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Old and New in Lisbon, PortugalFebruary 20, 2013 By: Richard Nahem Travel Agent
|The iconic 18th-century blue tiles retain the authentic feel of old Portugal to complement Palacio Belmonte’s contemporary features.|
Lisbon is fast becoming a hot European destination, especially for luxury travelers and those prepared to spend a little more to experience the best this world-class capital has to offer. The city possesses a wealth of culture, art, food, hotels, and shopping that’s still under the radar in terms of popularity and priced more affordably than comparable European locales such as Paris, London, Milan, Zurich or Stockholm.
Lisbon perfectly balances the old and orthodox with the modern and new, a blending no more apparent than in the scope of its luxury hotels. We visited two polar opposite properties, a transformed ancient palace with only 10 suites and an up-to-the-minute high-tech hotel on the riverfront.
Upon arriving in the city center, after a convenient and mostly traffic-free 20-minute ride from the airport, we took a taxi to our first hotel, Palacio Belmonte. The driver climbed steep, narrow streets heading up to the Alfama district, and was stumped that he didn’t know the hotel, considering he knew every major hotel in the city. Finally, after stopping at a small souvenir shop to ask directions, he found it and we pulled up to an old building with massive red lacquered doors opening up to a cobblestone courtyard with a café and a subtle gold plaque with the name of the hotel embossed on it.
The hotel is divided into two buildings on either sides of a courtyard. Before being ushered into our room, the manager escorted us to the tranquil courtyard. The courtyard—with orange trees in bloom, a herb garden, and a long, narrow reflecting/wading pool—affords a sweeping panoramic view of the old part of the city.
After climbing two sets of stone steps and going through a myriad of doors we arrived at the Alberto Caeiro suite, a very spacious, 1,000-square-foot plus suite with two bedrooms, a kitchenette, living room, and a vast shower and toilet room. More than a hotel suite, we felt as if we were staying in a friend’s fabulous apartment with handsome furniture, intriguing art, and all the comforts of home. A special touch was the orange on a ceramic plate left on our writing desk, picked from an orange tree right outside the window seat overlooking the garden.
Steeped in history and located in the ancient quarter of Lisbon next to the Sao Jorge Castle, Palacio Belmonte is the oldest building of its kind in the city. Originating in 1449, it was the residence of the Marques d’Atalaia, Alvares Cabral and the Earls of Belmonte for over 500 years. Elements of the palace date back even further with Visigoth pillars from 123 BC and Moorish brick ceilings from the seventh century.
French ecologist Frederic Coustols bought the property in 1994 and made ambitious plans to restore the rundown, 40,000-square-foot palace with its 365 doors and windows to its former grandeur. Being an ecologist, Coustols wanted to preserve the palace’s history and integrity as best as he could and also make it sustainable. Combining painstaking historical research with state-of-the-art restoration techniques, Coustols’ renovation took six years to complete at a cost of approximately $35 million.
Instead of transforming it into a full-blown hotel, Coustols decided to make Palacio Belmonte a 10-suite residence. Each suite is unique and named after a figure in Portuguese culture. They range in size from a cozy 310 square feet to a romantic one-bedroom space measuring 1,750 square feet, including a living room, oversized white-marble bathroom suite, and a terrace with a breathtaking view of the River Tagus. Remnants of the Moorish towers mixed with the iconic 18th-century blue tiles retain the authentic feel of old Portugal to complement the residence’s contemporary features.
Although Palacio Belmonte is billed as a five-star hotel, it doesn’t have all the amenities one would expect: Assuring a relaxing get-away-from-it-all experience, the hotel does not have electronic devices in the suites such as TVs, iPads, iPod docks, and stereos, but does have free Wi-Fi. Also, to maintain the original character of the ancient structure, there are no elevators and many of the rooms have long, winding flights of stairs. On the plus side, the hotel can provide certain amenities you wouldn’t expect, such as a private chef from a Michelin-starred local restaurant to cook in your suite, your own private Fado singer, a special day of wine and olive oil tastings, riding Lusitano horses in the Alentejo, and dinner at an authentic local “tasca.”
Agents can direct any questions they may have to the owner, Maria Mendoc ([email protected]).
Altis Belem Hotel & Spa
Contrasting in location and style, on the other side of the city, is Altis Belem Hotel & Spa, a modern vision in white and glass, on the waterfront facing the River Tagus. The hotel is the latest from—and the crowning achievement of—the Altis Hotel chain, a local company started in 1973 that owns six luxury boutique hotels in the Lisbon area. After seven years of developing the prized waterfront location in between two major historical monuments, the hotel was completed in 2009.
Portuguese architect Manuel Salgado and designers Margarida Gracio Nunes and Fernando Sanchez Salvador worked in tandem to reference the surrounding historical area that landmarks the great Portuguese achievements of the 15th and 16th centuries, and have incorporated it into the design of the hotel. All 45 rooms and five suites represent the territories the Portuguese explored during that period including Africa, South America, and southeast Asia and all have views of the river.
Our room, the Sao Tome, had a dramatic graphic mural in black covered in various shades of red flowers on one wall, while the rest of the room was done in crisp white. The spacious white-and-marble bathroom suite, with a bathtub and separate walk-in shower, will make your clients look for any excuse to spend time in it. Small touches such as mini-plastic cases for the organic Korres soap provided by the hotel, black toilet paper, a bedside switch that electronically opens and closes the drapes, and a Nespresso machine take the Altis Belem Hotel & Spa a step beyond being just the standard boutique property. Other amenities include Interactive plasma TV system with music, films, games and information; safe deposit boxes; free Wi-Fi; mini-bar; working area; and top-quality Portuguese linens.
|The Sao Tome room at Altis Belem has a dramatic graphic mural in black covered in various shades of red flowers on one wall.|
The young and attentive staff looked after our every need. One of us came down with a bad sore throat and fever the first day of our stay and the staff called a doctor, who arrived in less than two hours. They even offered to send homemade soup to the room.
Altis Belem has one of the best restaurants and wine bars in Lisbon, the one-star Michelin-rated Feitoria. Executive Chef Jose Fernando Cordeiro uses mostly Portuguese ingredients to create a blend of classic Portuguese cuisine and throws in flavors and textures of Asia to give it a little twist. The most striking feature of the interior of the restaurant is a reproduction of the panel Namban, depicting the arrival of the Portuguese in Japan. The hotel also has the trendy Bar 38º 41’ and the more casual restaurant, Cafeteria Mensagem, with an oyster and sushi bar.
The mammoth BSpa, measuring the entire lower level of the hotel, has every conceivable service and treatment imaginable. Indoor and outdoor pools, sauna, hammam, luxury cabinets, a sundeck overlooking the city, a Vichy shower, and a full gym with the Kinesis system by Technogym are just a sampling of what the spa offers.
For bookings and queries, reach out to the Altis Belem’s Sales Manager Gilda Cardoso ([email protected]).