Liberally sprinkled with Bourbons, Beauharnais, Orleans and other descendants of noble French families, Portugal was a fitting destination for the American Friends of Versailles annual tour. Raising funds to restore the peeling painted Baroque ceiling of the room where guards were stationed to keep watch on Marie Antoinette’s suite of Versailles apartments, the group sponsors annual trips overseen by Princesse Beatrice de Bourbon des Deux Siciles, herself a scion of those noble lineages. This year about two dozen of us joined her to visit historic monuments, sites, estates — and her relatives — in Lisbon, Evora, the Duoro Valley and Porto.
TUESDAY, September 26
On a beautiful afternoon in late September we assembled in Lisbon’s historic Bairro Alto Hotel where Princesse Beatrice had preregistered us and arranged welcome gifts in our rooms: lotion and soap of the region, the city’s hallmark custard tarts, and a mini bottle of porto rose. Late that afternoon we all gathered in the lobby reuniting with friends and meeting some new traveling companions before proceeding for cocktails at the home of art connoisseur and Christie’s curator Pedro Girao whose light-filled apartment perches high over views of the city.
After watching dusk descend on the pastel colored buildings below, we walked next door for a Welcome Dinner at the Gremio Literario, an historic private club. Housed in the Visconde de Loures mansion, it was founded in 1846 by writers, poets, scientists dedicated to using their intellects to achieve moral improvement. Dinner concluded with a quartet performing the country’s characteristic fado music, mournful, sentimental strains which are included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
WEDNESDAY, September 27
Wednesday we were introduced to unique features of the country which at one time was among the richest and most prominent regions of Europe. Beginning at the Royal Coach Museum, we followed the collection’s curator who pointed out details on some of the most elaborate vehicles ever created. From there it was a short walk to snack on Portugal’s iconic custard tarts at the Pasteis de Belem.
Originally a country hunting lodge, the Palacio Fronteira has been surrounded by city buildings, but remains a fantastic, historic enclave. Guided by the manager, we learned the historic significance of its tiled walls, frescoed panels, private chapel, and formal gardens. After aperitifs on the terrace, we were served lunch in a room lined with tile murals depicting battles which led to the ascendancy of the Braganza dynasty.
Some of us took a tram ride back to the hotel then rested before driving to the resort town of Estoril where Diana Morta e Costa greeted us in her childhood home the Forte da Cruz. Originally a costal defense, the forte is on the beach overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and now steps away from Estoril’s fabled casino where “James Bond” was depicted gambling. We dined in a salon where we could overhear the crashing waves outside.
THURSDAY, September 28
In a day focused on Portugal’s dynasties, we began with a drive toward Sintra and a private tour of Queluz National Palace which embodies the extravagant period of Portuguese culture that followed the 1690 discovery of Brazilian gold. A reaction against heavier Renaissance style, commissioned in 1747, its Rococo exterior and formal gardens were clearly influenced by Versailles.
From there we proceeded to a luncheon where Princesse Beatrice introduced us to her cousin the Duke de Braganza who was our host. Presumed heir to the throne, he is the man who would rule if Portugal still had a king. He recounted stories of his ancestors pictured in portraits on the walls and Duchesse Isabel showed us her collection of miniature birds, some damaged when her children played with them. We dined on salt crusted cod served with the Duke’s vintage wine which is sold to benefit his charity.
Before dinner we toured the Jeronimos Monastery, the prime example of the extravagantly ornate Manueline style. Built throughout the sixteenth century, it was funded by a tax on commerce from Africa and Asia that added up to 150 pounds of gold per year.
A short ride away we re-joined the Duke and Duchesse de Braganza at Santos Palace, another former royal residence, now one of France’s most elegant embassies. Ambassador Jean-Michel Casa served cocktails before we walked up the hill to dinner served in the Restaurant A Travessa, a former 1653 convent. Now converted to one of Lisbon’s most popular eateries, it is acclaimed for its use of local, seasonal produce.
FRIDAY, September 29
From palace to palace was the theme of the day. We started in the charming town of Vila Vicosa at the Ducal Palace which is the traditional home of the Dukes of Braganza. Once the family ascended to the throne in the early 17th-century, the kings lived primarily in Lisbon and Brazil and the Ducal Palace was largely undisturbed until the advent of the railroad made it more accessible. Today family photos and memorabilia intermingle with official furnishings in the mammoth structure and the room where King Carlos slept the night before his 1908 assassination has been kept intact.
Steps away, a former convent has been converted into Pousada D. Joao IV an elegant posada/hotel where we relaxed at lunch in a charming dining room overlooking the central courtyard.
