A stay in the Palácio de Freixo

Sunday, May 24, 2020, 15:09

The façade of the Palácio de Freixo facing the River Douro

We don't often stay in posh hotels: guest houses and Airbnb are our standard choice. After all, as we are usually out and about all day, we only use our accommodation to sleep in, so why spend money on a place we'll hardly see? Besides, I like the opportunity to chat to locals and find out about the area I've come to and their opinions of what is going on.  That is not so easy in a big hotel.  Every now and then, though, we give ourselves a treat, especially in January, which is when the Pousadas and luxury hotels do deals.


The Pestana Pousada Palácio de Freixo, a luxury hotel on the banks of the River Douro in Porto, is a case in point. In January they sometimes offer rooms at half price. That is still well over €100 a night when you could probably get a perfectly acceptable room for €40 elsewhere but hey! What the heck? Let's have a night out!

To see more of the Pousada Palácio de Freixo, luxury hotel and national monument, click here.

The Palácio de Freixo is amongst the best known examples of secular baroque architecture in Portugal. To my mind, it is also a fine example of the elegant combination of grey granite and white paint found in many aristocratic buildings: around us in the Minho, for example, are the Paço de Calheiros, the Paço de Lannheses, the Casa da Lage and the Casa do Outeiro amongst many others.

However elegant it may be, though, the Palácio has had a chequered history from its beginnings in the middle of the 18th century when a wealthy nobleman, Dom Jerónimo de Távora e Noronha, ordered the construction of a lavish residence, designed by the Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni, on the banks of the River Douro. The palace passed down through brothers and children until, in 1850, his descendent, the Viscount de Azurara, sold it to a rich businessman, who had made a fortune in Brazil. Ennobled by King Luis I, the new owner, António Afonso Velado, became known as the Barão de Freixo. Perhaps understandably, he removed all the coats of arms belonging to the Távora e Noronha family and installed his own in their place as well as redecorating the building and installing large frescoes.

A public lounge in the Palácio de FreixoA public room with frescoes – possibly the ones installed by the Barão de Freixo

 

Velado also built a soap factory next door to the palace. Now, while I understand the convenience of residing close to your place of work, building a soap factory next door to an elegant baroque stately home seems to me to go beyond what is reasonable! Quite apart from spoiling the effect of a glorious palace in a spectacular location, there is the smell to consider. In York, there is a shop selling handmade soap on one of the main streets and the stench – or scent if that is how you perceive it – follows you for some considerable distance. That is one small shop, not a whole factory! Even though buying land to build a soap factory elsewhere might have been seen as an unnecessary expense, if I had made a fortune in Brazil, I think that is what I would have done.

This is the entrance Lobby in the Palácio de Freixo

This is the entrance lobby with Moorish arches to other rooms and a small chapel.

However, that was not the end of the affair or, to some degree, the humiliation of the palace. In the 20th century another industrialist bought it to be the administrative headquarters of the Companhia de Moagens Harmonia (Harmony Milling Company) and built a milling factory alongside the main building, followed later by a silo to enable increased production. While the palace itself must have been a delightful workplace for the clerical staff, it seems that the building was neglected. It also suffered from flooding in 1909.

Eventually various ministries and the government got involved, designating it – somewhat belatedly I feel – a national monument and restoring the building to as much of its former glory as possible. If you go there, you will see half destroyed murals in the overflow dining room and incomplete stucco ceilings. The Pestana company has turned the milling factory into accommodation for guests.

damaged frescoes and incomplete stucco ceiling in the Palácio de Freixo

Despite the above vicissitudes, the general atmosphere in the Palácio de Freixo is of old-world elegance and luxury. As well as accommodation, there is, of course, gastronomy. Though the food is billed as following Portuguese tradition, to me it is more like French Nouvelle Cuisine: small portions artistically arranged on a large plate. The 'amuse bouche' is a curious kind of flowerpot which, when watered, sends up edible shoots. Don't expect anything particularly delicious: it is more trick, a curiosity rather than a dish.

There is also a spa for those who value wellbeing and conference facilities for business away days. We didn't visit the former and the latter were in use when we were there so I could only peep in. The ornate ceiling was what struck me. At least if meetings become boring the participants can lean back, as if in deep thought, and enjoy that instead.

A ceiling in the conference suite in the Palácio de Freixo 

The bedrooms are spacious and comfortable: indeed, if you want to spend the money, you can take one overlooking the river. So, let's imagine your treat. After a hard day's tourism, slogging up and down Porto's hilly streets, you can return to the palace, take a long hot bath, put your feet up till dinner time and then have a classy meal, followed by a night cap in the bar or an hour relaxing with a book in the public rooms. Then after a deep sleep in a comfy bed, you can feel you have really experienced a taste of the life others in the past have led and some still lead today.

Are there any favourite posh hotels you have stayed in? If so, please write in and tell us. (If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. Lembre-se: o que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)


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