Shelve the old saw about Portugal being the most unknowable country in Europe. For decades, people with the inside track have known that the most intimate way to experience it is through the state-owned network of pousadas—hotels that offer great value and are often folded into buildings of historical interest. But whereas first-generation pousadas tend to be a bit olde-worldy—an atmosphere conjured, it has to be said, with factory-fresh "antiques"—the latest crop is staking its reputation on bold, modern design that grabs you by the shirtfront. The target customer is young, plugged-in, visually adventurous—me.
And yet, while the artistic about-face at Pousadas de Portugal, as the network is known, sounded intriguing, I was worried. Would the properties wind up seeming like pathetic wannabes, mealy attempts at South Beach-style boutique hotels?
Quite the opposite: the four freshly minted pousadas held their own, with vision and punch to spare. One thing they do require is an appreciation of guest rooms with hard surfaces, abrupt angles, and a bracing, here-and-now aesthetic.
Froufrou?In the new Portugal?Forget about it.
Like the best new-wave pousadas, Nossa Senhora da Assunção is a balancing act. Rooted in the past, it also makes a strong claim on the present. The estate dates from the mid 14th century, when a local count constructed a palace below Arraiolos, a hill town filled today with storefront workrooms displaying beautiful handmade floral carpets. In 1496 the palace was sold to Afonso Garcês, secretary to three Portuguese kings, whose family subsequently bequeathed it to a religious order. Fifteen of Assunção's guest rooms are in the monastery, built by the order in a hybrid Renaissance-Manueline (after King Manuel) idiom. The contrast between the monastery setting and the whittled-down, take-no-prisoners style of the decoration is delicious. Reminiscent of a steamship, the staunchly modern, 17-room wing added by architect José Paulo dos Santos in 1996 seems poised to raise anchor and start sailing across the valley any second.
Only Assunção's heavenly location, 78 miles east of Lisbon, trumps the architecture. In just one model "pousada moment," guests are plunged in history as they descend the snaking road from Arraiolos and glimpse the hotel's welcoming bell tower. A wide-open landscape unfolds in an enchanting disarray of olive, cork, and almond trees. Whinnying horses, bleating sheep, and the reassuring hum of far-off agricultural machinery supply the sound track.
The hyphen between the hotel's inside and outside worlds is a portico with six rhyming arches, a ribbed dome, and stone benches clad in a harlequin pattern of non-figurative blue-and-white tiles, or azulejos. Just as it must have done for those long-ago monks, the portico induces a fuzzy sense of well-being. It is also a great tease. After checking in, it took me nearly half an hour to reach my room because there was so much to see on the way, including a glassed-in cloister planted with citrus trees and fragrant lilies. Opposite the cloister, Assunção's church has a stunning gilded retable and painted wooden statues. Connoisseurs of azulejos come from all over Portugal to view the giant 18th-century panels depicting several saints and the miracles they enacted, as well as grotesques and angels.
If all 44 of Pousadas de Portugal's properties were competing for best design, Santa Maria do Bouro would place first. No architect hired by the group to transform a historic building into a hotel has pushed the envelope further than Bouro's Edouardo Souto de Moura. A well-known member of the so-called Porto School, whose most celebrated adherent is the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Álvaro Siza, Souto de Moura practices a site-sensitive minimalism that betrays the influence of Modernist masters Mies van der Rohe and Luis Barragán.
Built in the 12th century, Santa Maria was a Cistercian monastery until it was sold at auction in 1834. A pre-dinner walk takes me through the pousada's cloister, whose floor is pierced by a stone channel carrying water to a central basin. Inside Santa Maria, numbers identifying the 32 guest rooms are etched on discreet illuminated plaques fixed low on the ocher-colored corridor walls. The triple-height hallways, as long as city blocks, have massive yellow granite jambs and lintels, and grid ceilings in a surprise material: iron. Three cheers for sobriety. Daringly, provocatively, the metal has been permitted to rust, offering as much texture as the Rothko-school pictures. Animating the lobby is an elevator (love the stainless-steel interior) designed with an open shaft by Souto de Moura.
The hotel's accommodations are as brawny and confident as the public spaces (though I could easily have done with a few more creature comforts—when does spare become not there?). Steel-framed picture windows two feet deep bring the countryside into striking painterly focus. Blond-wood floors, bedside tables, and rush chairs guarantee a degree of luminosity even in winter, when a gray blanket seems to hang over much of northern Portugal.
Huddled beside the glassy Sado River, Dom Afonso II is the ideal pousada for getting on close terms with the Costa Azul, the coastal region south of Lisbon. The unblemished town of Alcácer do Sal, just 60 miles from the capital, falls in a steep spill down to the quay outside the hotel's front gate. A defensive wall, with intact towers and machicolations, attests to the pousada's eighth-century origins; in the 16th century, it became a Carmelite convent.
In a place where every house is primly and lovingly curtained in lace, the pousada Dom Afonso is a piquant, sometimes mind-bending anomaly. The 35 guest rooms, which architect Diogo Lino Pimentel either coaxed out of the castle or created in a boxy new wing that makes no attempt to relate to the original structure, are shipshape, masculine, and unsentimental. Desks match the wastebaskets, which match the floor lamps, which match the coffee tables, which match the headboards, which match the luggage stands, which match the mirrors. The furnishings and finishes could be of higher quality, but at these prices, they're easy to live with. Handwoven fabrics mixing herringbone and stripes have a softening effect. The palette is restricted to dusky earth tones, so the color-starved stand warned: you may check out hungry.