When in Lisbon: stay at Palácio Belmonte, an oasis of art, heritage and extreme elegance
Palácio Belmonte is not a hotel, it’s a cultural landmark, a refined experience and a luxury destination. It is one of the most prestigious spaces in Lisbon and probably one of the most exceptional places in the world where culture, architecture, heritage, art, style, and charm collide.
This is partly thanks to the incredible views over Alfama, the historical background of the Palace itself, the figures who have set foot in the property and its location. But not only, the personality of its owner, flamboyant aesthete, intellectual, collector and entrepreneur Frederic Coustols, plays a big part in the charm of the hotel. It’s no surprise that Palácio Belmonte was once home to the navigator and explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral (who was born in the city of Belmonte near Castelo Branco, Northern Portugal), considered as the discoverer of Brazil. Following a very successful trip to India, Vasco da Gama was also received as a guest of honour at Palácio Belmonte. It’s coming full circle with the managerial and artistic direction instilled to the Palace by Frederic and his wife, both erudite travellers (Maria is an artist). Unlike other business owners in Lisbon right now, greedily surfing on the hype of the city, Frederic truly shares his love for Portugal and the Portuguese culture. It is genuinely felt in every corner of the hotel.
Overlooking the Fundação Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva and the Church of São Vicente of Fora, Palácio Belmonte is perched on the São Jorge Castle’s hills, facing the river, in the heart of the über charming fado district of Alfama.
Guests access it through a grand and discreet entrance which overlooks a private terrace and charming café (which belongs to Palácio Belmonte). Large vibrant red doors – an allegory for the generosity of its owner? – welcome guests to the stunning property, located in the middle of the touristic chaos of Lisbon.
The story of Palácio Belmonte is closely associated with the history of Lisbon itself. Frederic (who describes himself as a book reader, a cigar smoker, ‘entirely dedicated to beauty and issues of sustainability’) told Art is Alive: “The construction of Palácio Belmonte’s started in 138 BC. It was extended in the 8th century and expanded in 1449, 1500 and 1640 when the five facades in its present state were built to enclose the whole structure.” During the recent renovation of the Palace and following a huge investment to bring it to its former glory, Frederic cleverly decided to keep open spaces that allow glimpses into the original São Jorge Castle’s walls, a nod to the Portuguese nobility and a reminder of the exact location of the Palace.
Step by step, the renovation process gave birth to 10 beautiful suites across 3.700 sq meters. It followed strict sustainability principles and the rules stated in the Chart of Venice. The interiors – tiles and volumes – were successfully preserved.
On the origins of the Palace, Frederic said: “The inspiration behind the history and its architecture lies in the ambition to create a family house that was practical, efficient, full of light, and with constant fresh air, magnificent views all over the city, the Sea and its caravels; a stone’s throw from São Jorge Castle! Beyond its strategic advantage, this peak in the heart of the city is also the healthiest point. The house is oriented around a Piano Nobile where members of the family would meet, have lunch, dinner and invite friends.” The general feeling is very homey. “There are ten suites, each designed for a member of the family. However, there is just one kitchen, one laundry, ancillary quarters, a large, chimney located in the atelier that was meant to produce the lime mortar, to whitewash the walls each year, an organic garden, planted with trees, herbs and two magnificent, centuries-old bougainvillea.” Frederic continued.
Period furniture dialogue with modern and contemporary artworks by the likes of Vieira da Silva, Miró, Rui Gonçalves, Fernando Marante and Maria Pia Oliveira. The collection displayed throughout the premises of the Palace comprises 200 paintings and sculptures. It is curated by Maria Jose Mendonça, Mario Caeiro and Frederic himself. “Over the 6 year-restoration, we sourced all the furniture, carpets, and tapestries from antique shops in Portugal. They marvellously merge with the building’s history. However, we had to design lamps, beds, sofas, tables, chairs, as it was impossible to find harmonious pieces that would fit with our own art collection, the azulejos and each suite and the sitting rooms’ light. All the pieces we couldn’t find in markets and shops, bring a feeling of freshness to the Belmonte.” Guests should pay attention to the plethora of details, and the style developed by Frederic: rare ceramic vases here, art books, poetic displays of oranges, Portuguese-history books, modern and classic furniture there, comfortable cushions respond to rich materials: black marble in the bathrooms, gorgeous curtains, wooden floors, cabinet of curiosities, framed Royal letters, and white walls.
What is the “soul” of the Palácio Belmonte? “The permanence of the family spirit over more than five-hundred years is layered with the space itself in a very simple, vernacular way; the faithfulness to a quality of life; bringing together special people who partied with courtiers, discoverers, poets, writers and painters of our, and all time. The Belmonte does not give the impression of a traditional Palace but of a house where emotions are opened and encouraged. This is the real soul of the house and, since pfcoustols took over, the place attracts the same men and women as before; people who dare to be themselves.” Frederic added.
