I have a certain fondness for quirky hotels, especially ones that I can afford to stay in. That’s why I couldn’t resist when Casa de Sezim Hotel popped up in my search for a hotel near Guimarães, the 2012 European Capital of Culture and the ‘birthplace of Portugal’.
Casa de Sezim is a mansion which has been in the same family since it was given to Afonso Martins in 1376 in recognition of his work and loyalty. Afonso’s family was no stranger to grandeur; one of his ancestors, Dom João de Freitas, used to hang out with the first ever king of Portugal, Dom Afonso Henriques.
It’s believed that Dom Afonso 1 was born in Guimarães, which is one of the reasons the city is dubbed the ‘birthplace of Portugal’. The other explanation is that it played a strategic role in the events that led to the formation of Portugal as an independent country. Either way, Guimarães is deservedly proud of its history and well worth a visit. The well-preserved medieval buildings and narrow streets of its historical centre have earned it UNESCO World Heritage status.
Although Guimarães has plenty of hotels and attractions, I’m excited about staying in a country house that’s loaded with family history and artefacts.
Turning off the tarmac road is like stepping back in time. Centuries-old trees line the curved driveway that leads to the pink-walled complex of this ancestral home. I imagine myself in a horse-drawn carriage as I drive through the elaborate stone gateway into a square courtyard.
I may not greeted by a flurry of servants dressed in black and white, ready to take my luggage, but I do receive a warm welcome and a guided tour from José, part of the family that owns Casa de Sezim.
This isn’t just a place to eat and sleep; you need to allow time to explore the building and the grounds. I start with the series of living rooms that run into one another along the entire side of the mansion. The walls are covered with detailed scenes from India, America, the Netherlands and other countries. All of them hand-painted onto sheets of wallpaper that have stood the test of time with resiliently bright colours and relatively little damage.
The artist responsible for the India wallpapers had never even visited the country. He read books and filled in any gaps with his imagination to produce some remarkably realistic images.
One of my favourite scenes is in the Dutch room where whoever used to sit at the heavy wooden desk overlooking the gardens could also distract himself with a jolly depiction of a man being bounced into the air from a sheet held by a group of friends. It reminds me of the childhood birthday tradition of ‘the bumps’.
Each of the living rooms is filled with family pictures that span centuries. Portraits done in oils hang on the walls providing glimpses of the stately home’s former inhabitants and a record of changing fashions over the years. Family members from previous centuries are lucky if there is just one painting of themselves. Not like the most recent generations whose brightly coloured photographs dominate every flat surface, documenting weddings, family get-togethers and holidays.
José tells me to come back in the summer when the hammocks are out on the long veranda and the swimming pool in the gardens is up and running. It’s an old house and the gaps under the heavy wooden external doors are unforgiving in the winter. It must cost a fortune to keep the bedrooms so toasty.
Talking of toasty, the room below the bedrooms is a treat in itself. Two very comfy sofas surround the gigantic open fireplace, making it a perfectly cosy place to relax with a drink from the honesty bar. Although the ancestral home has been converted into a hotel, the family’s main business is now wine production and it’s hard to imagine a better place to sample it.
However, this time, I’m here for the opening ceremony of the European Capital of Culture in Guimarães and I take a rain check on the wine so that I can manage the winding drive back up the hill in the dark. Imagine my delight, then, when I check out and José hands me a complimentary bottle to tempt me to come back. I don’t need any persuasion, I love this place.
For more information about prices and facilities, check out Casa de Sezim 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).