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.
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 (email@example.com). But now you do!
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.
On the way to Flor da Rosa, a medieval castle converted into an historical hotel, we traveled through small villages lost in time and fields of cork and olive trees. Nothing prepared us for the sight of the castle standing proudly on the Alentejo plain.
The hotel has 24 rooms with beautiful views of the countryside and a swimming pool that overlooks the castle. The space is designed to offer guests great privacy. And the staff is so attentive that they made us feel like royalty.
The next morning, we woke up in luxurious silence, far from the cacophony of modern life. We relaxed by the pool until it was time for lunch. We then headed to the restaurant where we tried some wonderful renditions of the local gastronomy: purslane soup, fish in coriander sauce, and marinated rabbit. These courses were followed by cheese from Nisa and Serpa. Our taste buds were celebrating these amazing gifts from the shepherds of Alentejo when a sampling of desserts arrived. They had uncommon names like “sericaia” and “encharcada,” and rightly so for everyday words cannot begin to describe these sweet creations.
We had a great time sightseeing around Crato, the village where the hotel is located. In the late afternoon, the church bell reminded us that the sun would soon retire and that it was time to return to the castle. As we crossed the vaulted arches, we heard birds singing. These are the same sounds that were heard in the castle during the middle ages. Flor da Rosa is a precious time capsule that preserves the beauty of an age gone by.
Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here for more photos of Flor da Rosa.
To understand Portugal, you have to visit Alcobaça. It was here that the first king of Portugal, Dom Afonso Henriques, founded a monastery in thanksgiving for his conquests. He laid the first stone in 1148 on a beautiful valley irrigated by two rivers, Alcoa and Baça.
Alcobaça became a center of agricultural research with a vast library that included volumes printed by Gutenberg. The monastery served as a luxury hotel for the royal family and their guests, but it also baked bread to feed the poor. The kitchen of the monastery was famous throughout the kingdom. Water from the river Alcoa runs through the kitchen, providing water for cleaning and cooking.
Built in an early gothic style, the monastery was expanded and renovated throughout the centuries. King Dom Pedro erected sumptuous tombs to celebrate his eternal love for Inês de Castro. Henry the Navigator, who was the abbot of Alcobaça, built a palace inside the abbey. Every stone of the Alcobaça monastery is a page of the history of Portugal.
De Castro Flores doesn’t look like a restaurant, it looks like a convivial home where friends gather to share delicious food and great wine. There’s a spirit of celebration in the air created by the warm decoration, the friendly service, and the appetizing aromas.
We asked our waiter to bring us a series of small plates called petiscos. And so the feast began: clams with beans, cuttle fish with ink, partridge in escabeche, quail eggs with sausage, chamuças with cheese and honey, roasted octopus with potatoes, vegetable tempura with a garlic and lemon mayonnaise.
We left happy to have found a new restaurant where Portugal’s culinary traditions shine bright.
Restaurante De Castro Flores is located in Lisbon at Praça das Flores, Rua Marques Portugal, n. 1. Tel: 21 590 3077. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for the restaurant’s web site.
Tuk tuk is a new company that operates three-wheeled motorized rickshaws in downtown Lisbon. These fun vehicles are the perfect way to travel: slow enough to see the sights, but fast enough to cover all there is to see without getting tired.
If you smell a whiff of cinnamon, it is perfectly ok to ask the driver to follow the trail and find the pastries that are sweetening the air. After all, visitors have been coming to Lisbon in pursuit of sugar and spices for more than five centuries.