We have started to have guests staying, and were very pleased to receive the following:
‘Thlop’ fell the orange on the chicken’s head. ‘Clat’ dropped the walnut by the poolside. Gorse smelling as coconut. Fresh lemons and faded jasmine in the air. Our May holiday at Quinta Sao Domingos was less about ‘doing’ and all about ‘being’. About finding stillness, soaking up scents and tuning in to the natural sounds that fill the green countryside around the beautifully restored Quinta, a Portuguese farm.
Lynn and Tom, the owner managers, spent three years bringing life back to the ruined complex of stone buildings which was the principal quinta of Guimares village in the Beira Alta. We were their first HPB guests ever (which explained why there were no entries in the Holiday Hints book!) and we want to convey how we appreciated the holiday they offer. We had a good feeling about Quinta Sao Domingos before we set off, enhanced by a call from Judy Beytell at HPB Tenancies who had just returned from a visit and was full of its beauty.
We did not want a busy time. We had never been to Portugal. The HPB description of ‘not a region where tourism has been developed’ could mean either there is not much of interest for the general holiday maker, or there are places to visit and things to do but they are not well promoted. We felt both were true, in some sense, and both offer challenges.
We found history and culture all around us, married to the land. If not populated by airy pine trees, every square inch is tilled, planted and constantly tended by villagers whose means of income and daily life has remained the same for generations. Under their vines and olive trees they grow onions, potatoes, lettuce, maize, beans and peas, some for home consumption and some for market. Morning and night we saw them pass our apartment, hoes over shoulders and bundles of produce hoisted on backs, as if in a drawing by Van Gogh.
We went to churches, packed when mass was being held, and admired the facades of centuries old town houses in Viseu, the regional capital 10 km away. We visited the high boulder-strewn Serra da Estrela, mountains of the stars, and the unique Bucaco National Forest, part ancient woodland, part arboretum, yet we were most content enjoying the Quinta and its surroundings. We took gentle walks through the village and woods, verges jewelled with tiny spring flowers and wild barley. We counted over twenty different types in one short stretch where lizards and crickets seemed to play hide and seek. Once, when out with Tom, a local man emerged from the hedgerows and insisted we ate bunches of white cherries from his freshly picked haul.
Lynn and Tom offer guests oranges, mandarins and lemons from their garden, eggs from their hens (when scrambled, the yellow of them dazzled us) and, keeping up a long tradition, deep red wine, grown on their vines and made, with no additives, at the Quinta.
Good quality and attention to detail are standard with HPB, yet here, for us, the furnishing of the apartments was second to none. We stayed in the spacious Adaga da Branco (where next door they have preserved the ancient wine press) which is for two, but felt equipped for more. ‘In case you have friends round,’ explained Lynn. ‘Do you have all you want?’ she asked us early on ‘because we want everything to be perfect.’ The large bedroom included soft linen, a sofa and a chaise longue. The kitchen provided Portmeirion Garden Cottage china in abundance, candles, napkins, washing up liquid, cling film, teabags and even a cheese grater from a range called ‘The Pampered Chef’. We ate at home, but our HPB neighbours in the second week said they had eaten a delicious meal in Viseu near the cathedral. Evidently three course lunches at 5 to 7euros are readily available and excellent value.
We enjoyed the mosaic turquoise pool every day, again well provided for with loungers, toilet, shower and a barbecue with seating area. We took shade from the walnut tree next to the young oleander. We swam with the butterfly and swallow who came to drink and past the mauve pink jacaranda petals fallen on the water. Woodsmoke drifted across from the fields mingling with roses and citrus. Portuguese voices floated over the wall as the villagers tended their plots, and, competing with the tinkling chimes of the long case clock, Polly, Lynn and Tom’s parrot, chatted from her vantage point on the verandah. Two pomegranate trees have been planted for her as she is partial to the fruit. Tipsy the cat from Somerset tries to catch insects.
Oranges, lemons, grapefruit, vines, figs, chestnuts and olives grow across the terraced garden. Nearer the house, past a bower heavy with apricot roses, grow passion fruit, Indian bean trees, limes, a Cyprus and a vine which Lynn and Tom rescued from ancient stock during the building work. It now climbs the stone wall and is edging its way along the delicate wrought iron railing.
Most mornings the three foot thick walls and wooden shutters on the windows ensured that we slept well past our usual hour. One morning though we woke early to the sound of grey thunder and watched a lightning storm over the mountains. Eventually, the rain reached the Quinta. Most days were a mix of cloud and hot sun. The vitality of water was evident around us in the lushness of the vegetation, the communal tap at the gates of the Quinta from which villagers fill flagons in preference to using the mains, and the splash of running water in the courtyard from the regular diversion of a stream to fields below as part of the village irrigation system. The Quinta has its own bore hole which Lynn and Tom have fitted with a UVA filter to ensure the purity of their water.
Sometimes just the right holiday comes along at just the right time and Quinta Sao Domingos was such a holiday for us. Getting to know our hosts over the course of two weeks, and their friends Fiona and Rob, was delightful. The two couples met in Viseu. They moved from the UK to make their homes in this part of Portugal and both introduced us to its simple pleasures. Friendliness and peace were the markers of our visit and would be there for anyone who chooses the Quinta.