By Alice Short
July 12, 2013
LISBON — Do you daydream about luxury lodgings with well-stocked bars and sculpted gardens? Discreet clerks and waiters who will attend to your every need? Or do your flights of fancy tend toward something more rustic: a walled fortress, perhaps, with commanding views of the lands below?
To put it another way: Do you want to stay in a palace — or a castle?
Sometimes it's possible to do both, as I discovered on a spring trip to Portugal. It turns out the "royal treatment" fulfilled a fantasy that I wasn't even aware of — until I walked right into it. My husband, Steve, and I had spent a few days in Madrid, visiting our daughter who was studying there, and we had decided we needed to see more of the Iberian Peninsula. We took a train to Basque country for a few days and then flew from Bilbao to Lisbon.
We headed for the Pestana Palace in the Portuguese capital, an elegant hotel in a quiet residential area. A late-19th century palace holds the reception, bar and dining areas, which were made to look like 17th and 18th century French salons by 20th century decorators. The palace and its grounds border on opulent, with an "I-come-from-old-money-or-I'm-good-at-faking-it" vibe.
We arrived too early to check into our room, so we jumped in a cab for an eight-minute ride to 5 Oceanos, one of several restaurants with alfresco dining in a relatively new marina. Our expectations were modest, but the scene — singles, couples and families biking, strolling and skateboarding past scores of diners sipping white port and Vinho Verde — proved invigorating. The food — white-bean stew with chorizo and codfish tongue — wasn't bad either.
It later occurred to us why we felt so at ease at the marina: With the boats, flip-flops, short-shorts and buffed bodies, it had all the charms of home with none of the insanity that has come to define, say, Venice Beach.
We didn't see any short-shorts at the Pestana Palace, at least not in the public spaces. Guests and staff use their indoor voices, and personal space is honored, particularly at breakfast where soft-spoken waiters assist the coffee- and mimosa-deprived.
The first meal of the day is a fairly elegant affair: buffet tables devoted to carbs both sweet and savory, meats and cheeses, fruit, juices and the ubiquitous omelet station. At dinner, menu choices include codfish tongue soup, lobster, caviar, the ubiquitous cod, wild partridge, octopus and mullet stew and orange pie with foie gras foam. The dining rooms, like many in the main building, bear the imprint of decorators who dream in plaster and gilt. And castle-worthy ceilings mean there's plenty of it.
The bar area includes two rooms with dark-red chairs and Persian carpets and those very high ceilings, but one evening we took our drinks to the Louis XV room, a large space with "statement" chandeliers, blue velvet couches and the plaster and gilt we had come to expect. The walls are adorned with mirrors and paintings — it was quite a space in which to consume a club sandwich and a beer.
The hotel grounds at the Pestana Palace include — among other amenities — indoor and outdoor pools, an Asian pavilion, a spa and a gym. Most of the 193 guest rooms are in two wings adjacent to the palace. Our room, about 260 square feet, was a sea of blue: blue walls with stenciling, blue carpeting with white designs, blue armchairs.
All that color coordination and good taste made us feel as though we had landed in someone else's life, but after our first full day in the city, devoted to a walking tour (Se Cathedral, St. George's Castle, the Belem Tower, shots of a cherry liqueur called ginja, we were tired and grateful just to rummage through the minibar and watch the flat screen.
After two nights in Lisbon, we drove about an hour north to the medieval town of Óbidos to get our warrior on by checking into Pousada de Castelo, a hotel set within a castle that is part of the walled village. There's nothing like battlements and crenels to send your imagination into overdrive — and to remind you that rustic can be just as charming as rarefied.
We registered, then hiked a series of broad stone steps, passing a strategically placed suit of armor or two, to our lodgings. The room — nine of the 17 are within the castle — measured about 12 feet square, a relatively cramped chamber with space for a bed, armoire and small table that doubled as a nightstand.
It was a short walk out a set of double doors to reach the castle walls and views of towers and whitewashed buildings, cobblestone streets and balconies draped with bougainvillea. It's easy to understand why centuries of Portuguese kings "gifted" their queens with Óbidos as part of the wedding ritual. (In the 13th century, King Afonso II gave title to the village to his queen, Urraca, a practice that was continued until the 19th century.)
We wandered the village streets, which are narrow and lined with shops selling plastic souvenirs, cork purses, pottery and ginja, sometimes consumed in tiny chocolate cups. The village is touristy but has a relaxed vibe — and no amount of tchotchkes could tarnish a stroll through streets that have hosted kings and queens, minstrels and knights, craftsmen and jugglers.
We went for a late lunch at Tasca Torta, a slip of a restaurant run by a soulful young man who spoke to us about his new baby and his struggles to run a small business in Portugal. While he regaled us with tales of bureaucracy and frustration, we dined on steak with a fried egg and fries and skewers of Portuguese sausage with mushrooms and tomatoes.
Afterward, our proprietor pulled out a hidden plastic bottle filled with homemade ginja, redolent of cherries, cinnamon and brandy and exponentially better than the blander product we had sampled elsewhere in Portugal.
We waited at least three hours before ordering a glass of wine in one of two rooms the hotel has devoted to eating and drinking. The bar is decorated with a tapestry and dark paintings. Glancing up, I noted the carved wood ceilings, which seemed old and venue-appropriate, but then Steve said the wood appeared to be new and secured with a nail gun. But that didn't bother us — we were in a castle. The walls and lichen, the owners and the cobblestones, were authentic — and our waiter, who seemed to do triple duty as bellman and bartender, was attentive.
The main dining room seats about two dozen people, its huge fireplace now used to display bottles of red wine. The breakfast buffet — meats, cheese, bread, yogurt, juices and coffee — is served here as well.
Breakfast was our last meal in Óbidos, and we felt a little sad when we had to abandon our castle and return to Lisbon, but we told ourselves we would return to rule again.
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