“In 2002, I spent a year here, quite isolated. It enabled me to better understand the seasons, like how cold or hot it gets.”
- JOSÉ ANTÓNIO UVA, OWNER
This estate has been in your family for more than 200 years. How did the idea to create a hotel come about?
Restoration of the estate for private use wouldn’t have made any sense at all because this is not and was never a family home; it’s much bigger than a family home. It was originally conceived to accommodate many families and industrial agricultural production.
In 2002, I came to spend some time out here to figure out what I could do; it became clear that unless I dedicated myself to this project, it would lose the sense of sustainability that was always part of it. A 200-year-old place like this needs to be under constant restoration and renovation or it stops making sense and stops being used.
I was more concerned with sustainability, with what you can offer the next generation, with something that is not so intrinsic to its time that it eventually dies. There was a need to understand the estate, what you can convert, what lies within the walls and if it makes sense or not to make a wine cellar, a restaurant, a vegetable garden… and with all of that information you can understand in a much clearer way if the estate, 10 years after the restoration, will continue to make sense.
I spent a year in that house next to the swimming pool, I was quite isolated but the idea was to figure out “if I stay here through four seasons, a whole year alone, will this continue to make sense?” “Is this a love story? Wow! Are we going to do this project?”
Were you alone during that year?
Single, alone. I have a friend who is an architect, Manuel, who came to live in one of the houses which was much worse off than mine. The only way to understand this place was to come and live here. As a family, we never spent much time in this 'Monte' [name given to estates in Alentejo]. What we did do here was things like having 20 kids over camping out for one week without electricity and water.
The year that I spent here was very important, it enabled me to better understand the seasons, like how cold or hot it gets. Then when faced with all of the decisions regarding the project I was able to sit down with the engineer and ask “so what will we use for climate control?” and when he replies with a romanticised solution “you should do geothermal, it’s the climate control system of the future” – having spent enough time here I was confident to say “forget geothermal, we need straight air conditioning otherwise, it will be unbearable”. I don’t like air conditioners but sometimes there is no other way.
Did you have any experience in the hotel industry?
No, but I forced myself to get some during that time. I thought there were certain points I could take on, and other parts that I couldn’t. We ended up collaborating with a company that helped out in the investment and operations side, the amount of capital that was needed to invest and to maintain the project. I learned a lot of very interesting things with them, most of all, I learned about what I don’t want to do.
What is the history behind the estate and your family?
Alentejo was brushwood from one end to the other and agricultural production was non-existent.
These lands were hunting grounds for the king, people lived miserably and the population was scarce. With the problems of the monarchy at the start of the century, a decision was passed which became known as “the 1820 liberalisation of the lands” – selling the lands that were not in use, putting more money into the royal house and creating more productivity in areas of the country which had been completely unused.
In 1820, my ancestor Manuel Mendes Papança, a gentleman from a military order and a lawyer who had studied in Coimbra, was able to buy at the time 9 thousand hectares around Monsaraz. He was Council President for 20 years and he enacted something very rare in the 19th century. He was a man of incredible vision: he gave full ownership of lands to small-scale farmers who undertook to plant vines.
This meant that he was able to create a community centred on wine, enabling him to start a central winery where wine was made under the old co-operative principle. So no money was ever exchanged, only goods. By 1870 there was an agricultural industry in the Alentejo which continued to grow through to the 1950s.
There is a beautiful article which was on the cover of Diário de Notícias in 1927, in which, by then his grandson, explains what mass agricultural production is. The funny thing is that an industry which did not exist was professionalised and then Salazar (Prime Minister of Portugal from 1932 to 1968) created his own narrative about Alentejo – his own version and no one else’s – in which he claimed that Alentejo would become “Portugal’s granary”.
He said that he would take the southern part of Alentejo, clean it up from one end to the other and industrialise cereal production. It was a disastrous decision as it drastically accelerated land aridness and tree erosion. It really was a bizarre decision which wasn’t even very logical from the competition standpoint because we couldn’t truly compete in the production of cereal harvested in arid Alentejo when other countries have a lot more and much richer lands.
When the regime ended and the plans didn’t work, extreme poverty set in.
Growing up, what was your own relationship with the estate?
Since 1820, this estate has been handed down from generation to generation. Some periods were more productive than others.
During the 1975 revolution, the year in which I was born, the estate was occupied against the family’s will. There was a warrant out for my family’s arrest and they fled to Spain. That’s when the estate really entered a state of complete disuse and abandonment.
I was just a young kid at the time and my relationship with Alentejo was mainly about holidays. Growing up, the restoration wasn’t important for me but I did think about it sometimes. Then I went abroad to study and work, and there was a moment when I thought it’s now or never. I can do it now, I don’t have children, I’m not married, I can afford to spend some time there and have a good think about the whole thing.
How did the collaboration with the Architect Eduardo Souto Moura come about?
The planning was made with an architect from Lisbon, João Pedro Falcão de Campos. Later I was introduced to Eduardo (Eduardo Souto de Moura), he came here for lunch and I told him that I’d like him to work on the estate because there is no one in Portugal who knows as much as he does about restoration as he does.
Before I started working with him in 2008, I was getting a little fed up. I had already spent 6 years trying to understand the project and I was 33. It was very intense and very personal. From sunrise to sundown, it was my life. Then things changed quite suddenly, and the project started to work itself out.
You’ve learned a lot…
You just keep growing and growing, learning from the experience every member of the team brings in.
We don’t want to be the expected luxury hotel, quite the opposite. We want to be much more personal, intuitive, less signage, less worried about lighting; houses are like that, they have a life of their own. That’s how we like to do things. It’s like the swimming pool issue, I get it; we have to build a separate pool for the kids. (note: the hotel has since built a separate swimming pool for children)
What is the best time of year for people to come and how long should they stay?
My favourite time of year here is spring. As for the number of nights, there are two different takes on it. One, for people who live in Portugal and come for the weekend, a break, you might say. Although we’ve had some surprising stories, we’ve had people come out from New York to spend the weekend and then go back.
The other is the one where you bring your children out for the week and really live the experience intensely – you get that experience I had when I was a kid. We used to go to the Algarve. I would leave the house at 7 am in the morning and only come back at 8 pm in the evening. They can have that here, they can wake up, get on their bikes, get breakfast… they are free.
“He'd sleep in his van all around the Alentejo dealing in roof tiles, then once a week he'd come by and we'd buy them.”
- JOSÉ ANTÓNIO UVA, OWNER
What is your favourite object in the estate and why?
The roof tile. There weren’t enough of the original tiles, so in the specs, it was written: “the tiles that nowadays best imitate the original, which are called the something or other”. I ordered the tiles, looked at them and said: “This is horrible”. The tiles are half the construction works; it’s like someone’s hair.
Those roof tiles weren’t what I was looking for. But then someone told me there was a guy who could source old roof tiles in the Alentejo, but I struggled to get a hold of him. I finally found him at the Algarve Football Stadium. He was in a Ford Transit and said: “I can get you those roof tiles” and I said to him “but I need 300.000 roof tiles” he replied, “Yep, yep, I will bring you roof tiles every week”.
We made an agreement, and in fact, he would sleep in his van all around the Alentejo dealing in roof tiles, then once a week he would come by and we would buy them.
Thank you very much for this interview José.
Thank you too!
Here's hoping you create new memories here in Portugal. Tag us on Instagram (we would love it if you do!) and let us know how it goes. 🤗
Joana and Sofia
© Photos by JO&SO and courtesy of São Lourenço do Barrocal.
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