Have you ever pulled up to a hotel, taken a look around, and not wanted to get out of the car?That's what happened to me at Pousada Flor da Rosa. The sheer bulk of the former monastery, coupled with its isolation on a vast plain, was overwhelming. The wind made spaghetti out of the cypresses lining the entrance walk, and it was difficult to feel friendly about the arrow slits squinting at me through the crenellations.
What I learned is that you can't judge a pousada by its façade. Get past the chilly reception and Flor da Rosa, situated 125 miles northeast of Lisbon, serves up an experience utterly unlike that of other pousadas. After two aimless days sipping vinho verde and nibbling smoky chouriço while stretched out beside the glamorous pool, I decided that the all-alone setting actually works in the hotel's favor, giving it the self-contained air of a resort. Even my shopping itch was scratched without having to go far. The village of Crato is known for its rustic culinary pottery. I came away with an unreasonable number of jugs and bean pots.
The concierge encouraged me to see the region's famous dolmens, and to visit Portalegre, whose celebrated tapestry workshops are housed in a onetime Jesuit monastery, but I never got to them. If it wasn't the pool keeping me at the pousada it was the star-domed cloister and the whispering clues it supplied to the building's 14th-century residents—monks whose order became the Knights of Malta. If it wasn't the cloister it was the restaurant, where I ate 10 too many filhozes—sweet dough that is shaped into butterflies, deep-fried, and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. If it wasn't the restaurant it was my private terrace with a view across miles of olive groves to a horizon formed by an intense blue sky and the São Mamede Mountains.
My room was in the original building, but many of the units in the hangarlike wing that architect João Luis Carrilho da Graça added in 1995 enjoy the same unbroken perspective. Furnishings are in line with those in other second-generation pousadas: trapezoidal night tables, brushed-chrome bedposts, too-thin upholstery. A few of the 24 rooms have inviting window seats fashioned from stone capitals. A perfect perch from which to contemplate the new design-driven Portugal.
At all the pousadas I visited, the personnel was fresh-faced, obliging, and proficient in English. But don't expect the white-glove treatment. As for food, pousada fare is certainly acceptable, but modest restaurants in the towns I passed through were often a better bet—they seemed to have a more interesting way with Portugal's number-one foodstuff, salt cod.
How to book
From the United States, you can reserve a room through the agent for Pousadas de Portugal (800/223-1356; www.pousadas.com).
Pousada Nossa Senhora da Assunção Arraiolos; 351-266/419-370, fax 351-266/419-280; doubles from $250. Staffers are delighted to share their knowledge of the hotel's history. A swimming pool and tennis court are on the grounds.
Pousada Santa Maria do Bouro Amares; 351-253/371-971, fax 351-253/371-976; doubles from $250. Every piece of printed material on this pousada gives the town of Amares, an hour north of Porto, as its location. But the hotel is actually in the moody mountain village of Bouro, almost eight miles farther north.
Pousada de Dom Afonso II Alcácer do Sal; 351-265/613-070, fax 351-265/613-074; doubles from $153. The pousada is minutes away from the town center and the Igreja de Santiago (whose magnificent azulejos depict the life of Saint Peter).
Pousada Flor da Rosa Crato; 351-245/997-210, fax 351-245/997-212; doubles from $153. Visit Portalegre, for its celebrated tapestry workshops housed in a former Jesuit convent.