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Historical elegance & cozy rural Portuguese setting enhance Palacio da Lousa's attractions

Columbia Hillen

Aside from the natural friendliness of Portuguese people and their fine wine and food, staying at a small-town property in a rural setting with an authentic 300-year-old history is an added delight.

Particularly so if it happens to be the hilltop, 4-star, 46-room Palácio da Lousa

Located in the center of Lousa in central Portugal, 20 miles south-east of Coimbra and a two-hour drive north of Lisbon, this old-world hotel was formerly the palace of the Viscountess of Espinhal.

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Such is its sense of history, even the broad cobblestoned entrance-way off the downtown street conjures up images of regal horse-and-carriages coming and going, their owners headed to, or returning from, various elite soirees. Two large Greek urns outside its doors hint at the historic elegance within.

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Our charming first-floor room, number 10, granted birdlike views over the surrounding forested countryside indicating just why this was chosen as the site for such a palace. Perched high above the surrounding landscape including stunning views of the Lousa mountains, it dominates the area for many miles in all directions, a rather impregnable position especially important in days of yore centuries ago when battles were waged between warring factions over valuable territories.

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Immediately across from our room was a magnificent elongated salon extending over four rooms with intricately carved doors between each. Here, shelves of books, glass-topped coffee-tables plied with glossy magazines, hanging framed portraits of former owners, comfy soft armchairs, potted plants, funky silk cushions with dog images imprinted on them, an open fireplace, and even a colorfully painted decorative mini-altar in honor of the Virgin Mary, bid guests to sit and rest. The multitude of ornately carved wood doors, panels and frames add a sense of artistic history.

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Breakfast at Palácio da Lousa is buffet-style in an L-shaped room overlooking the hotel's gardens, terraces, outdoor swimming pool and the verdant hillsides beyond. Cold cuts, fresh breads and delicious local honey are among the highlights.

Sheer visual pleasure accompanies dinner, which takes place in cozy ornate surroundings in a first-floor room resplendent with painted ceiling, wall murals of flowers and plants, cornices, intricate stucco moldings and delicate, hand-carved facades on doors and plinths. Table presentation comes complete with spotless white linen and a vase filled with fresh flowers. Warm, friendly and efficient service from young local man Joao Garcia merely added to our evening's pleasure.

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Under the talented chef, Filipa Cruz, the menu is a comprehensive one, comprising diverse meat, fish and pasta dishes, with starters ranging from tuna tataki with guacamole and Japanese sauce to goat's cheese with tomato confit in a puff pastry. Being a hillside location and being hungry after a long drive from Lisbon, we opted for substantial meat dishes over the leaner seafood – for starters, guinea fowl supreme confit with foie gras, carrots and vegetable rice, and suckling pig with carrots puree and turnip, both accompanied by a 2013 hearty red from the 150-acre quinta (vineyard) of Foz de Arouce, which has a long history of winemaking linked to the legend of the Arab King Arunce who built a castle in the region. A Roman road runs through the estate and the vintage is a blend of baga and touriga grapes.

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On our second night, our choices consisted of salt cod confit with chickpeas and salted cabbage, duck and foie gras cannelloni with tomato, cream and basil sauce – the latter dish one of the highlights of our culinary journey in Portugal - and shrimps and porcini (boletus edulis) risotto. This time, a dry white wine was our liquid accompaniment, a 2013 Pai Abel from the Bairrada estate made with bical and maria Gomez grapes, also known as fernão pires.

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Lousa is the kind of laid-back town where time takes a secondary role to conversation. The Post Office provided a perfect example of this. Seeing both books and music CDs for sale there, but not knowing Portuguese writers or performers, I asked the saleslady for her opinion. That conversation took several minutes with the lovely lady asking her colleague for a second opinion and other customers chiming in with theirs.

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The attractive landscapes around Lousa are well worth exploring, especially the impressive Aldeias do Xisto, a series of villages of sturdy houses made from schist stone that cling stubbornly to the mountainsides at steep angles, veritable rustic retreats away from urban overcrowding. We enjoyed a leisurely break speaking to Ana Hilario and Sandra Nunes while feasting on local snacks of cold cuts and cheese at Cerdeira Village and watched the sun slide down below the mountains.

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You also might be lucky to wild game including deer and wild boars in their natural habitat and can visit historic sites such as the medieval Arouce Castle and the wells of the Real Neveiro where ice was once stored in the winter for the King’s cellar in Lisbon. Tomar, a magnificent castle built by the mysterious medieval Templar order, is an hour’s drive south along the highway, while Coimbra is just 12 miles away.

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With service and food being excellent and the historical ambience intriguing, there is only one problem with Palácio da Lousa - its pricing policy. For its many qualities, prices should be increased. As it is, it’s great value for money, so hurry before the secret gets out.

Sean Hillen

Sean Hillen has been an international journalist and editor for almost 40 years and is also a published author. His latest book is a high-end contemporary fiction novel, Pretty Ugly - a thrilling, intriguing ride through the murky undercurrent of corporate and political machinations bridging the complex worlds of medicine, media and modeling. http://www.seanhillenauthor.com/ His experience spa...(Read More)

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