If this country isn't the first place you'd expect to find edgy hotels, it's time to check into one of its bold, design-driven pousadas

Luca Trovato

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.

Pousada Nossa Senhora da Assunção, Arraiolos

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.

Pousada de Santa Maria do Bouro, Amares

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.

Pousada de Dom Afonso II, Alcácer do Sal

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.

Pousada Flor da Rosa, Crato

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.

The Facts

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.