Convento do Espinheiro Portugal – A Luxurious Lesson in History:
On my last trip to Portugal I fell in love. I have to admit I have had something of a flirtation for a while now with this Country where my old passions seem to be seamlessly accommodated and new passions aroused. For that reason most of the articles from my first trip to Portugal were titled ‘A Passion for Portugal’. The titles have changed to avoid sounding clichéd. But the sentiment remains.
Convento do Espinheiro is just outside Evora, a wonderful Heritage site in the Alentejo that I’ve visited before. But, although I thought I knew the area reasonably well I couldn’t remember the Monastery. All became clear when we arrived at the pristine white hotel. Fifteen years ago the place was derelict (there are some photos at the end of this article). The restoration and conversion to a luxury five star hotel and spa is the work and the passion of Nuno Camacho, who took the project on at the age of just 28.
Now, both interior and exterior are immaculate, the walls lined with works of art and the building just as it must have been when it was originally built and used by the Portuguese Royal Family as a religious retreat. That means nothing much until you learn that the buildings and surround area had to cater for the Royal entourage of some 2,000 people.
In fact the original buildings were funded by King Alfonso V and constructed around 1458 – and if you want, you can stay in what would have been the Royal Quarters in stunning suites with antique furnishing and marble bathrooms.
Apart from acting as a Royal retreat, the Monastery was home to around 30 monks from the order of Hieronymite, founded by St Jerome. The church, which is still functional and can be booked for weddings, is lined with beautiful blue azulejos depicting the life of St Jerome.
Imagine if you will, spending the night in the room where Princess Isabel, eldest daughter of the King of Spain waited for her wedding the next day to Prince Alfonso of Portugal, heir to the throne. The wedding that was supposed to result in the unification of Portugal and Spain, bringing peace to the Iberian Peninsula. When her betrothed managed to sneak into her bedroom, instead of sending him packing, they spent the night together in pre-nuptial bliss.
That very night there was a storm which destroyed part of the church. And, when the monks found out, they warned that the union would be cursed. Sure enough, only a few months later, the prince died in an hunting accident. Isabel was distraught. Eventually she was persuaded to marry again, to Manuel I of Portugal, Afonso’s uncle and John II’s cousin and successor. She did so on condition that Manuel follow her parents’ religious policy and expel Jews who would not convert to Christianity from Portugal. And so began a period of inquisition in Portugal. Isabel died in childbirth in 1498 so ending hopes of a Portuguese and Spanish unification. Our charming host, Dinis Pires, the General Manager of the hotel said that to this day, they refuse to allow the room to be used by brides to be on the eve of their wedding.
We learnt that the monks, far from leading a life of poverty had twenty or so employees – including a chef, tailor, lawyer and cobbler – and that what serves now as a large and rather fine dining room was a wine cellar where amphoras were used to store wine from the tenanted farms that belonged to the convento. Rather charmingly, the staff at the hotel have replanted a new small vineyard and have just harvested their first grapes, which should produce around 50 litres of wine!
I was staying in the new section of the hotel in a comfortable modern room with a small veranda looking out over the estate and gardens. Beautifully decorated, everything you might need for a relaxing stay was provided, from a massive bed with down mattress topper through to fluffy bathrobes in the well appointed bathroom and well functioning WiFi (although switching on a computer seemed a bit of a travesty).
We did all manage to spend some time in the spa. Some braver souls ventured out to the open air pool on the first evening, but I preferred relaxing indoors alternating between pool, jacuzzi and sauna. And the next day a wonderful foot and leg massage got rid of the last vestiges of aeroplane legs (mine that is).
The food was excellent and I will go into more detail about that and the wines of Alentejo in a separate article. We had a fabulous if rather warm cookery class in a tiny outdoor traditionally styled kitchen. And we enjoyed a lively wine tasting – where the sommelier demonstrated the *proper* way to open a bottle of champagne with style and a sword! Apart from simply exploring the area, the hotel does offer a whole range of activities from pool through to cookery lessons and wine tasting, so in the unlikely event of the weather being bad, you won’t be bored.
We all came home with a bottle of the estate’s own olive oil. While perhaps little of the oil came from the ancient tree that is certified to be over 1,100 years old, it DID provide a welcome shelter while we sampled some of the oil.
My particular fascination and the reason I will one day return to Convento do Espinheiro is the wealth of history within the walls of the Monastery. It is is a unique place. Somewhere that blends the ultimate in luxury and hospitality with heritage in a way that makes no compromise to comfort or taste.
We stayed at the Convento do Espinheiro as guests of the Hotel. Many thanks to Dinis Peris and the staff at the estate for their kindness and hospitality. Rooms are available from €.180,00 per double room including Buffet breakfast and taxes.
- TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932 www.flytap.com) flies from London Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon
- For more information on Alentejo, Portugal visit: www.visitalentejo.pt
- For more information on Portugal visit: www.visitportugal.com