I have a new home from home in Lisbon, but I have to share it with Portugal’s renowned poet Luís de Camões and a few other people!
On a musical ‘holiday’ with my husband Ray playing a gig and attending two jazz concerts, we stayed at Palácio das Especiarias (Palace of Spices) guest house in the Chiado neighbourhood.
Did you know that from the 18th century until the 1960s, with its museums, theatres and shops, Chiado was the meeting place for aristocrats, artists, writers and politicians? I love its history and the general buzz of the city as people go about their daily lives intermingling with the thousands of tourists that visit each year.
Bourgeoisie and noble families lived there during the Age of Discoveries when caravel ships returned from perilous voyages bringing from Africa, Asia and Brazil highly sought-after precious stones, metals and spices, which turned Lisbon into one of the world’s wealthiest cities.
I have always wanted to see inside Chiado’s grand old houses, and my wish came true as we arrived at the 16th century palace, which was previously the home of the Vasconcelos e Sousa noble family who had links to the Indies and Brazil.
After the Vasconcelos family moved out, their governess Dª Maria José who, for 60 years looked after the family’s children, continued to live in a section of the house and, despite now being 92, she regularly visits her old home. It was temporarily a hostel and used for storage until 2017 when it opened as the guest house.
The palace’s motto is: “A unique experience. Where imagination crosses with reality”. This is so true as from the moment we walked through the large wooden front doors into the reception area with its huge stone arches and marble staircase leading to the main body of the house, we literally walked into the past. Guests are usually greeted by poet Luís de Camões, commander Pedro Álvares Cabral (who discovered Brazil) or explorer Vasco da Gama, aka Tomás Curveira, the palace’s concierge professional actor who shows them around the building and to their rooms. He adds a historical authenticity to the place!
The three-storey palace is furnished with antique furniture procured from Lisbon’s flea markets. The self-contained studios, family rooms and ostentatious ‘royal suites’ retain original architectural features and are named after a spice, precious metal or gem. They have wooden floors, patterned wallpapers or walls painted in the beautiful blues, greens and gold of the era and have enormous velvet curtains with gold tie backs. Many bedrooms have four poster beds, ornate ceilings and chandeliers!
The palace was fully booked and so we stayed in one of the smaller rooms named Clove. It had a shower/toilet downstairs and the bedroom itself, with a huge bath in it, was up some wooden stairs to a mezzanine. The large window with a view of the River Tejo was fantastic.
There is a library and two lounges, one with a welcoming fire crackling away, for guests to relax in. Breakfast is accompanied by a piano player who entertains guests each morning. In the three dining rooms, there is a range of juices and homemade cakes made daily by young chef Ana Cristina Varela as part of the enormous breakfast buffet, whilst the rest of the food is set up in the original kitchen with its spices, vegetables and cured meats hanging in the huge fireplace, just like they would have been back in the day. Leftover cakes and drinks are put out for guests to help themselves, during the day or night!
It was surreal coming ‘home’ after our late-night concerts, opening the front door with our own key and before going to bed, descending the grand staircase to fetch a nighttime snack. The formidable characters in the fake oil paintings lining the stairwell looked down somewhat disapprovingly and I felt like I was living in Downton Abbey!
This beautiful house is the dream and hard work of 35-year-old Tiago Pereira who, in 2008, started his ‘Casinhas de Lisboa’ accommodation for students and young workers. With the boom in tourism, he converted the properties into guest houses and now has five unique residences in Lisbon’s historic centre. They are Casinha das Flores, Casinha da Boa-Hora, Solar dos Poetas, Casinha dos Sapateiros and the palace, which all guests use for breakfast and free access to the palace’s gym and exotic candle-lit spa.
To further guests’ experiences of Portuguese culture, the palace hosts Fado nights where diners eat a traditional supper of soup, cod fish and rice pudding whilst listening to Fado musicians. Guests can also hire the palace’s chauffeur-driven 1931 Ford car or take a free historical walking tour with Tomás, dressed in his Camões, Cabral or Gama regalia.
Tiago’s love of history and culture is the inspiration for the palace’s spice theme and his desire to give guests an experience of Lisbon when it was at its greatest. It is his homage to the Age of Discoveries. However, not wanting to forget that with Portugal’s success also came the disgrace of the slave trade, Tiago is quietly giving back by sponsoring projects in Uganda that help to better the lives of children there.
Tiago is a quiet and modest individual who shies away from publicity, but I just had to write about his amazing work. His vision for the future is to extend his Casinhas to open properties all over Portugal each aimed at retaining the region’s origins, traditions and culture. He recently opened Quinta da Saudade, in the Alentejo, a biological working farm where guests stay in cottages and enjoy the fluvial beach and farm animals. Produce from the farm is used in the Casinhas properties.
I had an amazing time exploring each corner of the palace which did not feel like a hotel at all. It is a home! I climbed beautiful staircases leading to bedrooms, found recesses with antiques, a chapel and cobblestone patios. In one of the small public toilets, there are little windows that give a view into a small inaccessible alcove where builders’ tools and rubble have been untouched for 200 years! I loved it all.
For someone who spends most of her time living in the past through my writing and family tree research, I was in my element. Tiago likes to “surprise his guests in order to exceed their expectations” and with me he definitely succeeded!
So now you know!
For more information, visit www.casinhasdelisboa.com
By Isobel Costa
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Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.