PALACE IN WONDERLAND
Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Europe, predating the likes of Rome, Paris and London by centuries. As such, the Portuguese capital is full of wonderful secrets, a real treasure trove of amazing culture, architecture and history. All three of those things exist in abundance at Palácio Belmonte, a 15th century property that also includes three towers from a nearby fortress. It was once the home of a noble family but – under the guidance of owner Frederic Coustols, a self-described “landscape collector” who bought the property in 1994 – it has become a truly unique and splendid place for travellers to stay.
“I’m always looking for places where I can admire the landscape,” Frederic explains. “It’s on top of a hill in the oldest part of the city of Lisbon – one of the property’s towers is Roman. From 138 BC, and two are Muslim, from the 8th century.” As such, the architectural history of Palácio Belmonte is as rich as it is fascinating. And soon after buying the property and before it had gone through a six-year renovation, two films were shot there, allowing Frederic to really connect to the inner workings of the entire space.
“When it was raining,” he remembers, “the rain was pouring inside. We had buckets to collect it! But it was a fantastic time, because we learned everything about the sun, the wind, the rain, the colours, the smell, the silence. We really got to understand the building.”
For Frederic, though, it’s as much about the history of the people who once lived there as it is about the building itself. All but two of its 11 extraordinary, beautifully designed suites are named after writers, painters, inventors and explorers who would have inhabited or set foot inside Palácio Belmonte, part of Frederic’s way to pay homage to the humanity of the past.
“It’s about the history of the people who lived here and were received here,” says Frederic. “Not just the family, but there are also all these discoverers and inventors, almost all of whom have been forgotten. I wanted to bring back the history of the people who were living here – it’s not just about the walls, but all the people who walked through here.”
While the property was, in the past, the home of one family, that doesn’t now mean that privacy has been compromised. Each of its suites is its own private oasis, and while there are common areas, it’s impossible to be entirely secluded if you want to be. “The real point of the Palácio,” Frederic says, “is that you’re in the middle of the city, surrounded by millions of people, and suddenly you push the door and there’s silence. There is no noise except the water of the pool and the birds. And even if the Palácio is full, there are very few chances you’ll meet your neighbours. There are 13 staircases and there’s no central corridor. It’s all about privacy.”
Beyond that, Frederic’s dedication to environmental sustainability – for instance, the rooms don’t have air conditioning, but rely on the building’s effective, in-built ventilation system to keep a constant, comfortable temperature – and the fact that all the furniture was purchased by Frederic from antiques dealers during the renovation period, all makes Palácio Belmonte a truly entrancing, one-off place to call home, even if only for a few days.