A Conversation with Rodrigo Machaz about Memmo Alfama in Lisbon

October 27, 2015

Rodrigo Machaz is a passionate surfer, excellent hotelier and the creative mind behind Memmo Alfama, a boutique hotel in Lisbon with a rooftop pool bar in the picturesque and soulful Alfama.

A Conversation with Rodrigo Machaz about Memmo Alfama in Lisbon

“From the very beginning all we knew was that we wanted to be in Alfama.”

How did the idea of starting a boutique hotel in Lisbon come about?

Eight years ago, I challenged João Corrêa Nunes, my business partner and co-founder, to work out how we could kick off the Memmo project. The first thing we invested in was creating a brand. From the very beginning, our aim was to be able to tell a story and to have a mission and a soul.

Our logo, the ‘chameleon’ represents how we want to adapt the hotels to their environment. Our brand has a strong focus on our 3 core values: hospitality, great service, and remaining contemporary. We also focus on originality, which for me means doing the same thing in different ways. These aims are true for all of the Memmo collection hotels.

Memmo’s iconic red infinity pool.

Was the original plan always for the hotel to be in Alfama?

We picked Alfama because it is, in our opinion, Lisbon’s most authentic neighbourhood. At the beginning we weren’t sure about the exact concept for the hotel – all we knew was that we wanted to be in Alfama. We decided to be there seven years prior to finding the building, one year after opening Memmo Baleeira.

Our ambition is to showcase the most authentic aspects of each destination. Our tagline is “Unforgettable Hotels” so if you’re going to stay at Memmo Alfama the statement we are making is “You’ll never forget the authentic Lisbon”.

We felt it was going to be a challenge to build a hotel in a hidden cobbled street. It had everything we were looking for including the surprise factor – which is a reflection of Alfama itself. At first, you walk into a new street without any expectation and then all of a sudden you come across an amazing view over the city. It makes you feel like you’re a bird.

Memmo Alfama in 2009 prior to construction works. It used to be a shoe-polish factory.

How do you describe the architecture and interior?

One of the interesting things is the fact that we avoided the obvious. We could have gone down that route; you know, the ‘fado, the ‘azulejos’… the typical Portuguese characteristics. We wanted it to feel like your house in Alfama, not the museum of Alfama. We wanted our guests to discover the authenticity through the location. We decided to go down the contemporary route, which is unexpected.

You can already hear the fado in the streets, therefore we don’t need a big photo of Amalia Rodrigues (the most famous Portuguese Fado artist) on the wall. We also wanted to tell the story behind the building – for example, we have this photo on display which looks like two sculptures dancing, which was taken by the celebrated photographer Alexandre Coque. The photo itself was taken here, where his studio was based.

We have a mural of a working-class local man which was created by the street artist Vhils who also created a mural for us in Baleeira. We want to be unique without being pretentious.

The architect, Samuel Torres de Carvalho, did a superb job in creating coherence between the two original buildings. The buildings were totally abandoned and I didn’t think it would be possible to create a hotel out of the space. It was a team effort – my partner João and Samuel, were key in making the concept a reality.

On the street just by Memmo’s entrance there’s beautiful mural which was created by Vhils (Alexandre Farto, a Portuguese street artist) which represents a working class local man.

Please tell us about the rooms in the hotel.

The rooms are small because everything in Alfama is small. The concept has always been ‘to create your house in Alfama’. Comfort is our number one priority – everything from the materials we have used to the beds and duvets. Each bed has 6 pillows. The colour palette is quite warm so it feels more like your own room than a hotel room. We have a strong focus on Portuguese products – in the minibar we have Vidago water, not Perrier and Super Bock, not Heineken.

Tell us something unusual about this neighbourhood.

What I love the most about walking around the streets is that it feels like going back in time – how it was to live behind the castle walls, on narrow streets with the neighbours talking from one window to another. Pretty much everywhere else, this feeling has been lost.

Here locals still know each others’ names, whom married who and did what. It’s a big contrast with downtown Lisbon. Even if you’re new to the neighbourhood, people talk to you and invite you over. People make you feel welcome and you become part of the Alfama family.

Is it true that the swimming pool is red because it merges with Alfama’s rooftops and otherwise, the council wouldn’t have given permission to build it?

