The first thing you will notice is the red door. You’ll be making your way up to the medieval Castle of São Jorge, one of Lisbon’s most beloved landmarks, and you will almost certainly stop in your tracks. Driven by curiosity, you’ll poke your head through the opening, stepping over the raised threshold. You’ll see a small paved courtyard, a large lemon tree, an arched walkway and another imposing red door, framed perfectly within a 17th century classical facade.
The sanctum I’m taking about here, is Palacio Belmonte, ironically one of Lisbon’s best kept secrets. Partial hotel, partial private residence, the palace is one of the city’s finest treasures and the oldest building of its nature in the city. It belongs to Frederic Coustols, a French entrepeneur, who discovered the property in 1992. Frederic instantly fell in love with it, feeling a deep appreciation for the historic Roman and Moorish fortifications, the Azulejos (18th century traditional blue painted tiles), the three historic watchtowers and the panoramic views across Alfalma and the Tagus River. (Not to mention its exceptional location within the peripheral walls of the Castle.) Given Frederic’s love for urban rehabilitation, its potential provided the perfect opportunity for restoration . . .
I discovered Palacio Belmonte whilst researching the city of Lisbon – the subject of an upcoming travel feature. It stands apart from almost anything I have seen or read about in terms of both hotel real estate and historical renovation. I arranged to spend a few nights at the palace, along with my indispensable travel assistant Liat who was equally in awe of this truly remarkable property. I also spent some time interviewing Frederic – the hotel owner – who took me through some of the other groundbreaking urban projects he is involved in worldwide.
A bit more from the piece:
… before Coustols and his team lifted a finger on the property, they spent the best part of two years researching the ancient construction techniques that would help them rehabilitate the historic walls, facades and details. They then set to work securing the structure, refurbishing the walls and floors and painstakingly removing, restoring and replacing all 38,000 Azulejos. “It was a labour of love,” says Nelson, “to the extent that it resulted in being much more than a hotel. It’s a much-loved private home that Frederic and his wife Maria have chosen to share with others.”
It’s a sentiment intensely felt the moment you step beyond the red door. The staff at Palacio Belmonte are as equally dedicated to sharing their love of the city as they are to making you feel at home. The interiors are not only reflective of Lisbon’s rich history, but also of Frederic and Maria’s philosophy and style. Their personal effects fill the bookshelves, line the mantle pieces, the walls and the suites. Their books are yours to read, their liquor cabinet is yours to sample, their personal artwork yours to savour. You can view ancient writings, including original letters written by the royal family that were discovered in an old metal bathtub. However, despite all the artefacts and historic features, there is an overriding simplicity in the interiors. The old chapel has been left as it was, subtly enhanced with the addition of two comfortable chairs offering views to the river beyond. The dining room, stately in its proportions and lined with narrative Azulejos, is simply offset with basic chandeliers and simple blue chairs. “The luxury is in being here,” explains Nelson. “It’s a place where you can get in touch with your thoughts and emotions. In fact, many writers and artists stay here. It’s their own personal hideaway.”