The Convent of Sao Francisco: austere echoes of the past in modern comfort

Sunday, May 14, 2017, 22:09

The cloister of the Convento de Sao Francisco

Of course, it all depends on the kind of place where you like to stay when you're on holiday. Do you want a restaurant, a bar and a tennis court on hand in a spanking new hotel with a name you feel you can trust because it belongs to a well-known chain? If so, on the island of São Miguel you may wish to choose the Pestana Bahia Praia Hotel right on the sea front at Praia de Água de Alto.

If, however, you prefer a simpler hotel with character and an air of history, perhaps you would like to come with me a couple of kilometres further down the coast road to the Convento de São Francisco in Vila Franca do Campo.  

To learn more, click here.
The upper corridor in the Convento de Sao Francisco

Built in the sixteenth century from the local dark grey basalt with white-washed walls the renovated Convento de São Francisco, gives the immediate appearance of simplicity bordering on austerity. The plain upper corridor opens to one side through dark green wooden doors into spacious rooms and suites and on the other looks out through glass windows onto an elegant cloister, where a central fountain runs gently into an octagonal stone basin.

In fact, as the glass begins at floor level, along with a sense of light and space, you have the slightly disconcerting feeling that you might step out into thin air and fall unexpectedly into the fountain. I can't help wondering how sleepy monks, who will have risen in the dark for Matins or Vigils, managed to avoid accidents on their way to prayer in the chapel. Perhaps they hugged the walls.

Sitting room in the Convento de Sao Francisco

Sometimes the staff play a disk quietly in the sitting-room so that the corridor echoes with the faint sound of plainsong. It's as though those long-forgotten Franciscan monks still have a ghostly presence in the building.

One of the bedrooms in the Convento de Sao Francisco

The white walled, wooden floored bedrooms are furnished with antiques. In our case with a bed ornamented with elaborately turned barley-twist posts in dark wood with, at the foot, a chest decorated with patterns pricked out with round headed nails. Woven rugs on the floor provide comfort and a tiny cabinet inlaid with bone or ivory some interest. The walls are plain except for a painting of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, who seems to be dressed in very un-middle-eastern knickerbockers.

Image of the Virgin Mary with Jesus in knickerbockers

The rooms look out over trees and red roof tops to the ocean and an islet that leaflets tell you protects an almost perfectly circular natural swimming pool. In high summer, you can take a boat out there. In May it is still not very warm and the there aren't enough tourists to warrant a crossing. In the meantime, however, if you wish to swim or relax by a pool, the convent has one in a small garden surrounded by fruit trees. Breakfast, included in the price, is served in the original kitchen on a long wooden table. Guests sit together just as the monks themselves would have done.

Breakfast room in the Convento de Sao Francisco

For us there were boiled eggs, a selection of cheeses both mature and fresh, jams and preserves, and delicious, fresh, locally grown pineapple. To drink there was good coffee, a selection of tea bags and freshly squeezed orange juice.

The three nights we spent there were idyllic. After long a day touring the island, trying to fit in as much as possible, we had no need of bars and night life. We could have watched Portuguese TV in a small activity room – there were several games to play – and a Wifi internet connection, but we preferred a hot shower and a good read before heading out to dinner in a local restaurant.

The rooms may look a little austere but in fact they are comfy and tranquil, a haven away from a busy world outside. The breakfast was good and the service impeccable. That, for us, is what a hotel should offer. What the old monks would have made of it is anyone's guess.

Do you have a favourite place to stay on São Miguel or any of the other eight islands? If you do, 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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