Contemporary tiles

Azulejos PedroIf you’re an art lover, make sure to visit Ratton, a wonderful art gallery in Lisbon that commissions works in azulejo (the Portuguese word for glazed tiles) from contemporary artists.

When Ana Viegas opened the gallery in 1987, tiles were no longer considered an art medium; they were made cheaply for utilitarian purposes. To convince artists to create works for azulejo, Viegas procured the finest clay and searched for artisans who could paint and glaze tiles by hand, using techniques perfected in the 18th century. Soon, she had great artists like Paula Rego, Julio Pomar, and Menez working for Ratton. Today, you can see the gallery’s azulejos all over Portugal and as far away as Russia or Brazil.

The photo shows a piece by Lourdes de Castro inspired by the “invitations figures” that were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. These panels of azulejos with life-size images of footmen, nobleman and aristocratic women were placed in stairs and patios to welcome visitors. Castro used her own silhouette, as if she is inviting us to experience her art.

It is this interplay between inspiration from past and present that makes the work exhibited at Ratton so unique.

On top of the world in Marvão

Marvão composit @

Some people climb the Kilimanjaro, others struggle to conquer the Himalayas. But you can feel on top of the world without hiring sherpas or buying oxygen masks. Simply drive to Marvão, a village on the São Mamede mountain, 834 km above sea level.

We spent the morning exploring the ancient castle and walking the beautiful narrow streets. After working up an healthy appetite, we walked to the Pousada for lunch. The view from the dining room is absolutely stunning.

The Pousada has some wonderful signature dishes, including codfish Santa Maria, partridge with 14 (partridge cooked with 14 ingredients), and shrimp Alentejo style. We asked chef Conceição Lourenço why codfish Santa Maria tastes so wonderfully unique. Her eyes smiled brightly for this is one of the culinary secrets she has guarded in her three decades as a chef. She confided that: “the codfish is cooked with flour made from a local mushroom; but that’s all I can say.”

We stayed for quite a while at the table mesmerized by the view. Seen from Marvão, the world below looks harmonious and the skies above divine.

 

Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here for more photos of Marvão.

Porto de Santa Maria

Porto de Santa Maria @_

The Portuguese are so obsessed with the freshness of their fish that they prefer to consume it on the coast, to make sure the fish does not need to travel. This obsession is the reason why there are so many restaurants on the “marginal,” the seaside road that connects Lisbon to Cascais. Our favorite is Porto de Santa Maria, which has served outstanding fish and seafood since 1947. Everything on the menu is wonderful: grilled fish, oysters, clams, shrimp, stuffed spider crab, and lobster rice.

Porto de Santa Maria is famous for its fish baked in bread, a technique to cook a whole fish that keeps it moist and succulent. Savoring this culinary delight while enjoying the magnificent ocean view is simply unforgettable.

 

Porto de Santa Maria is located in Guincho, 30 km from Lisbon. You can make reservations by telephone (351 214 879 450 ) or email (reservas@portosantamaria.com). Click here for the restaurant’s web site, here for a virtual visit to the restaurant, and here for a live camera view of the beach.

The allure of Monsaraz

RBD_Monsaraz_2b
Monsaraz, ink on paper, Rui Barreiros Duarte, 2014.

Monsaraz is a medieval village perched on a hill in Alentejo. Squint at the landscape and you see an abstract painting of white and pink shapes. Open your eyes and you see a world of peace and tranquility. Faint are the echoes of the battle in which Geraldo Sem Pavor (Gerald the fearless) first conquered the town from the moors in the 12th century. Gone are the busy years, early in the 14th century, when king D. Dinis built a castle to ensure that this strategic hill would forever remain Portuguese. The soldiers who kept watch from the castle towers were replaced by photographers who shoot with their cameras the majestic view.

Vinicius de Moraes, the Brazilian poet who wrote the lyrics of Girl from Ipanema, recorded his feelings about this Alentejo village: “Thank you, Monsaraz, but I do not want to see you ever again because, if I do, I will stay forever inside your white walls amidst your men and women with eyes full of honesty.”

