In hotel Rainha Santa Isabel in the walled fortress city of Estremoz, Portugal, you can be royalty in a castle without plundering any rivals to pay the tab.
If you’ve ever entertained a fantasy of being king of the castle, looking down at your kingdom below from the highest point in the city, a stay in one of Pousadas of Portugals most impressive hotels will get you pretty close.
The hotel is named after Queen Santa Isabel, who inspired the building of the castle and who died here in 1336. Yes, you can bed down in a building put up 680 years ago. You can climb up into the main turret for a panoramic view, though the one from my room window was pretty special also.
Estremoz is one of those evocative cities you see in many places in Europe, a castle on a hill, homes inside the walls, olive trees below, appearing like something out of a movie set far in the past. We even crossed a drawbridge across a moat to get here. Inside the effect doesn’t stop: the lobby has suits of armour, weapons, antiques, and period tapestries.
The public areas are grand and even a little intimidating, making you think it’s all a practical joke that you’re here for these rates, that when you show up at the front desk to check out the cameras are going to come out and your bill will be $500 higher than what you were quoted. But no, you can stay here for as low as $160 a night with some promotional deals, including breakfast, and rates are frequently under $220. (There are plenty more deals like this on the Pousadas de Portugal site, all over the country.)
At night the restaurant is an elegant affair, with candles and chandeliers lighting up the grand columns and original oil paintings. Naturally there is an excellent selection of Portuguese wine, much of it from this Alentejo region. This is also the spot for the breakfast buffet though, with typical local cheeses and meats from farms just down the road. Several other restaurants are within a couple blocks in the walled city, or you can venture down the hill to dozens of other places. There’s also a great open market there on Saturdays.
The bar and lounge area is in a stunning castle common area with huge fireplaces and it looks out on the countryside through windows on one side.
To get to your room you parade past murals, antiques, and wall tapestries from several centuries, opening the door with a heavy key. While the guest rooms in some historic hotels are either musty period pieces or boring chain hotel rooms that could be anywhere, Rainha Santa Isabel gets the mix just right. Period furniture and reproductions set the right tone, especially the covered bed, but you get your modern conveniences like satellite TV, minibar, electronic safe, and (complimentary) Wi-Fi. Most of the 33 rooms are the same, though there are three superior rooms and one royal suite. The suite is frequently only about 50 euros more than a standard, so this can be a good place for a splurge.
There’s also a nice swimming pool outdoors for when it heats up in the summer, but I was there in April so it was still too chilly to try it out.
Front desk staffers are fluent in English, so you don’t have to fumble with a phrase book here. There’s parking outside if you’re traveling by rental car and if you’re traveling by bike like we were, they’ll provide a secure place for you to leave the bicycles.
Story and photos by Tim Leffel, who stayed with Pousadas of Portugal in two locations while on a bicycle tour of Alentejo sponsored by Bike Tours Direct.