My tires kick up dust that swirls about as I drive a short distance along an unpaved road riddled with stones. But I take comfort, knowing that at the end, a verdant paradise awaits, one that has a very special place in my heart. In fact, an aphorism inscribed on a sign beside the Main House couldn’t be more apt: “Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.”
In Portugal’s Alentejo region, Herdade da Matinha, a country boutique retreat, though just 15 minutes from glorious white sand beaches, is snuggled on a vast 272-acre landscape that’s blanketed with cork oak forests, olive and numerous other trees, aromatic wildflowers (such as lavender and honeysuckle) and hills so green they exert a magnetic attraction.
But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, when the man at the helm, Alfredo Moreira da Silva, discovered this abandoned property, he found that the soil had been severely damaged from overgrazing and overfarming along with sporadic flooding and also mining. “When I first came here, there was no biodiversity [something that’s important ecologically]; there were no trees,” says Alfredo, who became a man on a mission.
He settled here with his family, falling deeply in love with this land, eventually planting 55,000 trees, native species that pay homage to the Alentejo, as opposed to invasives that harm a habitat ecologically. His intention: to return the botanicals that grew here to the time before agriculture.
“I see myself as a keeper of the land, a land that talks to me,” says Alfredo, who not only still lives on property but is also committed to sharing the forest (and the knowledge of it), and his grand vision with others. Whether guests choose to go horseback riding, picnicking, mountain biking or hiking along one of the many meandering trails, they’ll be intimately connected with the land, learning about the web of interactions that connect the plants and animals. In fact, Alfredo is especially keen on engaging kids with nature. “The more time they spend in the forest, the more the forest will talk with them; they’ll develop a relationship with it,” says Alfredo.
I share Alfredo’s infatuation with this peaceful place. Most mornings, I settle beside a fig tree, sipping my cappuccino, listening to the sounds of warblers, mourning doves and other bird species. Later in the day, I relax in the shade of an olive tree with a glass of a crisp white wine. I never tire of watching the sun dapple the ground where tall willows cast breezy shadows. I amble past ash trees and wisteria, then I stroll a curvy boardwalk, sniffing the air, redolent with the sweet scent of foliage, and thrilling to the sight of a green landscape punctuated by the crimson shade painted on the door to the Main House, aka the Owner’s House. (This was the original dwelling of the Moreira da Silva family.) I’m captivated by the orange trees heavy with fruit, flanking the main pool; and the delicate colors of the abundant rose varieties — from white to light coral to almost violet — that thrive in the harsh climate of the Alentejo, profusely climbing banisters and facades. (Interestingly, not only was his great great grandfather a rose grower, but a lovely yellow specimen that gives way to blush pink is also named for Alfredo.)
Most everything on the property is connected with Alfredo, lovingly touched or created by him. He made the colorful tablecloths that are a collage of different patterns and hues, from stripes to plaid to floral designs. His wildly dramatic, mostly abstract, paintings — some taking up an entire wall while others are wee — saturate the interior and some of the exterior spaces with a sense of vibrancy and vitality. (To me his artwork offers a window into his soul, which churns with exuberant ideas.) Alfredo’s ever curious nature is evident in the array of books stacked on tabletops or arranged on shelves, from architecture and interior design to cooking and poetry. In fact, he has instilled a pervasive sense of joy — of life, art, creativity and, of course, nature — throughout this property that he refers to not as a hotel but a “casa” or house. So, when you stay here, it’s your house, one that retains the same sense of warmth and intimacy it’s had since the Moreira da Silva family first opened their doors to the public 24 years ago.
MAIN HOUSE (OWNER’S HOUSE)
With so much sunlight streaming through the multitude of windows in the Main House, I find myself ecstatic, gliding from one room to the next — there are more than half a dozen spaces to lounge in, and each became my favorite for different reasons, on different days — as I soak up the energizing vibe that embraces traditions and dreams, with a dash of whimsy scattered just about everywhere.
Window sills hold sapphire blue vases of different shapes. A shockingly vibrant surfboard with a cornucopia of colors — one of many, since Alfredo’s sons are avid surfers — stands sentinel in a corner, yet, elsewhere, a deck of tarot cards sits atop an old table, and goat pelts are laid out on the wooden floor. Two gilded framed portraits of his great grandmother and great great grandmother hang side by side on a wall. Jockey hats are positioned atop chairs that below reveal riding boots — again, reflecting the family’s sports interests. A cabinet holds antique ceramic dolls dressed in festive garb. Orange accents, from the lampshades to the throw pillows, enliven another room. Whether family memorabilia, treasures, keepsakes, or gifts from friends, the wealth of ephemera and objects that grace these rooms is evocative.
