Staying on a farm isn’t what it used to be. Once, the most visitors to a farmhouse bed-and-breakfast might expect was a fry-up at dawn and a chance to collect eggs from the chickens. In stark contrast, the new crop of upmarket farm stays combine rustic locations with stylish interiors and the promise of an idealised rural lifestyle, connected to the land but also benefiting from art shows, jazz concerts, natural wine tastings, farm-to-table safaris, even “meditation with bees” and “forest bathing with donkeys” (I can explain).
The pandemic has only increased the demand for fresh-air adventures in the country. As Claus Sendlinger, the influential founder of the Design Hotels network, is fond of saying: “the farmhouse is the golf course of the 21st century.”
With all this in mind, I planned a road trip between two establishments combining luxury accommodation with a wholehearted commitment to organic farming. Both lie towards the southern edge of the Iberian peninsula, one in Portugal, the other in Spain. Both are owned by impassioned individuals from big cities with no background in agriculture and with similar ideas about how to elevate the once-humble farm stay.
First stop was Craveiral Farmhouse in Portugal’s Alentejo, one of Europe’s most thinly populated regions. I arrived on an overcast summer evening with a fresh Atlantic mist drifting in from the sea. In the fields around a little stone farmhouse I drove past, a man and his wife were busy scything and raking (she in a straw hat, he in a flat cap).
You’d be unlikely to mistake Pedro Franca Pinto, a successful Lisbon lawyer, for an Alentejo farmer — yet, he says, he always wanted to be one. On trips across Europe as a child what excited him most were not churches and museums, but fields and cows. When, in 2010, he bought a former carnation farm 12km from the seaside town of Zambujeira do Mar it was an overgrown wasteland, abandoned some 20 years earlier. “In many ways it wasn’t perfect. The soil was very poor,” he told me. “But my idea was always to regenerate the land, plant native trees, bring the farm back from the dead. It would be the pretext for me to enjoy the life I always wanted to live.”
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Pinto’s “sustainable quinta” has taken shape impressively since Craveiral opened in 2018. Winding wooden walkways link the 22-acre property’s various sectors: the hamlet-like groups of low-slung white houses, the spa, the main building with a reception area, bar and restaurant, and the Centro de Interpretaçao da Natureza. This woodland pavilion, designed by young Portuguese architects Pedro Vladimiro Rodrigues and Emanuel Cecilio, was the site of a residency during lockdown by the jazz-funk group Bizu Coolective — music and visual art being part of the project’s cultural dimension.
At dusk, I strode the boardwalk across a wetland area where frogs croaked among the reeds. A gleeful child overtook me on her bike with two big lettuces in her basket. Guests are encouraged to pick fruit and vegetables from the raised beds around the property for their own use. Accommodation on the estate is in 38 self-catering apartments of various sizes arranged in three groups of houses that mimic rural Alentejano architecture. What’s surprising are the interiors, which eschew rusticism in favour of a laid-back Portuguese modernism, with felt-upholstered chairs, Smeg kitchens, and plenty of cork (my apartment even had a cork bathtub).
Like many of the new breed of upscale farm/hotels Craveiral doesn’t feel very much like a farm. The grimy and unglamorous aspects of the business are mostly kept out of sight (and smell).
Among the almost exclusively middle-class-Portuguese clientele, the vibe was cheery yet civilised. Children and dogs, both well-behaved, wandered among the restaurant tables. At times the feeling was of an upmarket, scrupulously eco-conscious summer camp.
Behind the holiday scenes, however, a serious agricultural enterprise is under way. Seven thousand square metres of vegetable gardens and more than a thousand fruit trees answer roughly 70 per cent of the hotel’s needs, the rest being locally sourced. (After three years of permaculture, composting and companion planting the clay soil is now rich in organic matter.) The farm keeps hens, sheep and goats, horses and donkeys, and makes its own beer and cider. At the edge of the property, Portuguese black pigs snuffle in their enclosure under the pine trees.
On a summer evening the mood around the pool and dining area was convivial. Fire pits glowed and crackled; guests pulled their hoodies closer as they sank into low wooden sofas scattered with cushions; a DJ spun Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Wonder.
The in-house restaurant, headed up by chef Alexandre Silva — best known for Lisbon’s Fogo and Loco, the latter of which has a Michelin star — is the focus of life at Craveiral. For dinner one night I had baby carrots with fennel mayonnaise, a sea bream from the nearby port of Sines done whole on the chargrill (the kitchen brigade are masters of wood-fired cooking), and a radical dessert of strawberries, courgettes and yoghurt courtesy of pastry chef Matilde Urbano, formerly of Belcanto in Lisbon.
Food aside, even newer is the idea of the farm as cultural hub. Pinto works with the London-based Blank100 organisation to bring international art and artists to Craveiral: the creators receive board and lodging in return for an artwork which is put on permanent display, forming what will eventually become the hotel’s own contemporary art collection.
“Eventually” is a keyword here. Pinto insists that his project is a work-in-progress and that “five years from now all this will be completely different”. As if to give me an idea of precisely how, he took me on a drive in a brand-new electric Skoda (he plans to ban all diesel vehicles from the property) to check out the 86-acre farm he has acquired in the nearby village of Sabóia. The scrubby slopes of cork oak and medronheiro (arbutus) seem unpromising as arable land, but Pinto has this patch earmarked for Craveiral 2.0. Within a few years livestock will graze these hillsides, he says, supplying meat and cheese. There’ll be a vineyard and winery, a gastronomic restaurant-with-rooms, an arts centre. Further down the line Pinto hopes to recondition the old windmill on a hilltop for milling the farm’s own flour.
Craveiral Farmhouse has much in common with the second of my next-level farm stays, a country estate in the hills between Cádiz and Málaga. But if Craveiral is still at an early stage in its fusion of farming and hospitality, Finca La Donaira has reached a point at which you can barely see the join.
Like Pedro Franca Pinto, Austrian businessman Manfred Bodner had had no previous involvement with agriculture when, in 2005, he bought a derelict livestock farm in the Serranía de Ronda. Sixteen years later the finca is fully operational over its vast (1730-acre) extension of farmland and woodlands, and the nine-room farmhouse at its core, a whitewashed Andalucían cortijo given a 21st-century makeover, has emerged as one of Spain’s more remarkable places to stay.
As the high-end guest house it became, the restored cortijo is a gorgeous exercise in contemporary style. The spaces are large and diaphanous, whitewash and adobe walls making a contrast with modern art and funky vintage furniture. A full-size Steinway grand piano in the beam-roofed sitting room reminded me that Bodner is a talented musician and that La Donaira’s very own bijou music festival Pause has featured artists of the stature of Maria João Pires, the genial Portuguese pianist. Attendees at Pause describe an atmosphere of bucolic charm in excelsis, with horses listening in the field below and the occasional chicken pecking under the piano.
But before it was a hotel, La Donaira was a farm. Bodner established a stable of 90 Lusitano horses, now a cornerstone of the estate’s economy and a major draw for riders. Then came cows, goats and sheep, ducks and geese, hens, bees, fruit trees, a vegetable garden. The olive groves returned to full production; a vineyard was planted. The finca has been certified organic for years and recently won the Demeter seal for biodynamic agriculture. By 2015, when La Donaira finally opened to paying guests, it was already close to being 100 per cent off-grid and self-sufficient in produce.
During a farm-to-fork tour by buggy with Fredrik Andersson, formerly of the Michelin-starred Mistral in Stockholm, the chef reeled off the food groups available to him on-site, which range from meat and charcuterie to fruit and vegetables, nuts and berries, goats-milk dairy products, olive oil, wine, honey, kitchen herbs and aromatics. Andersson’s cooking respects the stellar quality of his ingredients at every turn. His dishes are often little more than artful presentations of fresh ingredients on a white plate. “The vegetables here are unreal,” said the chef — and he was right. The French beans he served with a scattering of pink garlic flowers were squeaky fresh and so delicious I’d have been happy to eat them at every meal.
The more I saw of La Donaira, the more my admiration grew. And thanks to the finca’s generous programme of guest activities, I’d been seeing a fair amount of it during my two-day stay. The menu of “experiences” went far beyond the standard spa treatments and yoga sessions: you could hike the hills, paraglide from the peaks at the top of the finca, or go on a therapeutic “forest bathing” walk with house donkeys Catalina and Caramelo.
A new initiative called La Dehesa Biodinámica involves a three-hour trip by 4×4 with stops to see the various livestock, explanations of the Finca’s commitment to biodynamic philosophy and the phases of the moon, followed up by an organic aperitif at the project’s headquarters in a converted farm building. Though a non-rider since a childhood accident, I found a “natural horsemanship” (otherwise known as horse-whispering) workshop up at the stud farm went some way to conquering my life-long antipathy. Under the guidance of Seamus Gaffney and his stable team, the workshop takes you gently through the basic steps in creating a bond of trust between you and the animal, and may or may not involve actual riding.
One busy morning I met up with Gerhard “Gigi” Bodner (brother of Manfred) for a tour of his magnificent Medicinal Garden, a verdant haven of some 250 species including exotic rarities such as “wild baby’s breath” and Brazilian jambú. Balsamic fragrances wafted through the garden; water trickled along stone channels. Next up was a private tasting of natural wines given by sommelier David Raya, who runs the farm’s own winery and serves around 200 different natural and organic wines in the restaurant. Raya had set up the tasting in a shady glade under an overarching fig tree.
And there was one more activity before lunch: a spot of “bee meditation”. Honey production at La Donaira is overseen by cult apiarist Jonathan Powell, who is also the inventor of the “bee bed”. This contraption, of which there are only four in the world, is a lidded box over a line of hives in which you are lulled into a meditative state by the hum from below. I lay there in that curious coffin, smelling the soft smells of beeswax and warm wood, thinking what a long way we’ve come since those mean old farmhouse B&Bs. If farm stays are on-trend, this was somewhere you could really feel the buzz.
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