“This is the type of place you walk into and you wish – you hope – everythings for sale.” says Tommy. We have just arrived at Villa Extramuros, a modernist five-room hotel set amid olive groves and grazing sheep in Portugal’s Alentejo region, near the small town of Arraiolos. “Oh my gosh, Amy, look at this! Look at that!" he gasps, the light glinting off his signature horn-rimmed glasses. I’ve already moved off down the hill, having spotted the infinity pool in the distance.
My friend Tommy Smythe, better known as Sarah Richardson’s inimitable sidekick on numerous HGTV series and a talented interior designer in his own right, has joined me for a week-long road trip in Portugal. We are checking into – to check out – the country’s new wave of eco-friendly boutique hotels and guest houses, starting with the regions surrounding Lisbon and then heading to the capital itself for a farewell feast. Portugal is suddenly at the forefront of high-design yet comfortable retreats, which ingeniously make use of local materials like cork, clay, stone, wood and even wool to blend into the landscape. From new rural museums to the rebirth of Lisbon’s waterfront, there’s construction everywhere. The plan is for Tommy to school me on the finer points of decorating while I teach him a thing or two about stuffing his face with great food. We each have our priorities.
It turns out that none of the furnishings at Villa Extramuros is actually for sale. Every nook just happens to be a perfect moment adorned with mid-century marvels and recent treasures by owners Jean-Christophe Lalanne and François Savatier, who packed up 20 years of Parisian memories and moved to greener acres in Portugal to open this property. I snoop around – snooping is welcome and to be expected here – passing picture-perfect arrangements, like the Glock water gun resting on a coffee table stacked with colourful hardcovers next to the Andrée Putman chairs in the lounge. I feel like I’m in a modern art gallery: I don’t totally get it, but what I know is that I like what I see.
“Check this out,” says Tommy, patting my king-size bed once we’ve been shown to our expansive rooms with sunny decks and stunning views. “You're sleeping on pure linen tonight.” But before bedtime, there’s chilled wine in the gravel courtyard, where I glean cheap and cheerful decorating inspiration for my own gravel plot back home, like stacked wooden skids topped with all-weather objets; a dip in the infinity pool, coupled with a visit from the grazing sheep or, as Tommy calls them, “on the loose”; and a dinner of bacalhau gratinée cooked by Jean-Christophe (who, we discover, worked for a time with Canadian designer Patrick Cox), served on a mid-century pedestal table. (Tommy name-checks the pepper mill by Ettore Sottsass’ Milan-based Memphis Group.) Later that night, as I slip between those cool, smooth bedsheets, I think, Oh man, I can totally feel the difference linen makes.
On the road into Évora, the minimalist beauty of sparse, gnarly cork oak trees gives way to hillside farmhouses and terracotta rooftops. Surrounded by medieval walls, the town, all handsome granite cobblestone and tile-clad buildings, is as pretty as a mini Vienna. At Café Alentejo, a casual welcome sees cracked green olives, oozing cheese and crunchy olive-oily bread hitting the table within seconds of our arrival, followed by local specialties like baked rice with duck that’s as homey as a casserole Monday. “I love Évora,” declares Tommy, popping an olive. “It doesn't feel like a museum of old culture. You see elements of the Roman era, but the timeline keeps going.” Indeed, Évora is sometimes referred to as a cidade-museu (museum city) and appears to have an intimate relationship with death, owing to 16th-century Franciscan monks who urged locals to meditate on the transient nature of life. “Skulls and crossbones everywhere,” Tommy notes. “It's like an Alexander McQueen show around here!” Especially so at the hauntingly beautiful Capela dos Ossos, or Bones Chapel, the large prayer room in the ancient church decorated with human skulls and bones from town graves.
The partially solar- and geothermal-powered Ecorkhotel, also in the Évora district, shows us how modernist high design can be absolutely rooted in the landscape. With its cork-clad main building (all sexy curves against a bold blue sky), 56 whitewashed casita-style suites, plus all the trimmings of a great resort (bom día, terrace bar and two infinity pools), here “eco” means anything but ugly. “It's completely of its place: ultra modern but executed in local and natural materials. You feel utterly transported,” Tommy sighs happily. While he goes off to unpack, I sit in the courtyard under an orange tree, reading up on a Cork Route excursion I may pressure him to take (when in Évora)…
Tommy returns, crisp-shirted, for lunch. The kitchen dishes out head-turning takes on tradition, such as charred sheep cheese with olive oil and oregano, and seared cod with quail eggs, foam, green shoots and chartreuse puddles of olive oil. After perusing the options, Tommy looks up at our waiter and asks, “Which dish is the prettiest?” As for which is the tastiest, it turns out to be my confit octopus with peas and river mint, as tender as a rose. “That stunning aubergine colour!” Tommy adds.
An hour northwest of Lisbon, we arrive in Óbidos, a buzzy town famous for its super tasty cherry liqueur served in wee chocolate cups at spots like Petrarum Domus bar. (Tip: Skip the chocolate, and have a double shot of ginja.) We leave the ancient city walls, amble four kilometres along a treed nature path – the seashore is just o’er yonder – and find Telmo Faria, Óbidos’ former three-term mayor, holding court around one of the upcycled tables he’s designed for Rio do Prado, his new eco-escape. The instantly disarming Telmo is happy to explain the concept behind this hideaway: “You see the castle of Óbidos? It announces it is here. We want to be different. You cannot see us until you get here.” True enough; it’s all a big secret. Even GPS has trouble finding the place. But once you drive through the salvaged-steel front gates, you’re greeted by slabs of concrete and glass – roomy suites that appear to be emerging out of the surrounding meadowlands. There are eucalyptus window screens, a modern greenhouse-cum-event space and firepits everywhere, perfect for gathering around while drinking wine and eating one of chef Maria's delicately charred wood-fired pizzas.
