My first experience of staying in restored Portuguese manor houses came about by accident and now I’m hooked. These lovely old buildings allow me to indulge fantasies of living in stunning historical settings and to find out more about Portugal’s past on a very personal level.
Solar is Portuguese for mansion or manor house but as Maria do Céu Sá Lima explains, it means much more than that.
“Só means unique and lar is the word for home so a solar is a unique home, which is what all of the Solares de Portugal properties are.
“Sol is sun and ar is atmosphere, so we have another way of seeing them – as places where you will receive a warm welcome and environment.
“Solo means earth and in the 19th century, the word solar was adopted to describe the place or land people come from. Their origins or roots,” she tells me, doing her job as Marketing Manager for Solares de Portugal very well.
From my own experience of the Solares, I can vouch for every one of these clever plays on words.
The Solares de Portugal are a collection of lovingly restored traditional Portuguese family homes which now take paying guests. Count Francisco de Calheiros founded the organisation back in the 1980s after renovating his own family’s palace and opening it up for tourism. He and his family live in Paço dos Calheiros (Calheiros Palace) near the pretty town of Ponte de Lima. When guests arrive, they are welcomed by one of the family and given a tour of the property and a slice of its history.
“At that time, there was nothing like this in the tourism industry in Portugal,” he explains. “The concept is based on the system of bed and breakfasts they have in countries like the United Kingdom where the hosts receive guests in their own home. The difference here is that these are high level establishments which have history and importance for Portuguese heritage and culture.”
By establishing a group of like-minded property owners under the umbrella of Solares de Portugal, the count has been able to provide support, advice and a centralised booking system. Qualifying hosts must comply with the organisation’s standards and rules to benefit from the scheme.
Solares range from palaces to rural houses and fall into three main categories: manor houses, farms and estates, and rural houses. Most are several hundred years old and have been tastefully restored to preserve the character of the property.
Do you want to stay in a Solar?
If the idea of staying in a grand old house full of history appeals to you, there are certain things you can expect. One is a warm welcome from your host who often lives on the property. This personal greeting is one of the conditions for being part of the Solares group. Your host will show you around the house and grounds and tell you a little about its history and the family connection.
In some places, you can arrange to have dinner with the hosts or at least at the Solar. If not, they will be able to recommend suitable restaurants in the area.
You should, however, bear in mind that these are ancient properties. Some of the renovations were carried out over twenty years ago and in certain cases, are due for an upgrade. Don’t let this put you off but don’t go expecting 5 star luxury and perfection.
I enjoy the chance to stay in a special, unique place, even if the charm is a little on the faded side. The warmth of the hosts and the insight into their family’s past more than makes up for any imperfections in my book.
Disclaimer: I’ve recently been a guest of Solares de Portugal in some of their properties in the north of Portugal but my first experience of them was when I stayed at Casa do Sezim. I absolutely loved it and am passionate about supporting this non-profit organisation’s efforts to preserve these old buildings.
As the Ruin’Arte project shows, too many of these amazing manor houses and palaces have been abandoned and lie in ruins.
I’ll be sharing more details about specific Solares in future posts but in the meantime, you’ll find descriptions, photos and information about their location on the Solares de Portugal website.
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