In addition to the state-run pousadas, Portugal offers a lodging system that is often even more luxurious, and a more interesting experience for travelers who enjoy a look inside local life. Solares de Portugal members welcome guests in privately owned historic properties, but unlike pousadas, your hosts are the owners themselves. These may be the descendants of noble families, who inherited the land and palace from generations before them.
Our room at Casa das Torres de Oliveira, in Portugalís Douro Valley, is a long climb from the grand central entrance (donít expect elevators or bellmen in these otherwise luxurious lodgings). But what a room it is Ė at the top of one of the square towers that gives this early 18th-century manor house its name. Like the tower it crowns, the room is square, with four enormous windows overlooking the two valley sides of the estate and four smaller windows overlooking the uphill sides.
It hardly seemed possible that the view could get any better than the one we saw as we drove through the big stone gates into the courtyard and looked out over the deep valley below. But from the vantage point of our tower windows we can see even farther Ė in one direction to the Douro River winding through the great Port wine region and in the other to the jagged peak of a mountain half hidden in gathering storm clouds. Between the two, a steep valley drops below, its sides striped with terraces of grape vines, bright green with their spring leaves.
Inside the room, lit by the late afternoon sun, is not at all what one would expect of a stately home from the 1700s. Bright and inviting, the room is grand without being overwhelming. The four tall and four smaller windows are surrounded in granite, as are the doors, and granite window seats are set into the deep recesses of two of them. Draperies the color of port wine frame them without covering the views. The ceiling is paneled wood, 15 feet above us.
The antiques that furnish the room are not massive or heavy. A narrow desk between the windows has a book of information about the house and the region Ė in English, and a comfortable velour-covered chair invites us to sit and read.
The bathroom is not only huge, it is charming, set several steps down from our room with a deep tub and a skylight. It is bright, modern and separately heated so it is toasty warm when we step from the bath or shower.
Because we didnít know what time we would arrive the first night, we did not reserve for dinner, but our hostess, Donna Isidora Reguela de Sousa Girao suggests a nearby restaurant where we can enjoy another view of the Douro Valley, above the riverside city of Peso de Regua. The drive there is precipitous, but the road good, and the view well worth it.
The storm has moved toward us by the time we arrive and as we are shown to our table, a rainbow drops from the gray clouds into the sunlit valley at our feet. All around are hillsides of wine grapes, dotted with farmhouses that clung to the steep slopes. As we dine on roast suckling pig and drink a very good local wine, a cruise boat glides up the river to dock in Pesa de Regua. The birds-eye view over the town of Regua, the river and the valley justifies the restaurantís name: Veranda de Regua.
We have heard from fellow guests that dinners at Casa das Torres de Oliveira are excellent, and we determine not to miss another one. The wines are their own, among the best known in the region, from grapes grown on the 30 hectares of vineyards below the estate.
Guests at these lovely manor houses need to be prepared that their host may not speak English, although they are quite adept at finding a common language, and often someone in the family does speak English. And in the case of Casa de Torres de Oliveira, guests can expect a final approach on a steep mountain road. But the view, the room, and the warmth of our hosts was well worth these minor inconveniences.