“Are you doing anything special for Mike’s birthday?” asked a friend.
“Staying in a castle in Porto,” I replied, unable to completely wipe the smug grin off my face. Well it sounds good, doesn’t it? I’ve always wanted to live in a castle, even just for a couple of days. So when Castelo Santa Catarina Hotel (St. Catherine’s Castle Hotel) popped up in my search for a hotel in Porto, I couldn’t resist.
Okay, so this castle has never been home to royalty but it has got turrets and was built to impress. On returning to his home town of Porto from years of military service in Brazil, Commander António Pimento da Fonseca spared no expense in creating the house of his dreams. Sadly, not all his dreams came true; after his first wife died, his daughter and new wife didn’t get along and when he died the place was left to slowly decay.
When the current owner’s father saw the place, he had big dreams too. He envisioned a luxury hotel but before he could buy it, the 1974 revolution put a spanner in the works. By the time he was finally able to buy the property and set about converting it, the government had become keen to protect Portugal’s patrimony and heritage and slapped a preservation order on the building.
In hotel terms, this translates as no lifts, which, with the steep narrow staircases means it’s impossible to get a five star rating. A disappointment for the owner, perhaps, but fortunate for me because it means that room rates are within my price range.
Thankfully, guests aren’t expected to strain themselves; the receptionist takes charge of heaving our luggage up the several flights of internal stairs to our room. We follow him along the narrow, wood panelled corridors until they open onto a wider, brighter space with painted azulejos (tiles) between the bedroom doors.
Closing the double doors behind us, we take time to admire the hand painted period furniture and the views over the gardens and the city. We’re both happy to be indulging my castle fantasy; this place is a like a present waiting to be unwrapped.
Excited to discover more, we set out to explore the rest of the building only to get shooed out of the beautiful glass-ceilinged dining room corridor by the cleaners. We have to wait until breakfast the following day for authorized access but the inlaid furniture and decorations are worth waiting for.
The sitting room next door is available all day so we soak up the opulent atmosphere of the carved woodwork and ceiling whilst trying not to disturb a couple of other guests who’d nodded off in the armchairs. Unable to keep quiet for too long, we venture out like a couple of kids to poke around the grounds.
You can hardly see the castle hotel from the rather downtrodden Rua Santa Catarina but once through the gates, the realm of fantasy begins. The main building is like a tall, blue wedding cake thanks to the tiles that protect and decorate its various layers. At the top of the driveway, separated from the main house by the low boughs of a gigantic fir tree, is a private chapel. Even the underside of its curved roof tiles have been painted and, on the outer wall, a rather scary Mary is poised to destroy any threat.
Mary’s not the only painted lady to be found around the grounds; four saucy women represent the seasons and a few others look surprised by the front door. Not as surprised as I was to find a pair of Egyptian statues guarding the entrance to a grotto under the front of the building. I can only assume that Commander Fonseca spent some time in Egypt during his time at sea.
The nautical influence is evident in the patterned cobblestones of the courtyard, in the frosted glass of the dining room and on external staircases.
After a thorough investigation of the gardens, which turns up a lion, a cheeky stone monk and some stunning views over the city, we settle into the white swirly iron chairs for a beer and begin the birthday celebrations in style.
If you fancy staying here, you can find more reviews and details about Castelo Santa Catarina Hotel on Booking.com (if you end up staying there as a result of using this link, I’ll get a small commission but it won’t cost you any extra. I use Booking.com all the time so I’m happy to recommend it to you).