The real highlight of Palácio Belmonte however is the breath-taking collection of azulejos. “The original azulejos panels, fifty-nine of them are signed by artists Manuel dos Santos and Valentim de Almeida. They were commissioned by the family in 1723 to decorate the rooms.” It took a lot of efforts to the present owners to reassemble these precious dark-blue panels. Some tiles were sometimes broken, left on the floor or often had simply vanished. Frederic counted on the help of several experts and modern technology to recreate the beautiful panels. The result is breathtaking and this collection of azulejos is probably one of the most significant in Lisbon and Portugal.
What also makes Palácio Belmonte unique is the stunning views over the shimmering Tagus, the architecture, and the art and books’ collection. As if you needed more gems: the fantastic hidden black marble swimming pool and its accompanying turquoise chairs as well as chef Tiago Feio’s romantic and exquisite Leopold restaurant will not make you want to leave. Palácio Belmonte is an oasis of calm, perfection and serenity in the middle of the buzzing Portuguese capital.
“We find three types of people: those who see, those who don’t see and those who want to be seen. If you belong to the first group you will love Palácio Belmonte, if to the second Belmonte might open your eyes, but if you belong to the third you will feel much happier at the Ritz!” Frederic funnily said about his fantastic property.
It’s true that many celebrities have stayed at Palácio Belmonte, but obviously management don’t share guests’ names unless they make their stay public. Discretion is key at the Palace, and that’s part of the experience, to feel at home. On arrival, there’s no sign indicating the Palace. The passage way that takes from one side to the other is public during the day, yet becomes private at night. How chic! Monica Bellucci recently graced the cover of Elle France and the photoshoot took place at Palácio Belmonte. And she’s not the only cinema talent with affinities for Palácio Belmonte, While filming The House of the Spirits, British legendary actor Jeremy Irons stayed there. In a recently-published Assouline and CondeNast Traveller book titled “Chic Stays” he declared: “Ultimately this is a hotel where you live rather than just stay. And living at Palácio Belmonte is like living in the middle of a favourite book you are reading. You escape into it and never want it to end”. These words resonate not only because the book collection at Palácio Belmonte is rich but because many artists and writers have stayed in residence at the hotel, leaving an artwork or a few verses. The artistic aura is also spawned from Wim Wenders’ masterpiece “Lisbon Story” and Marcelo Mastroianni’s “Afirma Pereira”, both filmed at the Palace.
With its Cultural Club (about to embark on a serious effort to grow) which stages regular events and happenings, Palácio Belmonte successfully entertains the local and international creative community. Shoe designer Christian Louboutin (who has a house in Lisbon and Alentejo) also praises the Belmonte as one his favourite places in Lisbon.
Palácio Belmonte features ten marvellous rooms which all have individual personality and bear the name of a Portuguese figure: Gil Vicente, Alberto Caeiro, Egas Moniz etc. “My favourite suite – the Bartolomeu de Gusmão suite – is spread over three floors in a seventh-century Moorish tower with tiled floors, big shutters and simple period furniture. One more flight up the circular stone staircase leads to a roof terrace, from where I can survey the old port and peer into surrounding courtyards” said Jeremy Irons. The most astonishing 360-degree view over Lisbon without a doubt. The sumptuous Riccardo Reis suite with its dramatic contrast between the dark-blue azulejos and the ochre frescoes of the walls is equally awe-inspiring. Fernado Pessoa’s books on the table bed complement the poetic atmosphere of the room.
Having breakfast on the garden or on the suite’s terraces, the very chic Aqua di Parma toiletry products in all the rooms including the swimming pool house, the impeccable, friendly yet discreet staff and private chauffeur will make your stay unforgettable.
Add to this the modern comfort, the design, the gastronomy, the strategic location and Palácio Belmonte remains a unique place. “My mind turns to the quietness, the fresh air on top of the hill of the Castle and the kindness and efficiency of the people taking care of us all. ‘The Belmonte is an archaeology of light’ as Leo Temple put it. And never, ever forget: Palácio Belmonte is like a ‘sculpture’, a 2,138 years’ synthesis of Portuguese history. Creating links and value between landscape, architectural heritage and traditional activities, while introducing a sustainable contemporary way of life – a modern “Xanadu”. Palácio Belmonte bears the experience of innumerable visitors over two millennia, cradling them as the wisest and, as such, most caring of parents. Nobility, travellers, poets, musicians, painters, all full of love, joy, have wondered around. Visitors of all ages, from all corners of the world have all left a residue of their individual experience. It lingers, carefully hidden in the Palácio. This is the part of this wonderful palace that is the most elusive, although its most worthy; a gift to each visitor.” Frederic poetically added.
