Restored with techniques and materials from the time of its construction, five centuries ago, it is a unique accommodation in the world. Its owner, Frederic Coustols, invested six years and 26 million euros to give it back. Members of royalty and “celebrities” come to the place …
“¡This palace should have 200 stars! “. The phrase can be read in the Belmonte Palace guestbook and was written by a 10-year-old boy after staying with his family in this old Lisbon building converted into a boutique hotel. An almost childlike astonishment is what one feels when entering in this imposing 3,700 m2 building with spectacular views of the Alfama neighborhood. Located next to São Jorge Castle, on one of the seven hills of the city, the establishment is star-free (not governed by the hotel industry), but could top a list of “the best places in the world to confine yourself“When you get lost in its labyrinthine corridors, look out of one of its 316 windows, eat breakfast in the organic rooftop garden or sleep in a room lined with century-old tiles, you wish you could stay and live.
Built in the 15th century on Roman and Moorish ruins, Lisbon’s oldest palace is not distinguished by its room service or lavish decor. You will not see televisions or chocolates on the bed. It stands out for the meticulous restoration carried out by its current owner, Frédéric Coustols (Lectoure, French Gascony, 1944), following the architectural principles of the Charter of Venice. A sustainable reconstruction, preceded by an archaeological study, which returned to the splendor palace and has won numerous awards like the RIC’s Award for Urban Regeneration, given by the Prince of Wales.
Fervent defender of vernacular architecture (linked to the territory and made with techniques and materials of the time), bought the old palace in 1994 and invested six years and 26 million of euros to reform it.
A crush on the owner
His encounter with the building was a crush. “I was in a taxi through the Alfama neighborhood and I asked the driver to stop, because the landscape seemed beautiful to me. I stopped by the door of a house that reminded me of my own in Paris. I felt an almost physical attraction. No I was able to go in because it was closed, but I saw that it was for sale, I asked for the owner and I bought it the next day, without seeing it. Although, to tell the truth, I did not buy this house: he bought it from me. Six months later I returned and I checked that it had more than 300 windows.It was much bigger than I imagined! “, recalls this 76-year-old French conservationist. An economist by training and ecologist by vocation, he defines himself as a”landscape collector“.
In his house-palace he lives with his (fifth) wife, the Portuguese María Mendonça, a self-taught painter 69-year-old whose contemporary-style paintings decorate some rooms. “She is the best gift that life has given me”says Frédéric. “He is a wonderful madman,” replies his charming wife, who owes the joyful coloring that contrasts with the whitewashed walls. The couple, who met 23 years ago, spend here six months a year discontinuously, and the rest of the year in the houses they have scattered around France, Germany or China. None consider themselves hoteliers, but they are experts in the art of receiving. The receptionist hands over the keys to the Ricardo Reis suite, which is accessed through a Arab spiral staircase from the 7th century. On the way to this 90 m2 alcove, one can breathe the patina of time. The building was built over five periods, so it was necessary to respect the construction techniques of each era.
Before starting the reform, Frédéric Coustols spent a year in the palace to feel its breath. It did not alter anything. “I only noticed the light coming in through the windows, the noises coming from the Alfama neighborhood.” Director Wim Wenders took advantage of this decadent atmosphere to shoot Lisbon Story (1994) here, and Roberto Fanenza set Sostiene Pereira (1995) in these rooms. To undertake the works of the building, Frédéric hired an ad hoc company, “but nobody knew the rules of the Venice Charter (reconstruction with techniques and materials of the time). ”Fortunately, he ended up finding a trusted partner: the architect Pedro Quirino da Fonseca, who took charge of the project with the help of 65 employees.
26 million euros
The rehabilitation was done with “time, respect and love”, emphasizes before explaining the whole process: “An important decision was to open windows to ventilate the spaces. Another, to use lime mortar mixed with oil instead of cement. The technicians took two years to get an old recipe that repels humidity; We call it Fradical because of the Pátio Dom Fradique that runs through the house “. Working with the primitive materials was not easy. “For the living room, the coffered ceiling was removed and the same Riga pine was used [Letonia] cut in 1640. We had to make 5,000 nails of the time! The floor tiles were dried in the sun and then baked, as in the old days. Regarding the 3,800 tiles were disassembled piece by piece“.
The first real estate adventure for this old stone lover, who made his fortune by selling his shares in the GrandOptical optical chain in the late 1990s, was to buy a dilapidated town, Castelnau des Fieumarcon, where private events are held. The next one will be in the Azores. “I don’t do projects to earn money, but to enjoy a magical place”, he reflects.