To the manor borne

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The Independent Travel
The Minho area of Portugal is the centre of a very different line in bed and breakfast accommodation.

Getting up in the morning here often involves chatting to the owners of the house, over coffee slurped from fine china cups and stirred with delicate silver teaspoons. No flying ducks across the walls here - instead you may find dramatically fading tapestries and sombre family portraits.

The guest houses in question are part of the Turismo de Habitacao (now officially called Solares de Portugal, for the ease of inarticulate tourists). The aim of the scheme is to help people to preserve interesting old properties - mostly manor-houses - and to encourage tourism in the north of the country.

In return for a grant, either from the Portuguese government or from the EU, the owners open up their homes to paying guests. The real advantage for tourists is that the owners will often encourage you to become part of the household during your stay, enabling you to see Portuguese life on a personal level.

The properties included in the scheme are varied, but many of them are Baroque-style splendours. For those who feel intimidated by such opulence, however - some visitors have complained that it's like staying in a museum - there are a number of less intimidating properties, often with modern refurbishments. One such property is the Torre de Refoios (00351 58 751030), which lies close to Ponte de Lima, and is owned by the proud descendant of a Knight of the Garter. The accommodation is in self-contained cottages beside a 13th-century tower. A maid brings you breakfast and, because the tower is surrounded by vineyards, wine is virtually on tap. These more modest houses may be a better option in the winter, as many of the grander properties have no heating.

As these are private homes, the standard of individual houses varies, but this uncertainty is far outweighed by the possibility of evenings spent cocooned in a haze of woodsmoke around massive fireplaces, or afternoons passed wandering around peaceful garden terraces.

Many properties are to be found within the Minho, simply because the area has a large concentration of manor-houses. This is reflected in the large number of bookings dealt with by the central reservations office in Ponte de Lima. However, there are many other Turismo de Habitacao homes spread throughout the country. The important thing is to make sure you get good directions, as most of them are not signposted.

The houses are divided into three price categories, ranging from pounds 40 to pounds 80 per person per night, and usually need to be booked three days in advance (or longer during popular times, such as the summer holidays), for a minimum of three nights. You pay 50 per cent of the total when you book. Bookings can be made either with the owners direct, or through organisations with English-speaking staff such as Turihab (Associacao do Turismo de Habitacao) Praca de Republica, 4990 Ponte de Lima (00 351 58 942729), and Anter (Associacao Nacional de Turismo Espaco Rural), Quinta do Campo, Valado dos Frades, 2450 Nazare (00 351 62 577135). Alternatively, you could try contacting the Portuguese Tourist Office (0171-494 1441)

Rhiannon Batten