles are your only companions, everything is a mouth-watering feast of purity, flavour and colour. Al fresco dinner by the abundant vegetable garden that supplies Hortelão restaurant is especially outstanding, twinkling stars and fairy lights illuminating a delectable meal served with light and fruity 2017 Herdade do Barrocal rosé. Antiquity, tranquillity, well-being, indulgence and exemplary service - surely an Alentejo recipe worth protecting.
This story first appeared in our Portugal magazine, which you order by clicking here.