If any property can be considered the “flagship” of the Solares de Portugal, it would certainly be the family palace of the Count of Calheiros, the long-term President of TURIHAB, parent organization of the Solares program. Ask anyone connected with the Solares and they will tell you that he has been far more than President – he’s been the guiding hand that has brought this program to life, worked for its recognition and made it a success.
Conde Francisco de Calheiros himself would tell you it is the member owners who have made the program a success, by constantly working to improve the experience they offer travelers in Portugal. But having stayed at Paco de Calheiros a few weeks ago, I know that the count sets a high standard by being a good example.
This classic Portuguese manor house is set grandly in extensive gardens overlooking its vineyards and the northern Portuguese town of Ponte de Lima (you can see the famous Roman and Medieval bridge from the gardens). Owned by the same family since the 14th century, the original manor was replaced by this one in the 17th century, and is considered one of the finest examples from that era. A grand staircase rises from the end of an archway of trees leading from the front gate. At the top is the sala nobile, the main floor with its grand salons, dining room, comfortable sitting rooms and some of the guest rooms.
These are all freshly updated and restored, with polished chestnut ceilings, Arraiolos carpets and family antiques – one guest room in the main house has as its focal point a deeply carved Empire bed. Modern bathrooms are lined in azulejos, the decorative tiles that are one of the legacies of the Moorish centuries in Portugal.
Our room was on the ground floor, at the end of the palace that overlooks the formal gardens and the town below. We could look out through the full-length glass doors or open them to step onto descending terraces of parterre flower beds. Below, vineyards stretched row on row, bordered by a walking trail on which guests can explore the estate.
We arrived on the heels of a spring shower that left every dark green leaf on the orange and lemon trees and every blossom in the garden sparkling in the late sunlight. We waited until morning to wander through the gardens that surround the house, strolling through terraces of stone walls, under vine-draped pergolas that frame views of box-bordered parterres, lawns and flower beds.
Among these is the vegetable garden, where the count told us they grow the lettuce, onions, potatoes and kale used in the kitchen. The salad we enjoyed at dinner wasn’t more than a few hours from that garden. Dinner was delicious – a rich soup (the paco’s kitchen is known for its soups based on their own vegetables and herbs), the salad and a choice of two main dishes. Portuguese wines accompanied the dinner, which we ate in the formal dining room. But the meal was informal and companionable – just the two of us, two other guests from Germany, and our hosts.
The count’s enthusiasm for his region and for the Solares de Portugal program is contagious, and fellow guests at dinner are sure to be people who enjoy going beyond the usual mass tourism experience, so conversation at the table is always lively. While most guests at Solares de Portugal like to sample the local restaurants (and in Ponte de Lima these are certainly worth sampling), guests should plan to have dinner at Paco de Calheiros at least one evening. Because the hosts both speak fluent English, dining “at home” with them is both delightful and part of the whole experience of staying here.
Solares de Portugal, the association of manor house and rural lodgings, can help plan an itinerary of privately owned estates and exceptional homes such as Paco de Calheiros. At Solares establishments, located all over Portugal (but mainly in the north) your hosts are always the owners themselves. This adds a dimension to your travels that those who stay in hotels miss entirely.