Modern Alentejo: The minimalism & traditional...

Modern Alentejo: The minimalism & traditionalism of Villa Extramuros

By: Alexandra Stilwell

At Villa Extramuros, the minimalism of a contemporary guesthouse and the traditional charm of the Alentejo come together in perfect harmony

It is an unusual sight, in a region known for its rustic and traditional culture: surrounded by olive trees and wild rosemary bushes, a large, white minimalistic building stands tall in all its glory. Villa Extramuros, a five-bedroom guesthouse, to which two cabins have recently been added, is at the antipode of its surroundings. Yet, it fits in perfectly.

Just south of Arraiolos (a town an hour and a half east of Lisbon, known for its secular carpets), this magnificent project is the work of François Savatier and Jean-Christophe Lalanne, two Frenchmen passionate about architecture who fell in love with Portugal.

“It was love at first sight but also a choice of reason,” explains François, who discovered Lisbon for the first time in August of 1988, at the time of the great Chiado fire. “[The idea was to] combine a life project with an economically viable and innovative business, in a little-known place where we would do something completely different from what already existed.”

They left Paris, where François had a career in trade and Jean-Christophe in fashion, to build a house in a contemporary Portuguese architectural style, rather than buying a monte alentejano (large rural property) to transform it into a traditional guesthouse.

“The Portuguese do that very well, so we’ll leave that to them,” says François. “What we wanted was to create a new market segment to attract new, younger, more open-minded customers to the region. To live in the 21st century, that was the idea.”

They chose Arraiolos, not only for its natural beauty and accessibility, but also thanks to the open-mindedness of the village mayor, who quickly embraced the project. The Frenchmen found a 5.5-hectare plot, with pretty views and lots of olive trees.

“Incidentally, we have the pleasure of making our own olive oil. When we have a small surplus, we sell it to our guests,” François reveals, with a twinkle in his eye.

Their admiration for contemporary Portuguese architects, such as Álvaro Siza Vieira and all of his pupils, led them to work with Jordi Fornells, a Spanish counterpart who did all of his training in Lisbon. The briefing for the villa was simple: after showing the architect everything they did not want, they simply asked him for a five-bedroom house with a patio, lots of local materials and a lot of interaction with the outdoors, as well as natural light, “in order to enjoy the landscape, while staying cool inside.” The result is a sober building with bright interiors, thanks to large windows.

“The decoration is entirely homemade. It’s a passion, a sort of game, a project in constant evolution because, every year, objects and furniture change place according to our mood and because we make new acquisitions,” explains François.

The mix of furniture in the breakfast room is eclectic and captivating. Modern chairs combined with a classic table somehow seem to work. In the corridors and in the living room, there are interior decoration, architecture and art books piled everywhere. Cork is omnipresent, on the walls, doors and sometimes even on the ceiling. In addition to the large bay windows overlooking the country side, an atrium allows even more light to brighten up the interior of Villa Extramuros.

This outdoor space at the heart of the building, with a few orange trees, large sofas and a fountain with the refreshing sound of its flowing water, is an oasis during the sweltering Alentejo summers.

The five spacious and modern bedrooms are located on the first floor. Each one is uniquely decorated with local materials such as colourful carpets and, in the bathrooms, glistening marble from Estremoz. Each room has a private terrace, with a view of the village and quiet plains of the Alentejo. No question about it, intimacy prevails.

The latest novelties are the two cork-covered cabins that discretely stand in the garden. “They were built out of necessity. During the summer, we had two or three times more demand than we could handle,” says François. They therefore made a new investment to expand the guesthouse. Since they couldn’t enlarge the actual house, they opted for two cabins, which offer even more privacy and contact with nature. But they will not expand any more: “We are a guesthouse. We look after our guests and help them discover the region, that takes time and dedication.”

Like two mini-suites, the cabins offer plenty of space in a colourful atmosphere: large photos on the bedroom walls, Alentejo carpets on the floor and modern accessories in the living room and kitchenette. The bathrooms have ‘hydraulic’ tiles and a huge walk-in shower; its large glass door opens onto a small secluded terrace, offering guests direct contact with nature.

All around, the property is almost untouched. François and Jean-Chris tophe only planted a few fig trees and the vegetable garden, which provides fresh ingredients for breakfasts and the occasional snack. Of course, there had to be a beautiful infinity pool in the olive grove. By its side, large white umbrellas and sunbeds are organised in an intimate manner, as perforated white brick walls create screens, offering just the right amount of privacy for a quiet poolside snooze.

Comfort, and sobriety in the midst of nature…We could get used to this 21st-century Alentejo.

Villa Extramuros is open all year except January and early February (reopening on Valentine’s Day).

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