What are the plans for the future of the Palácio? “I am soon to be seventy-five years old and, around forty years ago, I was immersed within sustainability; since then, my motivation in life has been to develop paradigms for alternative living. This drive is embodied in diverse pursuits and projects: Castelnau des Fieumarcon (France), that started in 1978; Jiu Xian (China), the restoration of a Ming village; and the forts of Vassi and Chauel (India), built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, in which we hope to inaugurate a biennale of vernacular and sustainable architecture (Vassi), and to develop eighteen small, organic farms over plots of 667 square metres (Chauel).
Meanwhile, I’m also pushing for the Belmonte to realise its full potential, refining both its sustainable architecture, and its profit-making apparatus. This falls—but is not limited— into our plans to increase the Belmonte’s capacity and sensitively transform it into a unique Club.” There are ideas of boosting the Palace’s cultural offer and extending its capacity to the nearby plot of land, injecting more life and art into the beautiful district of Alfama: “Although I am intensively committed to these projects, in all their diversity, I am unable to be in as many places at once as I was in the past. Given that our children and grandchildren have their own unique interests and ambitions, with which the complexity of the Belmonte does not simply fit, the challenge today is to find the first seven club-members; the right shareholders to oversee this transition, and to assume managerial responsibilities.
Running the Palace, one might say, has always been a smooth, flowing process. We have given priority to the rhythms of guests and to cultural activities, artistic residences, workshops. This spirit must be retained but with the addition of more suites, built on the adjoining plots, the return will be compatible with the investment. We signed a promissory contract on an adjoining land to build 11 more suites on 800 sqm; a very special project, tracing a new and unusual path.
We are working on planning permission to develop 2,800sqm of new space with gardens, a restaurant and ten galleries offered each year to new and emerging designers, who will one day join the established artists we all know.” Frederic said.
On witnessing changes in Portugal and whether they are good or bad: “changes in a city are always difficult to apprehend when you live in the middle of the urban sprawl but what we can see is a creative chaos, a city alive, where everyone is conducting projects and nurturing them to become wonderful achievements, new museums, new squares, plantation of trees and green spaces, opening of great restaurants and tascas, hostels, hotels, Festivals, cinemas, designer shops by acclaimed artists and unknown ones we discover every day. Mobility with escalators are everywhere, bicycles, tuk tuks, refurbishment of many old buildings, preserving Lisbon’s great architecture…
Artists, movie stars, designers, business leaders from all over the world are settling down in Portugal. Portuguese universities are working closely with creative hubs and international places of learning. A city classified as the 5th safest worldwide. A resilient city, open to the world, voicing innumerable languages and cultures. I repeat a city that is alive, a happy city.”
Ecology, health, and sustainability, thanks to Frederic’s ethos, are also at the crux of the Palace’s philosophy. Several solutions to preserve the planet are in place in the hotel, they include “instead of air conditioning systems, natural ventilation using ‘saguões’, street-like corridors, cutting across the Palace’s structure; sealed off from the sun except at midday. They channel air, six degrees lower than the rest of the building; vitruve lime mortar; a mixture of lime and oil which absorbs and regulates humidity rather than industrial material. This technique was developed over two years of study and tests. We also have a beautiful garden with trees, flowers, cacti and plants. The small, black marble swimming pool is treated with salt. The pool is fitted with a pressurised water stream that exerts a gentle force upon swimmers. Organic products are served in the restaurant and no chemicals etc.”
Palácio Belmonte is Lisbon’s epitome of art and elegance; an invitation to pause, meditate and appreciate beauty and simplicity.
Frederic’s 5 top-things to do while in Lisbon? (uncommon things / hidden places):
– The Jewish quarters.
– Church of Santa Engraçia.
– Quintas on the fringes of Lisboa, and Cabo de Espichel.
– Cycle along the Tejo from Lisboa to Cascais, a wonderful promenade.
– Have lunch at a small tasca: ‘Retiro do Pescador’ on the sea with a grilled sea bass and a bottle of vinho verde, branco or a red one…
– Sail on sunset and discover the timelessness of the old city from the Straw Sea.
Frederic’s favourite art spaces, galleries and museums in Lisbon and favourite books:
Spaces and Museums
Mercado da Ribeira, first concept developed by Time Out
Museu d’Arte Antiga
Museu de Etnologia, all collections from Brazil, Africa and India
So many, but particularly those that spontaneously open in old buildings and disappear fast…
Triennale de Arquitectura
Tapestries of Portalegre
Tao Te Ching: (Harper Perennial pocket edition translated by Stephen Mitchell)
Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet
H.Laborit : L’Eloge de la Paresse
There are so many great books, we should never be limited to a list!
Ritu Dalmia: Diva Green
Thomas L.Friedman: Thank You For Being Late
Clarice Lispector: The Hour of the Star
Mia Couto : All of his books if you want to better understand Africa
And as for India: Please read all books by Siddharth Shanghavi especially: Les Derniers Flamants de Bombay…