Saturday, 28 May 2011

Class in a 60 cent glass at the Casa de Mateus

Two days into our Portuguese jaunt, the weather decided to frown on us (well, 'weep' would be more accurate). Inadequately prepared for anything other than sunshine, we slopped our way around the country on the receiving end of much finger-pointing at our sandal-clad feet from local men, their faces creased with incredulity. Our attentions turned to indoor activities: there's only so much fun you can have with wet feet, an umbrella in hand and a wrinkled finger assessing your every footstep.

With our walking plans for the hills surrounding Vila Real rained off, we took the bus to the Casa de Mateus instead. The home of the aristocratic family of rosé-producing fame, this Baroque mansion is now open to the curious public. Despite the casa's starring role on the label of that blush-filled funny-shaped bottle beloved of grandmas UK-wide, wine takes a back seat here. Unless you visit the café, that is.

With guided tours in English only taking place every few hours out of season, we had some time to kill. During a wander round the perfectly-manicured gardens, another downpour began. We sought refuge in the café, where an item on the drinks list caught our eyes. Wine. For 60 cents a glass. It had nothing to do with Mateus; it wasn't even rosé. But it was 60 cents. It was raining. What else were we going to do?

Fast forward a couple of hours, and Rachael and I joined the English-speaking tour group, which consisted of us and a French couple who spoke no English. Cue a lot of enthusiastic nodding and mm-hmming from us and blank stares from the couple. Interesting whether or not you've just visited the café for a drink or two, the Casa de Mateus opens its doors to numerous grand rooms, including drawing rooms, dining rooms, old bedrooms, the library (stocked with books dating from the seventeenth century and some original printing plates) and the family's own chapel, complete with its own relic. They certainly weren't short of a bob or two, the Mateus's: nothing but the finest furniture from France and objets d'art from China and India for this lot. Still under the influence of a couple of 60 cent beverages, we were quite excited to learn that the count and his family are still in residence, although visitors aren't granted access to their private apartments.

Although the tour was enjoyable and the guide knowledgeable about the artefacts on display, there was no mention of the history of wine production; there was no mention of wine at all, in fact. For a family who made their name from the stuff, the focus was decidedly wine-free: good job we decided to give the visit our own wine-focused slant, then. It was entirely appropriate, after all.

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