After an hour’s drive we arrived in Evora and had a few minutes to explore the winding streets of town before dinner with an “old friend” Diana Alvares Pereira de Melo, the Duchesse de Cadaval, who had traveled with us in Spain two years ago. Dynamic, inventive, creative, Duchesse Diana, is current head of the second most prestigious branch of the Braganza family. Her efforts to preserve tradition include writing books about past queens and princesses, opening parts of the palace as a public museum, and promoting local artisans and designers.
She greeted us at the palace’s chapel, noted as the country’s most beautiful private place of worship, where a chorus of singers dressed in traditional costumes serenaded us a capella. Proceeding upstairs to the Palacio Cadaval, we wandered among exhibits of family and historic artifacts before the Duchesse and her mother served a delicious dinner based on favorite family recipes.
SATURDAY, September 30
A long cross country bus ride through the lands of the Knights Templar took us first to the extraordinary Convent of Christ in Tomar where we marveled at another important example of extravagant Manueline architecture and saw sites frequented in the sixteenth century by Prince Henry the Navigator.
In a nearby village, the former Palace of the Salazares has been converted into the Hotel Palace da Lousa. We were treated to lunch served in its library — shrimp veloute, mushroom risotto with monkfish, berries cake with chocolate ice cream.
Proceeding into the valley of the Duoro River we entered the exclusive port wine area where grapes are grown on hillside terraces to maximize exposure to sunlight. Our guide explained how the climate fosters the sugary grapes with deep humidity-seeking roots that are required to produce the eponymous wine.
We spent the night at the sumptuous Hotel Six Senses. Eight levels have been added to an historic palace, descending down the hill and offering spectacular views of the Duoro river below. The ultra-modern guest rooms are mini-suites with mammoth marble bathrooms and partitions separating the sleeping and sitting areas. Cellular phones control the window shades and lights and guests are invited to make use of fitness rooms, indoor and outdoor pools, and luxurious spa treatments.
Seated at one long table for dinner we were joined by the hotel’s director of marketing Malfalda Braganza, a cousin of Princess Beatrice.
SUNDAY, October 1
Driving up the steep hill after leisurely breakfast, we stopped in the Baroque city of Lamego where some of the group attended services in the cathedral. The 18th-century Bishop’s Palace beside the church has been remodeled into a museum displaying a fine collection of extravagant altars, five significant religious paintings by Grao Vasco, and a unique set of tapestries depicting the story of Oedipus and commissioned by the bishop as a cautionary warning to King Joao III who had considered marrying his father’s comely widow.
Towering over the city square, the Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies is a place of pilgrimage, and I climbed the 612 steps of its terraced staircase to arrive at the chapel nestled between twin bell towers high over the city.
Arriving at the Quinta da Pacheca port wine estate, we were served wines produced at the vineyard as we lingered over lunch at a table elaborately decorated with local fruits and flowers.
After a quick stop to admire the Casa de Mateus, one of the country’s finest examples of civilian Baroque architecture, we arrived in Portugal’s second city Porto and were ensconced in wonderful old-world rooms of the convenient Intercontinental Hotel.
Dinner was served across the river at the exclusive Yeatman Luxury Wine Spa Hotel, which touts not only the “best views over Porto” but the city’s only Michelin restaurant, awarded two-stars, where we feasted on the specialties of chef Ricardo Costa while overlooking the panorama of the city lights sparkling below.
MONDAY, October 2
We spent the day exploring highlights of Porto, a UNESCO Heritage City, and were overwhelmed at the intricate décor of the Arabian Salon in the Bolsa Palace “Stock Exchange” and surprised by the ornate interior of the deceptively somber grey stone St. Francis Church. Boarding a typical Rabelo boat, we took a luncheon cruise under the city’s six bridges (one designed by Gustav Eiffel) downstream to where the Duoro river spills into the Atlantic Ocean.
After a reception with officers of the private gentlemen’s Club Portuense, our Farewell Dinner was held in the room where local debutantes are presented each spring. The meal concluded with deliciously oozy local Queijo da Serra cheese and vanilla soufflé, accompanied of course by still more port wine which we had come to love. AFV Founder Catharine Hamilton presented each of us with an azuelo tile as a souvenir of the many memorable experiences of the trip.
TUESDAY, October 3
While some of us returned to the States, those who stayed behind did a bit of shopping and toured Porto’s historic Sao Bento railway station, its vestibule lined with a blue and gold floral frieze and 20,000 tiles depicting important battles and scenes from the country’s history. The trip concluded with a luncheon where guests toasted the trip with final glasses of port.
Many of us are looking forward to June 11-14 when we will reassemble in Paris for Un Sejour Magnifique to visit art collections, embassies, and private homes concluding with a dinner at Versailles in the Salon d’Hercule.
Photography by Francis Hammond
Snapshots by Sharon King Hoge