Number 5: in an occasional series on special hotels
The wines of the Alentejo have soared in quality but still aren’t widely enough appreciated in Britain. There can be no finer hotel than the Convento do Espinheiro from which to explore the vineyards of this long unsung but now resurgent Portuguese province.
The property is on the outskirts of the walled town of Evora (Alentejo’s capital), which is not much more than an hour’s drive from Lisbon – so is easily accessible for a short break. Its core – there is also a modern wing – is a 15th century convent. As such, it has its own, baroque, chapel. The main restaurant in cool opposition to the building’s blazing white exterior, was once the convent’s gothic arched wine cellar. The food is excellent. You could start, for example, with a warm sheep’s cheese and roast fruit kebab, and move on to Seabass with shrimp risotto, perfumed with fennel and pennyroyal. But don’t expect the bargain prices you find in less elegant Portuguese restaurants. It wouldn’t be hard to get through £80 - £100 for two with wine. The hotel’s wine bar, where you might start your tasting exploration, was cistern where water was stored. It’s a short drive to one of the big car parks below Evora’s walls, from which you can walk up the hill to the town’s old centre – a UNESCO World Heritage site.
At top of town are the remains of the Roman Temple of Diana and the magnificent medieval cathedral. But the 15th century, when Portugal’s kings began to make homes there, was its golden age, with the construction of many religious buildings and palace es. Don’t miss the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) whose interior walls and pillars are covered with human skulls. Definitely not for the squeamish. After that you might want to hightail it back to the tranquillity of the Convento to relax in its lush gardens, swim in its pools, or indulge the still living flesh in the spa.
See my article on walking in the Alentejo