Europe editor Kenneth Kiesnoski set out from Lisbon on a
self-drive tour of northern Portugal, stopping at six "pousadas,"
or inns, along the way. His report follows:
onks, I suspect, didn't have it
as good back when the Augustinian order alone occupied the 12th
century, hillside Santa Marinha da Costa monastery near Guimaraes,
now among the most luxurious of Portugal's renovated pousadas, or
government-run historical and regional inns.
For one, their accommodations were smaller, as two cells were
combined to create each now well-appointed guest room when the
structure was restored and converted into a pousada in 1985.
And it's a sure bet that the gourmet dinner of caldo verde
(green cabbage soup) and bacalhau (salted codfish) I feasted on in
the pousada's cavernous restaurant outclassed the meals that the
friar cooks once dished out in a less lavish refectory within the
Still, the more some things have changed, the more others
clearly have stayed the same.
Lovely views over ancient Guimaraes, Portugal's first capital;
quiet strolls in adjacent gardens; and contemplative moments in the
medieval chapel surely eased monastic life at Santa Marinha
centuries ago, much as they seduced me during my recent stay.
My memorable overnight visit to Santa Marinha -- one of two such
inns in Guimaraes -- was my second stop on a tour of several
pousadas and attractions in the Minho, the northernmost and
greenest part of Portugal.
The province, just north of Porto, gave birth not only to the
863-year-old Portuguese state itself but many national symbols and
traditions, as well.
For example, the black ceramic roosters peddled as souvenirs
nationwide are native to the town of Barcelos, and caldo verde,
originally a Minho delicacy, now is a national dish.
Unfortunately for local suppliers -- but luckily for crowd-weary
clients -- the quiet province is less popular with tourists than
the sunny Algarve and Lisbon to the south.
That means accommodations are reasonable and dinner reservations
and retail bargains are easier to come by, even compared with the
rest of typically affordable Portugal.
For example, pousada stays in the region can be had from $89 per
night in the off season.
Booking one of the 45 pousadas in the Minho and the rest of
Portugal -- whether the 18 "historical" ones housed in significant
structures or "regional" inns set in areas of exceptional natural
beauty -- offers a more intimate encounter with the nation than any
standard hotel stay ever could, according to Carolina Marafusta,
manager of Santa Marinha.
"The main aim of pousadas is not only to preserve monuments or
highlight the countryside but to serve as mirrors of our country's
culture and cuisine," she explained. "The pousadas are the
embodiment of this country's experience."
Lured by that promise, more tourists are opting to embark on
their own self-drive "pousada trails" across Portugal.
"With so many pousadas so close to one another -- only one to
two hours apart -- it's a great way to explore Portugal," said
Marafusta, who also manages the smaller, regional Nossa Senhora da
Oliveira pousada in the historical city center.
On the pousada trail
My own pousada trek began in ancient, walled Obidos, a must-see
stop on the drive from Lisbon where I paused for a short tour and a
bite to eat.
Occupying a castle that looms over the enchanting, whitewashed
town, the pousada -- the first historical one, opened in 1951 -- is
hard to miss and even harder to leave.
After lunch at the on-site restaurant (have clients ask for the
sole booth with a view), I scaled a castle tower to inspect the
nine-room pousada's duplex honeymoon suite, which boasts an ancient
four-poster bed atop a steep staircase.
As the small Obidos pousada is both extremely popular and close
to busy Lisbon, book stays well in advance of travel.
After a couple of hours of driving on the A1 motorway through
lush green countryside, I arrived at Santa Marinha up in the Minho,
some 150 miles to the north of Obidos.
The following morning, I popped into Nossa Senhora da Oliveira
before exploring the rest of Guimaraes, a well-preserved medieval
jewel with a northern European feel.
In contrast to awesome Santa Marinha, intimate Nossa Senhora had
the feel of a cozy wayside inn of yesteryear.
While the pousada is of no historical importance, its appeal
lies in its location; several of its 16 rooms face the beautiful
Largo da Oliveira square, just steps from top sights.
After a brief stop in picturesque Barcelos for some of those
souvenir roosters, I checked into the grand Pousada de Santa Luzia
in coastal Viana do Castelo.
A winding three miles up a steep hill outside town, the pousada
-- sandwiched between hilltop Celtic ruins and a basilica below --
fully delivered on the regional pousadas' promise of spectacular
Throwing open the windows of my room, I was treated to a
sprawling vista of the basilica, town and coastline below.
Viana do Castelo itself was a wonder to behold; after an
espresso break at a cafe in the Praca da Republica square, I
explored streets crammed with Gothic and Renaissance mansions, as
well as crowds of laughing, jostling teens.
Returning to the pousada for dinner, I found a new range of
dishes on offer and opted for pork with almonds and cabbage; the
menus at all the pousadas I visited had been, from soup to nuts,
somewhat similar: heavy on seafood and beef.
Still, I looked forward to the sumptuous appetizer spread of
olives, sheep's milk cheese, chourico sausages and warm breads I
knew awaited me at each pousada meal.
Sure enough, my favorite snacks were the opening act of yet
another delicious lunch at my next stop, Santa Maria do Bouro, a
jawdropper of a pousada set in a reconstructed Cistercian monastery
in vineyard-laden hills outside Amares.
Santa Maria do Bouro was designed in 1997 by architect Eduardo
Souto Moura to blend modern comfort and design with stark monastic
Santa Maria is a particularly popular meetings venue; bearing
this out, businessmen from Porto crowded the restaurant.
Another 20 minutes along a mountain road and I'd reached my last
stop, the lodge-style Pousada de Sao Bento, a regional inn perched
in Peneda-Geres National Park, where wooded, rolling highlands
resemble the Adirondacks.
If the abundant local hiking and fishing is not your client's
cup of tea, pousada staff can arrange spa sessions at the hot
mineral springs in the nearby village of Caldas do Geres.
Auto-lagged, I chose simply to lounge on the pousada's hilltop
terrace, drinking in views of the Cavado River valley below -- and
resolving to return to the pousadas of the Minho.