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When All the World was Old


© St. Petersburg Times

As we rounded the turn on the narrow, stone-paved road outside of Estremoz in central Portugal, we noticed the ornate architecture of a monastery, nestled in the hillside to our right. It had to have a dramatic view of the valley, the rolling, golden wheat fields and olive orchards, and my wife commented that she wished it was open to the public. The next turn revealed the monastery's entrance and its new function, the Hotel Convento de Sao Paulo.

The monastery was built in 1376 on nearly 1,500 acres of gardens and groves. But it recently had been converted into a first-class hotel featuring just 20 rooms but what was said to be the largest private collection (more than 50,000) of Portuguese hand-painted tiles. The blue and white tiles, azulejos, line all the walls, hallways and elaborate fountains.

Normally we would have stayed several nights to absorb the history and peaceful atmosphere, but we had prepaid reservations at the Pousada de Isabelle, a 13th-century castle still a 15-minute drive away. We settled for a superb lunch and a tour of the monastery hotel by its owner.

This is an example of the surprises -- and the choices to be made -- on the lesser roads of Portugal.

My wife and I are typical of many working couples, finding it difficult to schedule a vacation that lasts longer than a week. Portugal was an ideal choice: In a relatively small area, it offers cove beaches, respectable mountains, small villages that seem frozen in time and accessible historical architecture. The next question was how to get the most out of so short a period of time. The pousadas of Portugal

The pousadas (poo-SAH-duhs, literally, "to rest") are government-owned, three-star hotels in areas of historic interest. There are more than three dozen, divided into three categories: those in national monuments, those in historical zones and regional pousadas (the most numerous). The national monument pousadas are in castles or forts, and are considered the jewels of the program. The historical zone pousadas are decent, modern hotels, designed to lure tourists to regions that don't have other good accommodations. The regional pousadas are generally for special activities: some are hunting lodges, others are on golf courses.

Our favorite, although the least formal, was the Pousada da Fourtaleza do Baliche, in the Algarve region of the southern coast. This was a small fort built in the days of Henry the Navigator, when Portugal led the exploration of the New World. Stone walls defend the fort from the land on three sides, and the inside courtyard is open on the fourth side to a cliff falling 300 feet to the sea.

Inside the courtyard is a small yellow chapel, four hotel rooms and the combination kitchen, bar and dining room, as well as a stone patio at the edge of the cliff. The patio is a perfect spot to enjoy a local wine (vinho verde) as the sun sets and the small fishing boats go out for their night's work.

The view to the west, about two miles away, is the "end of the world" (the southwest corner of the European continent), famous when everyone knew the Earth was flat. One of the world's most powerful lighthouses marks the spot. The view to the east, on the next finger of cliffs that juts into the sea, is the larger fort that was the school for Henry the Navigator. Here he trained the explorers to go forward and disprove the end-of-the-Earth theory.

The town of Sagres, inland from the fort, doesn't offer a lot of amenities, but does have a great informal restaurant named Restaurant Tosca. The stone patio is nestled in the hills overlooking the port of Sagres, and they offer the freshest fish, prepared simply over a charcoal grill. The prawns are 10 inches long and grilled to perfection.

We also stayed at the Pousada de St. Isabel. The castle was built in 1258, and was the home of Dinis I and his wife Queen Isabel, who was later canonized by the Catholic church.

There is something extraordinary about walking down the sweeping grand staircase of a castle, to be seated for dinner in the dining hall, surrounded by 20-foot-tall fireplaces, crystal chandeliers and tables scattered between massive stone columns. You feel as if you are certainly doing the right thing, you are just doing it in the wrong century. Back roads and villages

Portugal has a few main highways but the feel of old Portugal is preserved on the lesser roads. Although most of the narrow roads are now paved with asphalt, in many areas the original stone has been retained, or has regained control from the newer materials. A good navigator is a must -- no road is straight or flat, many are not named or numbered. Nor do the roads always offer the width to accommodate vehicles approaching from opposite directions.

Although a series of signs at each crossroads point to towns or villages, there is no consistency to the signed destinations; they can be as minor as someone's home (ignore Casa do anything). The result is that you typically are in a state of being technically lost. Fortunately, nothing is very far apart, and you end up where you wanted about the time you wanted to get there.

Your reward for the confusion is white-washed villages built around ancient churches. Eight-foot-wide stone roads define a vertical and horizontal maze as you pass elaborately carved and decorated doors that are both unusual and elegant. The immaculate houses are trimmed in bright colors, in contrast to the elderly women who stroll the streets dressed in black. Small cafes open to three or four tables and are the gathering point for residents. It is a warm feeling to know that downsizing, stress and the information highway haven't found these small corners. If you go

Portugal remains a good value for the dollar compared with other European nations, although since its inclusion in the European Union, Portugal is no longer ridiculously cheap. A typical dinner for two at a good restaurant including wine is less than $40. Pousada prices range from $80 to $220 (reservations should be made well in advance if you will be staying during the summer tourist season). Hotel rooms for less than $80 are normal, with budget hotels $50 or less. Economy rental cars are about $220 per week, unlimited mileage.

A good staging point for exploring Portugal is Cascais on the Atlantic, outside Lisbon on the ocean. It has the flavor of southern, on-the-Mediterranean Europe, with outdoor cafes and good restaurants and shopping.

Pousadas can be booked through Enatur, telephone 01-848 12 21; fax 01-80 58 46.

Hotel Convento de Sao Paulo, telephone 066-999100; fax 066-999104.

For information on Portugal, contact the Portuguese National Tourist Office, 590 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10036; (212) 354-4403.

Originally published September 21, 1997

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