My secret place: Herdade do Vau, Alentejo, Portugal
It is not the first time I have written about this special part of the world. Alentejo, the bit “between” Lisbon and the Algarve, is home to one of my favourite regions in Portugal – nice and warm (which can be an understatement), incredible scenery, amazing wine and, well, let’s not forget the food. No dieting allowed.
This time around, it was time to try something new and special – Herdade do Vau. Located around Serpa and Beja, it took us around 2 hours to get there from Lisbon, where we flew to. I usually associate Alentejo with flat land, where you can see for miles. There is always an olive grove, a vineyard or a cork tree around – but in this area, the scenery is even more intriguing.
The road to Beja is absolutely fine – it is motorway for most of it, but when you get to the town, things certainly get interesting. I used Google Maps and seriously thought I was going to get lost. Gravel roads and the odd water stream – I couldn’t quite believe it.
But it was all correct – I must confess I was quite impressed with Google’s knowledge of this neck of the woods. But as Miguel and Maria Manuel, our incredible hosts, said – “one needs to go through hell to get to heaven”. I couldn’t agree more. The team at Herdade do Vau, a brand new ‘bio-chic’ project (I wouldn’t call it a hotel, because it felt completely different), had been inviting me to come and visit for almost a year – before the project was even completed. Knowing how busy my schedule gets in advance, I was most impressed by their insistence and persistence.
I arrived, with Mr. O of course, not knowing what to expect. I saw some photos and they looked great (but not of the finished product), and all I knew is that there would be some wine involved. I am not one to take many risks, but something kept telling me I should go on this trip and just enjoy. And, oh my God, I so did!
We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, faced with 40C (106F) – it would be fair to say it was ‘nice and warm’. We met Miguel and Maria Manuel and after we dropped our things in our (lovely room), we made our way to the pool. There was nowhere else (except indoors) we could be – and the invite to get things started with a nice and cold white port and tonic was too good to refuse.
On this particular day, the pool was all ours – other guests arrived just before dinner – and it was perfect. The hotel, currently has 8 bedrooms (and some family suites will be added later). It is as rural (but also very chic) as it gets. We couldn’t get other the peace and quiet, the heat and the views…
Before we knew it, the sun had set – I can’t tell you where time went. And I can promise you one thing: I did not move. There would be plenty of activities I could have got on.. but between you and me.. well, everyone knew that there would be only one thing I would be doing that day: sunbathing and chatting away.
Before dinner (which can be included in the daily rate), it was time for some tapas and, well, try the ‘house’ wine. Miguel Sousa Otto started his wine project (with some friends) a few years ago. I love a good ‘left my corporate career and decided to move south and make some wine’ story and theirs was one of the most compelling I have ever heard. It is inspiring when you see these ‘labour of love’ projects come to life and people doing genuinely what they love.
The wine was really quite nice – both the white (pictured) and the red, which we tried for dinner (and brought home!). Dinner was a great experience, and totally different – we were joined by our hosts, and the other guests (a Polish couple) and ate partridge (and other delicacies) by the pool. It was a great way to spend the evening and, before we knew it, it was 2am. Certainly time for bed.
We had some decent sleep – and I must confess breakfast took place at around 12 noon, which was absolutely fine by everyone. We were actually surprised to find the other guests ‘at that time’… bad Portuguese habits!
We spent the rest of the day at the pool (I seriously could not be tempted to go for a walk, which means I need to go back to explore a bit more.. perhaps when it isn’t 40C). And we read, and we ate, and we relaxed. Can you think of a more perfect lunch by the pool?
Mr. O was in his element – I hadn’t seem him so relaxed in under 24 hours. I wasn’t far off myself – have I mentioned that there is no wi-fi yet? We had outstanding mobile signal, which was OK, but to be honest, it didn’t really matter (worry not, it is just a matter of the Portuguese utility company going and installing it. This could mean months obviously, so if this is a make or break, please enquire before).
One thing I had my eye on and needed to try: the hammock. I thought it was the perfect place to enjoy a book (I read a fantastic book there – ‘A night at the Orient Express’, and the contrast of both settings couldn’t be more dramatic!)
Before dinner, we finally got back into the car and headed to nearby Serpa. It took us an hour to drive the 20 kms (because we didn’t have a 4WD), but I can’t tell you how much I was looking forward to it. Why? Because I hadn’t been there for over 20 years, and because I was going to meet one of my readers, the lovely Filomena, who lived there. What are the odds of that happening? Many, it seems. Filomena, who has been reading the blog for months and is an active member of my Facebook community offered to show me around and take me to a special place: a little shop where I could stock up on one of Serpa’s jewels – the cheese. Sadly, with all the excitement, we didn’t take any photos together – but I am sure we will meet again.
You may know (or not), that in this part of Portugal, traditional houses are painted white and then have some accents in either yellow or blue – it is very traditional and part of the landscape. But not in Serpa! Why? Well, we should start calling it the town painted ’50 shades of grey’ – as it is the only colour allowed. I thought it looked fab, and can only thank Filomena for sending me these great photos.
Before we knew it, it was time for dinner – not without an exciting drive. I was mesmerised by the outstanding natural beauty of this part of Portugal, my country, and if anything, I hope these photos inspire you to visit one day.
Dinner was a special one. Why? Because Miguel and Maria (and their lovely daughter Maria) paid attention to one of our many dinner conversations and decided to surprise us with some of Mr. O’s (and mine) favourite Portuguese dishes – that would be clams (ameijoas a bulhao pato) and pea stew with poached eggs (ervilhas com ovos escalfados). Doesn’t sound exciting? Believe me, it was. That, paired with wonderful wine and company – this time around, we were joined by an intriguing couple where the lady was French and the gentleman was Italian. Over dinner we spoke a mix of Portuguese, French, English and Italian – we laughed, we had some lovely food and somehow, we all understood each other.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed my two-night stay at Herdade do Vau. I loved everything about it – it was simple, but had everything we needed. It was uncluttered, clean, understated, comfortable. It had its own personality and I think that this is what makes it very special. It will be interesting to see what the future brings to the Sousa Otto family in terms of the hospitality project and, obviously the wine.
What I know for sure? That Mr. O and I will be back next summer – it may even become an O’Reilly tradition.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Herdade do Vau, and I can’t tell you how much I loved it. If you would like to try a bit of this for yourself, get in touch directly and book 2 nights, including breakfast on both days, one dinner, one lunch and a jeep trip around the local area for 245 Euros per couple. Just tell them Mrs. O sent you.