Read our writer's views on this property below
Family dinners, comfy rooms, lots of eucalypts ... Rita Erlich feels almost at home.
We have just arrived after getting lost on the road, as we always do in Portugal. It's mid-afternoon, our suitcases are not yet unpacked and we are sitting on the long veranda eating sandwiches that include lettuce from the garden and drinking the house white wine while overlooking the sunny garden. Children are laughing and chatting in Portuguese with their parents and grandparents, who own the property. We're on the edge of family life.
This is some family, into its 23rd generation at Casa de Sezim, in the north of Portugal. The quality of its wines was first noted sometime in the 13th century. The house was built in the 18th century as a summer residence and, about 25 years ago, the stables were turned into bedrooms with en suites.
In the living rooms are paintings of ancestors and photographs of current generations, as well as all manner of treasures. The wallpaper was handpainted in Paris early in the 19th century, while the furniture is a lesson in Portuguese history and the country's involvement in India and Brazil.
This is the way Portugal does bed-and-breakfast. Casa de Sezim is one of a group known as solares: private houses, usually of six or seven rooms, restored to accommodate a small number of guests.
The idea is to encourage sustainable tourism, to include tourists in local life and to promote Portuguese history and heritage. All solares are remarkable in some way: their architecture, their gardens, their food or wines. Many score on all counts.
The strength – and weakness – of solares is that they are privately owned and each is as distinctive as its family. If you don't like family life, avoid the solares. Each has its own story and its own eccentricities. All seem to combine luxury with a certain restraint: priceless antiques, swimming pools, sitting rooms but no toiletries or hairdryer in the bathrooms and, usually, no television in the bedrooms. All owners are meant to speak English or French but that's not always the case.
When we arrive on a wet summer's day at Casa das Torres de Oliveira, an imposing early-19th-century building in a tiny village, we are greeted by an impeccably groomed woman and a nervous younger woman in her first week of employment. The older woman speaks Spanish (which I can understand but not speak), the younger one has a little German (of which I understand less). It is not a promising beginning. The bedrooms are reached by steep stone staircases and a walk across a wet courtyard. The place seems like a cross between Blackadder Manse and Fawlty Towers.
Dinner is homely and plentiful, the bedrooms spacious (and warm, once we work out the heating system), the mattresses comfortable and there's a folder of suggested itineraries in largely correct English. On the third morning, the weather clears, the sun shines and the older woman, tucking her arm into mine, takes us on a tour of the house that is both a private family history and an incidental history of Portuguese decorative arts.
At Quinta do Convento da Franqueira, near Barcelos, there's an abundance of English and a different story. While looking for somewhere to retire in the mid-1960s, Englishman Brian Gallie bought a desolate former 16th-century monastery on a whim. When he died, his son, Piers, and daughter-in-law, Kate, took over restoring and maintaining the property. They planted (or replanted) vineyards and added guest rooms that are furnished more in the English style. The rooms are pretty and come with all the extras that are missing elsewhere: a hairdryer, an electric kettle.
Many places provide dinner on request. Dinner is pot luck but always fundamentally formal home-style Portuguese. That means there will be three courses, the main served from platters, with second helpings available. In the north, rice dishes are common. We have arroz con pato (rice with duck) a couple of times and potatoes (which are extremely good) are sometimes served in addition to rice. The house wines vary from the outstanding (that served at Casa de Mogofores) to the acceptable. There's the same variability in the accommodation. Casa de Mogofores has great beds and bathrooms; at Casa de Sezim, we find the mattresses not terribly comfortable and the shower cantankerous. The painted wallpaper, gardens and pool are a fair trade in my view but friends don't share my opinion.
A striking thing about northern Portugal is the number of eucalypts. At Casa das Torres de Oliveira, there is a massive tree in the garden. Its age is unknown but it could have been there for a century. Near the Convento da Franqueira, we stroll down the deserted road past a stand of tall, slender gums. The overwhelming scent is of eucalyptus. Looks like home – but not quite.
Room rates range from €80-€120 ($129-$193) a night, including breakfast. For more information, see solaresdeportugal.pt.