This estate has been in your family for more than 200 years. How did the idea to create a hotel come about?
Restoration of the estate for private use wouldn’t have made any sense at all because this is not and was never a family home; it’s much bigger than a family home. It was originally conceived to accommodate many families and industrial agricultural production.
In 2002, I came to spend some time out here to figure out what I could do; it became clear that unless I dedicated myself to this project, it would lose the sense of sustainability that was always part of it. A 200-year-old place like this needs to be under constant restoration and renovation or it stops making sense and stops being used.
I was more concerned with sustainability, with what you can offer the next generation, with something that is not so intrinsic to its time that it eventually dies. There was a need to understand the estate, what you can convert, what lies within the walls and if it makes sense or not to make a wine cellar, a restaurant, a vegetable garden… and with all of that information you can understand in a much clearer way if the estate, 10 years after the restoration, will continue to make sense.
I spent a year in that house next to the swimming pool, I was quite isolated but the idea was to figure out “if I stay here through 4 seasons, a whole year alone, will this continue to make sense?” “Is this a love story? Wow! Are we going to do this project?”
Were you alone during that year?
Single, alone. I have a friend who is an architect, Manuel, who came to live in one of the houses which was much worse off than mine. The only way to understand this place was to come and live here. As a family, we never spent much time in this “Monte” [name given to estates in Alentejo]. What we did do here was things like having 20 kids over camping out for one week without electricity and water.
The year that I spent here was very important, I was able to understand the different seasons, what could and couldn’t be done, how cold it gets, how hot. Then when faced with all of the decisions regarding the project I was able to sit down with the engineer and ask “so what will we use for climate control?” and when he replies with a romanticised solution “you should do geothermal, it’s the climate control system of the future” – having spent enough time here I was confident to say “forget geothermal, we need straight air conditioning otherwise, it will be unbearable”. I don’t like air conditioners but sometimes there is no other way.
Did you have any experience in the hotel industry?
No, but I forced myself to get some during that time. I thought there were certain points I could take on, and other parts that I couldn’t. We ended up collaborating with a company that helped out in the investment and operations side, the amount of capital that was needed to invest and to maintain the project. I learned a lot of very interesting things with them, most of all, I learned about what I don’t want to do.