São Lourenço do Barrocal, Monsaraz, Portugal
With its sharp cocktails and golden, estate-produced honey, olive oil and wine, this rural Alentejo retreat offers a beautiful blend of quietly luxurious R&R and feel-good activities
18 May, 2023
It must be spring because the swallows are back and nesting at São Lourenço do Barrocal, a 200-year-old agricultural estate in Portugal's sparsely populated, wine-growing Alentejo region - the kind of countryside where the only road signs you pass are "caution, frogs crossing" ones. With seven whitewashed, red-roofed buildings arranged on either side of a wide cobbled central thoroughfare, little, superficially, has changed here in the last two centuries. Maintaining the integrity of the estate's heritage has not come at the expense of urbane luxury, though: home to two farm-to-fork restaurants, a spa, outdoor pools, stables and farm shop, the five-star retreat is balm for the city-vexed soul.
Eighth-generation owner José António Uva is today responsible for 780 hectares of land roamed by wild horses and Salers cattle, vineyards, a winery, beehives, orchards and an organic vegetable garden. His family history comes to life through the photos and personal objects displayed around the estate. On the wall of the São Lourenço do Barrocal restaurant is his grandmother's handwritten recipe for a partridge starter (now a menu perennial); elsewhere are black-and-white snaps of grazing flocks of Merino sheep; the alpine ski resort where a relative was sent to cure tuberculosis; gap-toothed little girls in t-bar shoes... The only years missing from the collection are the 30 following Portugal's Carnation Revolution of April 1974, when the estate was nationalised and occupied, its inhabitants evicted. Having fallen into disrepair during this time, it took a lovingly executed 15-year renovation project to revive the palpably warm sense of community that is evident from the moment you arrive.
Sit in the sun, sip a Barrocal take on a tom collins - gin swapped out for the estate's own limoncello - and snack on sugar-dusted orange cake as you get your bearings, using the hand-illustrated map of the grounds to help plan your stay. Because while, yes, these surroundings might be conducive to finishing that tricky second novel (or exploring transcendental meditation, poolside), it would be a shame not to roll up your sleeves and give some of the nourishing activities on offer a go, from beekeeping to grape-stomping. Not forgetting a gentle bike ride through rolling meadows punctuated by wildflowers and ancient olive trees. Just look out for those frogs.
There are 22 rooms, two suites and 16 cottages, with spacious, light-filled interiors designed by Lisbon-based duo Ana Anahory and Felipa Almeida. Natural materials such as wood and ceramics are complemented by handcrafted objects from the area, including Alentejo-patterned blankets and rugs made on ancient handlooms in a restored Monsaraz wool factory. Coffee and a French press, with foolproof instructions, are provided, as are plenty of meaty coffee-table books. Big bathrooms blend solid farmhouse tradition with 21st-century élan, and come stocked with products from Suzanne Kaufmann's addictive Herbal Treats range.
What's for breakfast?
Sheer joy, in abundance, served until 11am. A buffet spread in the main restaurant offers enough homegrown goodness to set any farm worker up for the day. Enjoy your poached pears in cinnamon syrup on the al fresco terrace, to a soundtrack of Lusitano horses whinnying, then contemplate the hot menu, which includes eggs benedict made with speciality black pig bacon. Before leaving, fortify yourself for the day's adventures the traditional Alentejo way, by knocking back a terracotta shot glass of strong local spirit aguardente.
Lunch and dinner
Slow food reigns supreme at both São Lourenço do Barrocal and Hortelão restaurants, with much of what's on your plate having been grown in the one-hectare organic garden or raised on the grounds. Chef Celestino Grave sends out hyperfresh, colourful plates - think melon gazpacho, cod fritters, veal tartare, and wild mushroom sliders. Don't skimp on dessert. Crowd-pleasers - not that you'll want to share - include a warm blondie scattered with edible flowers and a melting-middle pumpkin cake.
Is there a bar?
There are two. Pair botanical cocktails and wines produced on-site with staring at the sepia-tinted wedding portraits and photos of picnic parties and wine harvests gone by, speculating about life, love and which is better, the 2015 or 2016 viognier.
Housed in the estate's monastic former single farm workers' quarters, the Suzanne Kaufmann Spa Barrocal, with its fitness studio, dry saunas and relaxation room, is a highlight. Carve out some time for the signature treatment: an aromatic footbath, followed by an exfoliation with olive oil and orange and a massage with arnica oil. Rosemary from the estate's garden is now used in some of Kaufmann's products, which, until recently, only used herbs from the Alps.
Thus purified, sally forth to discover the winery, farm shop and stables, or sign up for one of the Barrocal experiences, which include beekeeping, flower arranging, birding, cookery classes, cocktail workshops, hot-air balloon rides and seasonal olive picking and grape-treading.
What are the hotel's eco-credentials like?
Self-sufficiency is baked into Barrocal's DNA - in the old days, residents would only leave once a year to go to the Monsaraz fair to buy essentials they couldn't grow or make themselves, such as salt and cotton. An ethos of sustainability remains at the heart of operations, as seen in the farm-to-table culinary concept, commitment to organic production, mindful management of water and other resources, use of solar panels, strong recycling and waste-reduction practices, employment of local people (currently in around 80 per cent of roles) and the use of high-quality, long-lasting handcrafted products.
What about accessibility?
Some of the communal areas and guest rooms are wheelchair-accessible.
What's the crowd like?
Discreetly stylish: among those we got chatting to were a handful of erudite Alabama retirees and a well-behaved toddler travelling with his own canary-yellow bicycle in tow.
Within a short walk I can find…
The estate. It's huge. History buffs might want to tear themselves away to visit the museum city of Évora, just under an hour's drive away, or the nearby Monsaraz village, with its 13th-century castle and views of the vast, five county-spanning Alqueva Lake, the largest reservoir in Europe.
Things I should know
Part of a Dark Sky Reserve, this is one of the best places in the world for stargazing. Join the Dark Sky Observatory astronomer and his team at the estate's old beehive garden, where, cosied up with blankets and mugs of hot chocolate, you'll view star clusters and nebulae through the telescope in perspective-altering clarity.
Doubles cost from £478 a night. barrocal.pt