Obviously, it’s not the old signifiers, like bath butlers and pillow menus. Some people say scarcity—an experience few people can have. Some people say knowledge—insight that few people get to absorb. But my new favorite definition came to me during a recent stay at Companhia das Culturas, in southeastern Portugal, near the sea, the Ria Formosa Natural Park and the Spanish border.
The ultimate luxury is…nothing.
No noise, no interference with nature, no news, no phones, no TVs, no distractions. Calm. Simplicity. Tranquility. Life at its most elemental.
Luxury is also history—something that no amount of money can buy. The farmhouse has been in the family of co-owner Francisco Palma Dias for five generations. There are a public lounge and a private apartment in rooms that were once used as olive presses. The conventional ideas of luxury don’t apply, and yet, it’s the place where many of my most sophisticated Portuguese friends go for their holidays. (I recently visited as a guest of the hotel.)
Dias’s co-owner and wife, Eglantina Monteiro, is the creative mind behind the project. She has lived in France, England, Senegal and Brazil; is an anthropologist by training; and carries out the work of a curator who organizes objects and aesthetics from various cultures in her hotel. Their eco-tourism work was born out of a desire not to let family or cultural history slip away. She told me that her father used to say, “We are rich in ruins.”
Which is why, frankly, Companhia das Culturas is not all that much to look at. There are ruins. Nothing is manicured. The landscape is wild, all dirt trails and weeds, woodlands and orchards, shaped by the ocean wind and blazing sun. The six bedrooms, three suites, and seven apartments are blissful in their simplicity, making heavy use of organic materials such as wood and stone. The changing space in the spa is made of fabric from flour sacks and a bronze frame from farm equipment. (Monteiro is adamant that there be no shiny metals or chrome, only beautiful materials with a well-earned patina.)
Dias and Monteiro invited the architect Pedro Ressano Garcia—whose research focuses specifically on the traditional architecture of southern Portugal—to help them design what would become the Companhia das Culturas out of the remnants of old barns, stables, sheds and family living quarters. Now there is also a library with a particular emphasis on sustainability, a yoga room inside what is essentially a cork box (the former threshing machine garage), and an outdoor saltwater pool.
There’s also the most authentic hammam (Turkish bath) in the area, a reflection of the Algarve’s Moorish past, and Monteiro has just started collaborating with local essential oil producer Pharmaplant to make a deliciously herbal-scented line of organic bath amenities. And unsurprisingly the farm-to-table dining element plays a starring role (although the hotel was between chefs during my visit, so I only got to enjoy the decadent breakfast, with its fresh breads, fruits and cheeses).
So it makes sense that Monteiro compares Companhia das Culturas to the slow food movement. “This is a slow-motion project,” she says. “You can be in your room and have complete privacy. No one cares who you are. It’s like real food. This is a real place.”