Traveling in Portugal to scout for Classic Journeys sounds like nothing but fun. And, okay, even on a so-so day, the job beats patching potholes or scrubbing the sink. But, oh, the stories we could tell about mystery meals, phantom footpaths and roosters crowing us awake at 4 a.m. On a scouting trip, one kisses a lot of proverbial frogs to find a few princes. Still, it is a critical step in curating a smooth-as-silk trip, and when you strike gold it is magic. Just ask Laila van der Meulen, a Classic Journeys tour operations manager, about the treasure she found traveling in Portugal.
That day had the feel of a 5-star runaround. The rental car’s Garmin spouted iffy directions. The long lane was pretty enough, but was looking like a road to nowhere with no hint of the expected estate-hotel. And then it happened: “All of a sudden, we turned a corner and saw a beautiful manor house overlooking a sweep of vineyards and orchards.”
FINDING A TREASURE
That vision was Casa Dos Viscondes da Várzea, an estate that has been the seat of a noble family for 800 years. But when you’re scouting, you can’t always trust first impressions. Would there be a snarling dog? A fechado (closed) sign tacked to the door? Not this time. The Viscondessa whose family built the place waited at the door. “Maria met us with a big hug and kiss. She is the most enthusiastic and happy person I have ever met,” says Laila. (Maria also prefers being called by her first name.) That’s just about everything we crave in a hotel: heritage, crazily beautiful location and personal hospitality.
The inn’s front desk and living rooms are in the house where Maria was raised as a child. And her life, like her home, is a fascinating open book. In the revolution of 1974, the government wrested control of the estate from Maria’s military family and later sold the property to Seagram’s/Sandeman. Forced to Lisbon, Maria and her husband, José Pedro, became teachers. She dreamed of reclaiming the estate.
A FATEFUL REUNION
Today, she laughs as she recalls her mother’s warning that she wouldn’t even be able to afford the windows. A determined Maria opened boutiques in Lisbon and Spain. After 27 years of hard work and saving, she took back the keys to her home — though windows were the least of her worries because the manor house was roofless. With her husband, she began the arduous job of restoring the property, even sewing the curtains herself.
Then fate intervened again. After many childless years, with the aid of in vitro fertilization she had twin boys at age 50 — an event that transformed her into a national celebrity. The expanded family decided to move to the cleaner air in the Douro Valley and to open their home to guests. The rest, as they say, is history — or should we say the future of Classic Journeys, as all of our Portugal trips now include time here.
In the ultimate sacrifice, Laila pre-tasted the estate’s wine and olives. Her scouting report confirms that the sun strikes the pool in the gardens perfectly. She’s suggested that she should return for more dinners in the private dining room just to be sure everything is perfect. Best of all, she formed a bond with this remarkable family that translates into warm greetings for all of our guests.
“Every day is a fight to keep the estate,” Maria told Laila. “But you have to have a dream. It gives you energy!” Her estate is certainly our dream come true. In a world where authenticity is harder than ever to find, we’ll keep sticking our heads around the next crook in the lane. Usually there’s just a puddle, but sometimes there’s a little paradise. And that’s what scouting is all about.
BE HER GUEST.
Is Maria Portugal’s most vivacious and cordial viscondessa? Spoiler alert: The answer is a resounding “Yes!” (thanks to our very special relationship with her).
She welcomes you on the soaring open-air veranda with a glass of the estate’s wine and traditional cod cakes. But one mustn’t over-nibble lest you spoil the family-style dinner she’s planned with service in the manor’s ornate private dining room.
Of course, like all of our Cultural Walking Adventures, you will take in the local scenery on a nice walk through the area. You’ll have full run of the grounds, including time for a stroll through her vineyards and orchards down to the Rio Varosa. For Classic Journeys guests, Maria also arranges a private Rabelo boat, a style of craft found only in the Douro River valley, for a lazy ride on the river with (can this be any surprise by now?) an onboard picnic prepared in her kitchens.
Her splendid and very personal hospitality is just one of the unique Portuguese experiences in a week that roves from a grand palace in a sacred forest to the sea-salt harvest in Aveiro to Lisbon and Porto.
Read more about travel to Portugal.