Matter and spirit

 

Beatriz HC Composit_
Beatriz Horta Correia, Ceramics, 2013.
Graça Peraira Coutinho Composit_
Graça Pereira Coutinho, Ceramics, 2013.

We were invited to meet two artists in a studio on the outskirts of Lisbon. We drove through the city until we turned onto a gravel road surrounded by lush vegetation. An old gate with an inscription that read Quinta de Mil Fontes (Thousand fountains farmstead) opened and we saw an ancient house designed in a mixture of styles, like an architectural compendium built out of stone.

Fountains and brooks whispered all around us as we walked to the art studio adjacent to the house. It is spacious, filled with light, decorated with a large Indian doorway and exotic furniture; the kind of place where Matisse would probably have felt at home.

The two artists were there to greet us. Graça Pereira Coutinho speaks with a contagious enthusiasm. Beatriz Horta Correia has a quiet intensity. They told us that in 2010 the S. Bernardo ceramics factory in Alcobaça was about to close. The owner, Manuel da Bernarda, decided to let artists use the factory while it was still open. So Beatriz, Graça, and four other artists began to spend their weekends at the factory. They would work late into the night, mesmerized by the power of clay, water and fire. Drawing on the knowledge of Manuel da Bernarda, they began to do highly experimental work, pushing the limits of the ceramics technology. They mixed porcelain paste with paper, cloth, and other materials. They cooked the pieces at temperatures so high they almost melted.

The results are poetic, ethereal works with edges so thin, so full of light they do not seem to belong in this world. These pieces found success and acclaim in the world market. As a result, the factory remains open, producing ceramic art instead of tableware.

Graça and Beatriz accomplish a remarkable feat with their ceramic work: they meld the heaviness of matter with the lightness of spirit.

 

Click here to see Graça Pereira Coutinho’s web site and here to see Beatriz Horta Correia’s website. 

 

Amalia’s beach

AmaliaBeach

The great fado singer Amalia Rodrigues built a beautiful house on a cliff with an expansive view of the ocean. The adjacent beach is called Amalia in her honor.

To visit this magical place, you need to drive to Brejão, a village on the southern tip of the Alentejo coast. Stop in one of the coffee shops and ask for directions to the beach (you have to follow a hidden path alongside a small brook).

This secluded beach is a perfect setting for declarations of love. The spirit of the place will inspire you. But if words fail you, you can always say: this beach was named after Amalia, a singer who sang about the joy of love and the pain of loss. I brought you here because I love you and I never want to lose you.

 

Few people know that you can rent Amalia’s house by emailing the Foundation Amalia Rodrigues (secretariado@amaliarodrigues.pt). But now you do!

A classic Alentejo recipe

Cozinheira

The dining room was full but Claudia Santiago, the chef at Flor da Rosa, kept her cool. She runs the kitchen like an orchestra conductor, making sure that the rhythm is just right and that all the subtleties of the cuisine of Alentejo are reflected on the plate. After the lunch service, we told Claudia how much we liked her cooking and asked whether she had any culinary secrets. She confessed that: “we have an amazing ingredient which are the sausages made from Alentejo black pork; everything they touch turns to culinary gold.” We asked Claudia whether she would share a recipe with our readers. She described several classic desserts but they were all too complex. So, we opted for the marinated rabbit recipe which is simple but delicious. Here it is.

Claudia Santiago’s marinated rabbit (“coelho de escabeche”)

Cook the rabbit in a rich bouillon made with parsley, mint, cloves, and carrots. Then, grill it over charcoal for a few minutes to intensify the flavor of the meat. Shred the meat. To make the marinade, fry minced onion and garlic with a bay leaf in olive oil. Add vinegar. Combine with the rabbit and let it marinade over night. Decorate with peppers and carrots and serve.

Enjoying this dish accompanied by Alentejo wine in the elegant dining room of Flor de Rosa, made us feel like lords of the manor.

Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here for more photos of Flor da Rosa.