“ Address: Ribeira Da Azenha / 7645-909 Vila Nova de Milfontes / Portugal „
Anyone who has read my recent review of the Casa do Adro at Vila Nova de Milfontes will know that wherever we stayed next was going to find it a hard act to follow. Yet the Três Marias did manage to follow it, not by being the same - which would have been impossible - but by offering us its own contrasting brand of charm and hospitality. Indeed, the two establishments could hardly be more different whilst still having those crucial characteristics in common.
There's location, for a start. Where the Casa do Adro is right in the middle of a seaside town, the Três Marias is out in the wilds, five kilometres back from the coast and three kilometres from the nearest village, which is barely big enough to count as a village in any case. Approaching the Três Marias down a rough track through pastures, pine and eucalyptus woods I had a little bit of difficulty, not so much in finding it as in being sure I had reached the right place when I finally did so. One's first impression of the Três Marias is that the single-storey building in white stucco and terracotta-tiled roof is barely big enough to be a hotel. Indeed, that first impression is accurate, since the establishment only gains the necessary critical mass with the help of a second building of almost equal size, a field's width distant, which it is not immediately apparent is part of the same set-up.
Also, 'hotel' is rather a grandiose word for the Três Marias, and I'm not sure one to which its management would readily relate. 'Agriturismo' would be more the term, since Balthasar, the Swiss owner, first bought the land in order to run it as an ostrich farm. This enterprise has, I think, now been curtailed or at least much reduced, although a token ostrich does still patrol the field between the two buildings, assisted by assorted sheep and donkeys. There are also some cattle accompanied by egrets to be seen in the fields as you approach the Três Marias from the woods, but I am not sure whether they are part of the same motley herd.
On arrival I was greeted by Maria, who helps Balthasar manage the place. She endeared herself to me immediately by producing a glass of beer, and I sat quenching a thirst aggravated by several hours of walking in the sun while I drank in the pastoral scene. Readers of my recent reviews* will know that my wife and I were on a walking tour in southern Portugal, with the Três Marias the final staging post. My wife's resolve to complete the route was never in doubt, but her legs had decided differently, and for this stage she was carried separately by car. Soon, we were reunited and she accepted a freshly-squeezed orange juice while I had another beer. Time passed and we settled into a relaxed reverie on the terrace in the shade of a sail-like awning, listening to the silence while watching the animals in the field and the sunlight on the wooded slopes of the hills inland. The ambience of the Três Marias is supremely suited to relaxation and reverie.
Eventually we stirred ourselves sufficiently to go and unpack. Our room was in the building across the field. We entered through the French windows that served as the main doors to find it spacious, but simply decorated: white-washed walls, smooth-polished concrete floor. Dominating the space was a large double-bed, enveloped in a mosquito-net hung from the ceiling, like a cross between a tent and a bridal veil, rather charmingly ornamented with a little sprig of flowers. Further flowers stood in a vase on one of the two marble-topped bedside tables, illuminated by windows to each side framing a view out across a meadow full of daisies, lavender and olive trees. There was a coffee table, a couch, a large wardrobe, and tea-making facilities, though we were later to learn that the kettle worked only intermittently, making us glad that we had brought our own. The polished-concrete floor extended round into the bathroom, in the corner of which it sloped to allow drainage for the shower. Basic though this looked, it worked well enough, as did the basin and other facilities. Leaving the room through the French doors led us out onto a terrace, shaded by an over-hanging roof, fronting directly onto another meadow filled with wild flowers interspersed with olive trees, cork oaks and pomegranate bushes. Here we could sprawl on the sofa and chairs provided and once more view the landscape; we were to find it particularly enthralling early in the day when the sun rose over the ridge of the distant hills.
We had been asked earlier about our dining preferences and been happy to fall in with the suggested time of 8.00 pm. Rita, the cook, also acts as waitress and it would not be feasible for her to manage a whole range of starting times, but at least she seeks people's views in advance and tries to arrive at a time acceptable to all. With only eight rooms, not all of them full and not all of their occupants eating in, there were not many guests to satisfy in any case; I dare say there would be some flexibility in case of special need, like late arrival for example. On both of the two nights we stayed at the Três Marias the three course dinner was ample, wholesome and tasty, with main courses of crispily-cooked pork on one night, bacalhau (Portuguese-style salt cod) the next, and a very suitable supporting cast of starters and puds. The house wine served with it, red or white, was good quality local Alentejo. The atmosphere, outside on the warm candlelit terrace, enhanced our enjoyment of the meal.
Breakfast the next morning, after a comfortable night's sleep, was taken buffet style: fresh fruit and fruit-juice, cereals, ham and cheese, a variety of bread and rolls, and eggs cooked to order for those who wanted them. Presiding over breakfast was Balthasar, with whom we discussed our plans for the day, since we had already decided against completing the final stage of our scheduled walk, which would have involved a circuit from the hotel. Fine, he said, he was going to a market in Vila Nova de Milfontes, and would give us a lift if we were interested in seeing it. We toyed with the idea, but decided just to go down to the beach. No trouble, he'd drop us off there, which he did, also organising a picnic for us, lending us a beach umbrella and giving us his mobile number in case we wanted to be picked up again later. In the event, not wanting to take too much advantage of his kindness (and feeling we ought to at least do a few token kilometres when on a walking holiday) we found our own way back.
We had enjoyed our packed lunch on the beach and so, on the following day - the day of our departure - we asked if they could make us up another similar one, to eat on our long coach-ride back to Lisbon. Certainly, no trouble, and it was quickly prepared. So, I enquired, how much did we owe them? Nothing, Balthasar assured me, don't mention it. But we ought to pay, I offered again, since the picnics weren't part of the deal. No, no, he insisted with a smile, 'you didn't eat much'. The drinks we had had on arrival also turned out to be complimentary, not to mention the lift down to the beach. I was almost embarrassed by the generosity, and certainly wouldn't have asked for the extra picnics had I known that they were going to be free. So what did we pay? Having booked indirectly, I can't tell you, but I note the rack rate for a double room, bed and breakfast, varies from 70 to 130 euros a night, depending on size and season. Ours, in early June, would have been 100 euros for the pair of us, with dinner adding 25 euros per person, wine included. I don't think that's bad value, and the extras certainly made our stay very good value, as well as being much appreciated in their own right.
A severe critic might say that the facilities at the Três Marias are a trifle basic, and the furniture, fixtures and fittings not all in the best repair. But everything of importance is operational, and the place certainly has a style, even panache, of its own - "shabby chic" as my wife termed it - as well as good food, a scenic setting and an ambience of rustic peace. The staff are all helpful and friendly in a pleasantly unfussy way, and Balthasar, chatting with his guests in a variety of languages, a genial as well as generous host. Whether or not you'd enjoy a stay there depends entirely on what you look for it a hotel. If you want deep-pile carpets, solid gold bath taps and fawning flunkeys, it won't be for you, but if you're that kind of person you probably won't be wanting to stay in rural Alentejo in any case. If you just want the essential things done properly, but are in all other respects ready to respond to somewhere charmingly quirky and off the beaten track, then the beaten track to the Algarve might be a good one for you stray off to visit the Costa Vicentina, making the Três Marias, as well as the Casa do Adro, a stopping point as you explore the area. On that basis, I would most warmly recommend it.
© Also published with photos under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2011
* For related reviews, see: