A religious experience: Portugal's Convento de Sao Paulo

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REDONDO, Portugal -- If all convents were like Hotel Convento de Sao Paulo, there probably would be a lot more nuns.

The Church of the Loios in Evora has a stunning collection of azulejos -- blue-and-white tile painted with varying motifs -- but the church is a poor cousin compared to the nearby convent hotel of Redondo.

The property features the world's largest private collection of azulejos from the 18th century.

Every hall and stairway of the enormous property is bedecked with tiles, which makes the convent more akin to a castle than a religious hideaway.

The hotel has 54,000 tiles in all, decorated by many different masters of azulejo painting.

The convent, first a monastery, was built in 1182 by monks of the order of St. Paul the Hermit.

Three major renovations from 1400 through 1796 left the convent in its present state.

Like many other convents and monasteries in Europe, Convento de Sao Paulo served as an accommodation for royalty and other prestigious guests in the days when grand hotels did not exist.

Set on the slopes of the Serra de Ossa chain, one of the few in the flat Alentejo region, the hotel grounds boast more greenery than I saw in most of the south.

The monastery was converted into a four-star hotel in 1993.

Seventeen monk cells are now equipped with air conditioning, satellite television and direct-dial telephones.

The rooms are one-and-a-half times the size of the former cells, but they still have a monastic quality about them.

Room interior flourishes include bathrooms with marble tile from the Alentejan town of Estremoz, one of the world's largest producers of marble.

The only really luxurious room is the honeymoon suite, which is elaborate in design and color scheme.

The suite comes with a patio, a fireplace and an antique poster bed.

What really thrills most guests here are the public rooms, winding staircases and massive white stone corridors, which can take half a day to explore.

All retain their medieval or baroque architectural details without the negative decorative influence that modern tinkering can sometimes leave on renovated historic hotels.

Contemporary pastimes, however, are offered. A game room includes a snooker board and a library as well as an enormous fireplace.

The cloistered restaurant, Hermite, one of the best and most formal in the region, serves traditional Alentejan wine and cuisine using products and livestock from the convent grounds.

A monks' refectory now serves as space for corporate meetings and wedding parties for up to 200 guests. Restored recently for group events was a church and a monastery kitchen.

Besides exploring the surrounding 2,400 acres, guests can take advantage of a small swimming pool behind the convent.

The hotel serves an international clientele and English is spoken by most of the staff.

Rates in high season, from April through October, start at $150, double, including buffet breakfast.

Hotel Convento de Sao Paulo
Phone: (011) 351-266 989-160
Fax: (011) 351-266 999-104

Operators specializing in Portugal also can book the hotel from Pinto Basto Tours in New City, N.Y., which showcases the property in its Portugal brochure.

Pinto Basto Tours
Phone: (800) 526-8539
Fax: (914) 639-8017
E-mail: [email protected]
Web: www.pousada.com

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