A courtly reception

B&Bs in Portugal have a rarefied air now that the nobility has got in on the act

The ambassador was holding court. We were sipping a vintage red in the panelled entrance hall of Casa de Esteiro, an 18th-century hunting lodge on the northern coast of Portugal, and he was regaling us with anecdotes from his distinguished career. José Maria do Patrocinio de Almeida Villas Boas was once Portuguese ambassador to Moscow and to Peking, but these days he runs a B&B. Or, rather, his wife Nia does while he lectures in diplomacy at the local university.

The ambassador was holding court. We were sipping a vintage red in the panelled entrance hall of Casa de Esteiro, an 18th-century hunting lodge on the northern coast of Portugal, and he was regaling us with anecdotes from his distinguished career. José Maria do Patrocinio de Almeida Villas Boas was once Portuguese ambassador to Moscow and to Peking, but these days he runs a B&B. Or, rather, his wife Nia does while he lectures in diplomacy at the local university.

Casa de Esteiro is part of the Turihab scheme, Portugal's attempt to stem the growing dilapidation of its stately homes. Government grants enable the owners to repair and renovate their properties and, in return, they let out rooms to the sorts of tourists who prefer stone houses and heirlooms to discos and deckchairs.

The properties themselves range from grand "quintas" - manor houses and palaces that are lavishly decorated with antiques and tapestries - to small country houses and cottages. They are still very much private homes and offer a personal, and sometimes unusual welcome.

Brandishing a bottle of Mai Tai, like a character from a Garcia Marquez novel, the ambassador launched into another tale. His great-grandmother had bought Casa de Esteiro in the 1850s, and on arrival we had found a shady, cobbled drive leading down to the old hunting lodge. It was white with dark green shutters, and had a terracotta tiled roof.

José had greeted us and led us through the cool, slightly musty corridors, past the library and tiny chapel to our room. Its wooden floors were scattered with Chinese rugs (smuggled past the authorities, he chuckled) and the large old bed stood in state with an ornate wooden headboard and embossed white linen. Through the window, citrus trees bowed under the burden of over-ripe fruit and plump hydrangeas burst from green bushes.

Casa de Esteiro is in the small town of Caminha at the mouth of the River Minho, which divides Spain from Portugal. From the lodge, it was just a few minutes' walk to the town's old square or about the same to a long, windswept beach. There, enormous Atlantic rollers broke onto an unspoilt stretch of sand; an old castle, perched on a rocky outcrop, stood sentinel in the middle of the ocean.

The Minho region is often referred to as the Costa Verde, or "Green Coast" and it rains a lot here, compared to the rest of Portugal. However, that and the fact that much of Portugal's tourism is based on the Algarve, has meant that this area has remained one of the most beautiful in Portugal.

Touring the region by car, we headed inland. Valenca do Minho, on a small hill above the river, is a sleepy, cobbled fortress town, and similarly picturesque is Guimaraes, the country's first capital.

Most people choose to split their stay between a couple of properties and, from the Casa de Esteiro, we had chosen to move on to the Quinta da Boa Viagem, just outside the lively coastal town of Viana do Castelo. To the ambassador's delight, we discovered that this belonged to his nephew, José Inacio Teixeira de Queiroz.

The Quinta da Boa Viagem dates back to the 16th century. Set against a wooded hillside, the house is a rich honey colour, with deep burgundy shutters. José gave us a brief rundown of the local history as he showed us around the grounds.

Outside the main gates a tiny chapel sat among a crop of olive trees. On the hillside above it, a large cross once signalled to approaching sailors that they were in front of the chapel and could pray to Our Lady of Boa Viagem. Inside, an old wooden boat hangs from the rafters, the donation of a grateful sailor who made it home safely.

The tour through the Renaissance gardens over, José presented us with a gift before leaving us to settle in. Not a red from his cellar or a glass of fiery Mai Tai, but a couple of bottles of wine from his vineyard; the juice of grapes ripened in the sunlit grounds of an old Portuguese manor.

Lucy Gillmore travelled with Destination Portugal (01993 773269, www.destination-portugal.co.uk), which arranges tailor-made trips to the area. For an example of what you might expect to pay, return flights to Oporto with TAP cost from £150, a week's car hire around £70, a room at Casa de Esteiro from £24 per night, bed and breakfast, and a night at Quinta da Boa Viagem, £20 per person. To contact Turihab direct, visit: www.turihab.pt

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