If I had to describe the characteristics of a perfect venue for sipping a chilled glass of white wine on a hot summer’s day, it would be a comfortable alfresco space that’s shaded, informal, low-key with verdant views and accessorized with intriguing objects that activate my curiosity. The one-year-old bar/lounge at Herdade da Matinha fits the bill. It’s eclectically-decorated with all sorts of different chairs, couches and daybeds and tables, including one made from a cobalt blue painted wooden facade with baby blue trim and scarlet-painted shutters. As I lounge on a daybed draped with a multi-colored blanket, I relish a refreshing breeze caressing me and rustling the pink roses winding around the balustrade. I notice a bird house sitting atop one table while nearby are lime green vases holding thin bamboo stalks. The air is so alive with birds flitting about that I lose count of them.
RESTAURANT – MESA
Given Alfredo’s commitment to the land, it’s no surprise that, as much as possible, the cuisine at Herdade da Matinha is farm to table. “We try to source everything from the estate and nearby,” says Alfredo. The property’s orchards include orange, loquat, lemon, quince, fig, olive, apple, peach and pear trees as well as blackberry bushes, to name a few of the many fruits available. A kitchen garden grows oregano, laurel, coriander, peppermint and other herbs, while I also notice an abundance of vegetables growing, such as peas, onions, pumpkin, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant.
Like everything at Herdade, the many-windowed trio of rooms making up Mesa — located in the Main House — are closely connected with nature, and joyously decorated, with items that harken to the past and others that look to the present. An antique wooden scale is positioned on a set of cabinets bearing azulejos, typical Portuguese tilework. Glass vases on the windowsill hold wild leek, papyrus sedge and barestem biscuit root. One table is distinctly different from all the rest: it’s a plank of wood painted in three primary colors plus white and green. Alfredo tells me that this was the first table he painted when he bought this property, setting it in the exact position of what was then an outdoor terrace — now it’s an enclosed porch once the house was built out. Alfredo explains that he meant the table to symbolize a flag since flags are pioneering, like the origins of Herdade.
I make it to breakfast as soon as they open, catching Alfredo cradling bunches of just-picked roses that he arranges all around the restaurant. They are dark violet with a powerful fragrance resembling blackberry jam. With so many breakfast options, I decide to keep it simple: a thick piece of Alentejo bread straight from a local bakery slathered with butter; ultra creamy, locally-made plain yogurt; homemade granola with oats, nuts and a touch of honey; and juice freshly squeezed from the fruits of their orange trees.
Sometimes I’m on property for lunch, where I either enjoy a thin-crust pizza in the recently-opened alfresco space that’s bedecked with gauzy curtains, or, if I’m hiking or biking, I opt for a picnic lunch. Either way, I never miss dinner, where the menu changes daily, depending on the season and what’s available locally. The creative Portuguese cuisine is heavily inflected with Mediterranean influences. One night, for example, I indulge in grilled monkfish with ginger, chicken empadao, and a dense chocolate cake served with orange cream. Another evening, it’s a rare tuna steak with a side of sweet potatoes and red onions, grilled lamb with a pea and mint puree, and a slice of delicate orange cheesecake.
Of the four buildings housing guest rooms on this vast property, these three are the largest and most sumptuous:
The eight-room Rose Club, named for the multitude of roses in the vicinity, is Herdade’s adults-only accommodation, and one that opened two years ago. (The pool is also adults only.) The dark grey, ironclad dwelling — a contemporary take on a rural barn, of sorts — looks so nondescript from the outside that it almost blends into the surroundings, which is, after all, the idea. This metal structure has a minimal impact on the land, is economical and easy to maintain.
Guests will find simple, sunny quarters that, of course, have walls hung with Alfredo’s creative works. On a nightstand made of a slice of eucalyptus wood is a tiny vase holding a single rose, while the washbasin is composed of a pink stone resembling marble. In the morning before the temperature climbs, I delight in sitting on the terrace, watching the land stir. This is where I first notice the grassy expanse dotted with wildflowers, such as purple Viper’s bugloss and yellow smooth hawksbeard.
Each of the 16 sun-washed guest rooms has a terrace, plus the pool associated with this complex — it resembles the environmental-friendly Rose Club — welcomes children. Roses bedeck the exterior of this building that looks out to numerous cork trees. Behind the pool is planted yucca and evergreens as well as umbrella pines and maples.
Blue shuttered with a traditional tile roof, this six-bedroom accommodation is a converted old family home that is quite spacious. Exposed stone in the kitchen and living room is evocative of another era as are some of the myriad objects from the Moreira da Silva family scattered about, including horse saddles, straw hats and traditional toys. Outside, you can hear the croaking sounds of frogs jumping in a duo of ponds.
Even a short stay at this treasured boutique property is idyllic — though longer, of course, is even better. Just as this land has been transformed, so it is also transformative for all who arrive at her doorstep — with lessons in loving nature, life, family and the vibrancy that unites them all.