The Radium Hotel

Thursday, November 28, 2019, 20:32

The Radium Hotel built below the crest of a hillThe Radium Hotel from afar
Though the ruin is large, I almost missed it because I was looking for the wrong shape in the wrong place. I had been told that it could be mistaken for a castle, which seemed quite likely as Portugal boasts hundreds of ruined ones atop outcrops with a good view of the surrounding countryside.

The ruin I was searching for, however, turned out to lie well below the crest of a granite hill and to look more like one of the abandoned mills of my native Yorkshire than a castle.

To find out more about this ruin and its curious history, click here.

The rough track which now leads to the ruined hotel
The unprepossessing approach road

Odd as it might seem in a rural backwater a couple of hundred kilometres north east of Lisbon, this had once been a luxury hotel and spa. It was not there for the usual reasons of encouraging tourism and creating jobs but because the water from a local spring was said to have almost magical curative powers.

It's astonishing how quickly legends develop. In the nearby historic village of Sortelha, no one could give me a definitive answer to the question of who had built the hotel. The story goes that early last century a Spanish count, variously called Don Rodrigo or Don Enrique, had a daughter with an undefined serious illness. Having travelled widely for many years in search of a cure, he at last heard there were miraculous healing waters in eastern Portugal.

So, what was special about the water in this place? In 1910, near the charmingly named village of Quarta Feira – which translates as Wednesday – a uranium mine had been established and it seems the streams all around had become infused with radon gas. Such radioactive water was reputed in both Europe and America to cure almost anything from mental disturbances to eczema and even cancer.

The Radium Hotel as you approach
The once grand hotel in the countryside, miles from any large conurbation

The count's daughter was apparently cured, and in gratitude, he ordered the construction of a hotel and spa which would provide treatments for similar sufferers. The Hotel Serra da Pena was duly built with around 90 luxurious rooms and in the 1920s and 30s a steady stream of health tourists came to enjoy the cures on offer. As well as regularly drinking the water, the guests could take radium mud baths or undergo an uncomfortable-sounding colonic irrigation using 35 litres of radioactive water. It is said that the chefs even cooked with radium.

A rusting traction engine probably used to pump water
Traction engine, possibly part of the pumping system

The nascent business received an unexpected boost in 1927 when a congress in Lyon, France, declared the water to be amongst the most radioactive in the world, which seemed to be excellent news. Radium treatments became the latest craze. Enterprising people began to bottle the water and market it with the slogan: "Água Radium dá saúde, vigor e força" - radium water brings health, strength and vigour.

The ruined reception buildingThe reception building with huge wooden doors and a ruined parquet floor

Of course, this bonanza couldn't last. As early as 1925 – even before that surprising endorsement from Lyon – an article in the New York Times spoke of radium necrosis. The girls in a factory painting clockfaces with Undark, a luminous mixture including radium, had begun to die painful deaths. Though these stories took time to reach Portugal, the idea that perhaps there had been a serious mistake began to seep through and fewer guests came.

When the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, and the devastating results became common knowledge, bookings dried up altogether and the hotel was put on the market. It changed hands several times but, despite initial optimism, the business never revived. One manager, fearing he wouldn't be paid, stripped the building of everything of value; bathtubs, tiles, ovens, crockery, beds... and sold them at auction. The inevitable dissolution of the hotel had begun leading to the half-collapsed edifice that I walked round.

The ruined hotel from the side
The Radium Hotel from the side

An 80 year-old retired Portuguese banker, who was visiting at the same time, lamented the parlous state of the hotel, criticising what he called a lack of entrepreneurialism in Portugal. "There was a plan for renovating this hotel and even adding a golf course," he told me, "but it came to nothing. The Germans and the Czechs are so much better at this kind of thing. Some of their spas have water with the same chemical profile and they're incredibly successful."

The hotel with the view beginsThe view where the golf course could have been

As he ambled away to inspect the ruined spa, his wife muttered darkly that the real problem was money. "We need someone from China to buy the place. Or one of those rich men from the Arab states."

Well maybe! But selling rooms in a backwoods hotel, especially one with a reputation for killing people, would never be easy. And no amount of golf courses would solve that problem!


Do you know of any curious ruins with an interesting story? 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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