Rio do Prado’s curved main lodge basically spoons nature, while the grass-roofed Black Spa is almost fully underground. Telmo sums up his creatively green project, which he owns and runs with his equally engaging wife, Marta Garcia: “Low tech, humour and taking the time are what guide our philosophy.” You even get a report card that maps your personal energy consumption during your stay, which makes me think twice about taking a deep-dish salt bath in my room – until I remember the on-site plant for treating waste water from the wash basins and baths.
As I sit on my front porch watching the sun slowly dip, the atmosphere utterly takes me over. It’s about what you hear (frogs and birdsong), what you see (everything is modern, recycled or upcycled) and how you feel (instantly relaxed).
“It looks like San Francisco!” Tommy exclaims as we drive across the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge in Lisbon. The reddish-orange suspension bridge, completed in 1968 by the same company that built the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, is also a gateway to this 860-year-old capital. The closer we get to Lisbon, the more she reveals herself from beneath a foggy cloak: layer upon layer of terracotta, palm trees, patterned promenades and multi-coloured tile. “Very Mediterranean,” Tommy nods. It may be the most beautiful European city I’ve ever seen – and, yes, I’ve been to Paris.
At Baixa House, the sun-drenched rental apartments where I wish I lived for good, Tommy and I are hosting a dinner party for a handful of the new friends we've met along the way. Staying at this central-district 18th-century property is like crashing at a designer pal's Lisbon pied-à-terre where all of your needs are cared for, including fresh bread hung on your doorknob each morning and homemade tea cakes when you return home from a long day of sightseeing. There’s even a handy wine store, complete with tastings, just down below.
Designer Juan de Mayoralgo tells us he bargain-hunted his way through souks, estate sales and nearby flea market Feira da Ladra for six months (with Baixa House manager María Ulecia in tow), designing the 13 Monocle magazine-approved apartments on a strict budget and timeline. “We were searching for things that were very Portuguese, very unique and related to gardens,” Juan says. Each apartment is named after a famous Lisbon garden – this is a gorgeously green city – and he’s pulled off an eclectic blend of rustic benches and weathered patio chairs softened with luxurious fabrics (velvet, finest wool) and botanical prints. “The next layer of design is based on the colour scheme of a wool rug from the Alentejo region,” he explains. So the palette of every lodging is different, just as every handwoven rug is unique. What I love most is that you have a key to the front door of an amazing historic building, coming home to your very own Lisbon apartment. It makes me feel like a citizen of the city rather than a hotel guest.
On the morning of our last day, I head to market with chefs Tiago Vieira and Sofia Maciel, the husband-and-wife duo behind the intimate Tasca do Sol tavern. Back in my Baixa House kitchen, they help me prep for the final night's dinner party. Tiago and I clean barnacles and break down mackerel for escabeche, while Sofia prepares dessert – a sort of rice pudding called aletria made from eggs, sugar, milk, cinnamon sticks and broken angel's hair noodles. (Note: Almost all Portuguese desserts are made from some amalgamation of eggs, sugar and often almonds, and are universally delicious.) Juan opens bottles of chilled white while María artfully arranges cheeses and bread. (Note: The cheeses of Portugal are a great revelation, rivalling the best of France, especially the morning’s queijo fresco). Meanwhile, Tommy poofs pillows. As with any great dinner party, we’re all in this together – and we’ve remembered to buy extra wine.
Before long, we’re diving into cuttlefish cooked in its own ink with garlic, olive oil and cilantro, and slurping back steamed razor clams with lemon. There are fava beans stewed with chorizo and blood sausage, amazing escabeche, garlic-rubbed crostini topped with chickpeas, peppers and shredded bacalhau, and roasted octopus and potatoes. After dessert, we retreat to the balcony with glasses of port in hand, laughter swirling around us. As I look out over Lisbon, pulsating with colour and life below, I think, This may be the greatest dinner party I’ve ever thrown. Was it the people? Was it the food? The wine, the high design? The answer to all is a resounding yes.
01 Honouring Arraiolos’ famed rugs, Centro Interpretativo do Tapete de Arraiolos is a former medieval hospital transformed into a stunning museum, all done up in Estremoz marble by a cutting-edge architecture firm.
02 Pousadas are private small hotels found in former convents, churches and castles. Tommy declared he was having a “design religious experience” during our lunch at Pousada de Arraiolos, Nossa Senhora da Assunção, with its glorious blue-and-white-tiled chapel.
04 Restaurante Feitoria is one of three Michelin-starred restaurants in Lisbon. Try chef João Rodrigues’ Alentejo black pork done two ways – roast carré with drunken pears, and braised cheeks with celery and black truffle purée – offered with white-gloved service.
05 From soaps and sardines to books and blankets, pick up 100-percent Portuguese-made products at A Vida Portuguesa, a chic gift shop.
06 At Flores do Bairro, chef Vasco Lello does pairings like deep seafood bisque with crab toasts, veal cheeks with watercress and hazelnut, and crème brûlée with chocolate mousse and meringue. We loved every bite.
Air Canada rouge offers non-stop service from Toronto to Lisbon, with three weekly flights. From Lisbon, reach Arraiolos, Évora and Óbidos in 90 minutes or less by car.