No, that’s not totally true. We already had the approval to build the swimming pool. It was Samuel’s idea because you can see the hotel from one of the main view points here in Alfama – Mirador de Santa Luzia. We didn’t want to break the coherence of the view. Even when you fly you can always notice swimming pools from the plane and we didn’t want that.

The idea was for the swimming pool to blend in with the scenery as much as possible, not to distract from it.

What sets your guests’ experience apart from other hotels?

We want people to feel at home. We offer a ‘check-in later’ concept. You arrive, you’re tired, you want a shower – you can go straight into your room. You check-in when you’re ready.

It’s like getting to a friend’s house after a long journey, “go and chill, we can talk later”. We know the guest’s name, we don’t need anything else.

We also offer the 'Memmo Walking Tours' where every day at 10 am our customers are welcome to join us for a complimentary tour of the neighbourhood.

Memmo offer a ‘check in later’ concept. “You arrive, you’re tired, you want a shower – you can go straight into your room and check in when you’re ready.” - Rodrigo

You have a lot of experience working with hotels, has that always been a passion of yours?

It has – I grew up with hotels. My grandfather founded the Tivoli Hotels and my dad also always worked with hotels. I studied Business Management but not with the aim of working in hotels but once I worked at the Four Seasons, I realised, “this is what I want to do!”.

Back then the Managing Director of a hotel was more like a PR person but I have always loved marketing and creative concepts. It’s very important to know how to host people but I also love telling a story. I wanted to create a project for travellers, not for tourists.

For me, the traveller is that person that wants to try new things and that’s what captivates me. People can feel when there’s a passion behind what you do.

“People can feel when there’s passion behind what you do.”

What’s your favourite hotel worldwide?

The hotels that have the most impact on me are the ones that bring me back the most special memories.

Recently I visited Vidago Palace and Tivoli Palácio de Seteais, they’re fabulous hotels, full of authenticity and glamour, it’s like travelling back in time. They’re incredible! I also love Areias do Seixo, it is relaxed luxury.

I love The London EDITION, which mixes a lot of concepts and values that I believe in. It is a contemporary classic. Classic can be very heavy whilst contemporary gives it some balance. They’ve achieved that very well. It’s a very classic building with some design twists that give it a really cool vibe.

The Four Seasons Hotel Chiang Mai is spectacular – an unforgettable experience.

Next week I’m off to Morocco and I’m going to stay at a hostel, Surf Morocco Taghazouta, so it depends where I’m going to and what type of visit it is. If I’m going surfing with four friends I’m not interested in the quality of the bed or the comfort, I’m interested in the surf community and spending time with them.

Vidago Palace is one of Rodrigo’s favourite hotels in Portugal.
One of Rodrigo’s favourite hotels abroad is the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai in Thailand, describing it as “spectacular, an unforgettable experience.”

You’re a family man and you also run another Memmo Baleeira in the Algarve – how do you juggle your time between it all?

It’s like having one kid and then having three. It’s by sharing the energy and the love a little bit with all of them and ensuring you’re still looking after the oldest one because it’s easy to be charmed by the youngest one. Getting away is also important, sometimes if you spend too much time at the hotel it’s possible for you to overlook certain details which you can then spot when you’ve kept a bit of distance.

Any plans for the future?

Soon we will be opening another hotel in Principe Real (Lisbon). My mind has been busy thinking about what will differentiate Memmo Principe Real from Memmo Alfama. We can’t rely on the neighbourhood factor alone. It will be our most premium hotel, a five-star hotel. I’m not too focused on the stars but as our most expensive hotel, it needs to be the best. However, although the cost is related to value, it is possible for a cheaper location to have more value and meaning to you.

The element of diversity is the biggest difference between a hotel collection and a hotel chain. A chain retains a linear concept – they all look the same and the experience is the same. It’s like when you buy a new watch for a collection. Each one is different and special in its own way.

It’s more challenging for us to open another hotel in Lisbon than in Porto but I love challenges.

Thank you very much for this interview Rodrigo.

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. 🤗

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Joana and Sofia

Check out our full report on Memmo Alfama

© Photos by JO&SO and courtesy of Memmo Alfama.

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