Cherry brandy, fado music and hand-painted tiles make for three perfectly sound reasons to visit Lisbon, Portugal, any time of the year. Two more are its international documentary showcase, Doclisboa (in October) and festival of independent world cinema called Indie Lisboa (in April).
If you're attending either, or both, of these emerging festivals, you'll want a fabulous place to repair to after hectic days of screenings, panels and parties. One solution to consider is the Heritage Hotels of Lisbon, a boutique chain of luxury boutique hotels that arguably rivals cinema in providing period stories and fantasy escape.
Take Solar Do Castelo, for example, the prizewinning chain's 18th-century castle madeover as a luxury hotel. Set above the city's Moorish Alfama district, it features peacocks, tiled facades and balconied rooms overlooking a cobbled courtyard. Top that, Hilton Hotels.
But the blend of old and contemporary grace notes to be savored at this Medieval mansion, sited on the kitchen of St. Jorge's Castle and still bearing the original cistern, arch and 1765 insignia, are not unlike the experience that awaits you at two of its four brethren hotels, Heritage Av Liberdade along Lisbon's venerable main boulevard and As Janelas Verdes, down by the banks of the Tagus River.
Each venue holds its special seductions. The herbarium in the foyer of Heritage Av Liberdade dates back to the late 19th century, and several of this genteel townhouse's rooms sport original blue and yellow tiling from the previous century. Hotel As Janelas Verdes, built in the late 1700s as a small palace, provided creative inspiration and a roof for Portuguese novelist Eça de Queirós, whose books, paintings and affects fill its quaint riverfront library (including his 1875 title, The Crime of Father Amaro, adapted as a movie starring Gael García Bernal in 2002).
Hotel Britania, the Art Deco hotel of the bunch, serves up a bar, fireplace and lobby doors so classically retro you might mistakenly trace it to the Roaring Twenties and not to its true 1944 vintage. Flagship property Hotel Lisboa Plaza, a fifties confection, lacks the pedigree to compete, but its modish rooftop patio is so swank and inviting it makes you forget your snobbism about historic depth.
Of the five Heritage properties, Solar Do Castelo and As Janelas Verdes come closest to being urban "pousadas." The pousada, or government-run network of converted monasteries and castles, dot the Portuguese countryside and deliver the triple benefits of lodging for tourists, salvation for landmark constructions and coin for the national treasury.
Pooling bounty from five local families, the privately-owned Heritage chain has rescued buildings of historical moment and reclaimed them for leisure and business travelers hungry for authentic Lisbon ambiance, not sterile, boxy modernity.
But in matters of comfort, Heritage Hotels of Lisbon is solidly in sync with the now. The rooms and shared spaces have free wireless access, and guests can use the computer and printer in the airy den of each hotel. I'd love to swap my cramped Manhattan bathroom for one of the marbled affairs at Hotel Britania. Though they lack the sun-streaked panes of As Janelas Verdes (which is Portuguese for "green windows") and Heritage Av Liberdade's antique ceramic faucets, their stately mood confers a certain nobility of purpose that makes you stand tall while you're flossing.
Also common to the Heritage properties is that they were decorated by designers with solid voguish credentials. Portuguese architect Miguel Câncio Martins put his sleek stamp on Heritage Av Liberdade, mounting an interplay of earthtones and clean lines flecked with green apples and red petals that's every bit as tony as his work on the Buddha Bar and Thiou in Paris, Strictly Hush in London and Man Ray in New York. And its fitness facilities, including a jet pool and chi chi chaises longues, are as streamlined as they are streamlining. Solar Do Castelo, As Janelas Verdes and Hotel Lisboa Plaza were the passion projects of Portuguese design studio Graça Viterbo Interiors, whose client roster includes Cipriani Restaurant in Lisbon. Cassiano Branco, who retouched Hotel Britania with evocative period flourishes, was among the leading architects of the early Modern Movement in Portugal.
From the complimentary Moscatel wine provided in the rooms to the morning spread of pastries, fruits, cheeses, eggs and breakfast meats, chased with champagne and freshly squeezed juice (that can be savored al fresco at Solar Do Castelo and As Janelas Verdes), the pampering and historic artifacts on tap at this most unusual set of hotels offers a touch of class and a sense of place that continue the storytelling long after the credits roll on the Doclisboa and Indie Lisboa screen.