Thursday, 19 October 2017
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JamesBacalhoaWith its magnificent gardens and tiled pavilions Quinta de Bacalhoa must surely be one of the most romantic country properties in Portugal. This is where I spent a family summer holiday, in the early 1970s.

My father had been unwell and, when they heard that the Quinta de Bacalhoa could be rented for the summer at comparatively little cost, it seemed to my parents the perfect place for a restful holiday. It had shaded terraces overlooking the garden and a huge ornamental tank, in which you could swim, surrounded by pavilions decorated with tiles.

There was also a cook whom we later discovered produced wonderful meals. My parents were not deterred by Portugal still being under the boot of a nasty Fascist regime; my mother, who is of German-Jewish descent, had lived in Vienna after the Anschluss.

So my mother, my sister and I set off by car on the long, hot drive from London across France and Spain. In the evenings I would write up my spy “novel”, I think I got to page fifteen! My father flew out to Lisbon to join us, followed by a party of friends and relatives.

Black, white and colour

In the early 1970s, Portugal was exhausted after four decades of dictatorship. The country had effectively been sealed off from many of the economic and cultural advances of twentieth century Europe and had remained poor and backward, with a Catholic church that was still influential. Much of the population appeared to be dressed in black.

Quinta de Bacalhoa turned out to be enchanting. A former royal property, it was not in fact as grand as this may sound and, like many Portuguese country estates, was more rustic than formal. Nonetheless it came with a reputation: Princess Margaret had visited in the 1950s and, in the 1960s, the Quinta had been the location of a photo shoot for Vogue

The property’s most spectacular features were the Renaissance garden with its elaborate maze of hedges overlooked by the main rooms of the house, and a large tank framed by three pavilions decorated with 15th and 16th century azulejos in an exuberant burst of colour that nothing in my childhood as a Londoner had prepared me for.

The other side of Europe

In our age of Internet and global brands, it is difficult to recall just how provincial Portugal seemed in the 1970s to anyone from Northern Europe. My family lived off the King’s Road in Chelsea. This was the territory of Mary Quant, Mick Jagger and Vivian Westwood. Located halfway between Terence Conran’s first Habitat store and the house in which Joseph Losey’s The Servant was filmed, our home was ideally positioned for watching London as it swung past. This was all very inspiring for a teenager.

Portugal was the reverse side of this big city glamour, sleepy and rural, with dazzling summer light, fruit infinitely riper than anything you could buy at our local Sainsbury’s and Portuguese itself a tangle of impenetrable sounds.

I remember my father, who ran the manuscript department at Sotheby’s, getting suited up one day and going into Lisbon for a meeting at the Gulbenkian Foundation. When he returned to the Quinta that evening he gave me a black and white postcard of a tram.

The flagship property of a famous wine producer

Today I live in Portugal, the country which has seemed so exotic to me all those years ago. Quinta de Bacalhoa is now the flagship property of Bacalhoa Vinhos de Portugal S.A., a prestigious wine producer with a range of excellent wines. They have renovated the estate. I have not returned to visit yet but I am planning to do so one of these days and taste some of the wines.

See: Quinta da Bacalhoa

The author, James Mayor, is the founder of Grape Discoveries, a wine and culture boutique travel company

See the 'Grape Discoveries' website