The Grand House Hotel, Portuguese Art-Nouveau, Pombal and the Grand Beach Club in VRSA
“Come on, let's go inside,” says my brother-in-law Armand when we stop in front of the hotel “Grand House” in Vila Real de Santo António (VRSA) on Avenida da República. I carefully enter the vestibule with my brother-in-law and our ladys, only to be immediately captivated by the wide marble staircase, with a blue carpet surmounted by a large sparkling crystal chandelier. Between two classical columns it passes into a stairwell illuminated by daylight in a style mix of Classical and Art Nouveau. After the first surprise I turn to the left, where a friendly lady at the counter speaks to me. On the wall hangs a collection of architectural drawings - plans and interiors - which turn out to be by the architect of the hotel, but from another project somewhere in the north of Portugal. The Portuguese Water Dog stretched out next to the lady at the reception listens to the name "Grand" and has the rank of junior butler.
We chat a bit about the hotel and the possebility to have a drink there. At the moment all the staff is busy with the rooms, but the lady wants to give us a small tour. The 26-room hotel has a colonial atmosphere that reminds me of my years in Africa. The lady at the reception appears to be born in Angola, in the town of Huige, which is located near the border with Zaire. And … a long time ago... I have just been there once on a “mission” for UNICEF in an attempt to draw up a plan for renovating health posts. Huige…it creates a bond.
The tour is continued by passing a dining room with wicker chairs and robust brown fans, a library with beautifully colored maps on the wall and a cozy bar. All rooms and transitions show a certain grandeur through the daylight and the beautifully styled paneling with lots of glass. It takes us back for a moment to the early 1900s, when Manuel Garcia Ramirez commissioned Swiss architect Ernesto (Ernst) Korrodi to renovate an existing hotel on the Guadiana River in Vila Real de Santo António (VRSA). The 50-room hotel was mainly intended for entrepreneurs (canning industry) from all over Europe who came to VRSA for “business”. The then hotel "Grande Hotel Guadiana" received an extensive refurbishment in 2016 and is now a 5-star member of Relais & Chateaux. The former hotel had a casino called Peninsular in Monte Gordo; the new Grand Hotel has a Grand Beachclub with its own (mini) beach in the mouth of the river.
The Swiss architect Ernesto Korrodi changed Bern for Braga, where he became an art teacher at the Industrial School and later started his own architectural firm in Leiria, further on. He became one of the most famous architects of his time and realized about 400 projects, mainly in the north of Portugal. We know his style in Europe as Fin-de-Siècle; a mix of classical architecture with a transition to Art Nouveau, called “Modernismo” in Portugal and Spain. Entrepreneur Garcia managed to persuade the VRSA board to change the strict requirements that only the "Pomball style" should be built in the "historic center".
As the Minister of King José I, the Marquis de Pombal had this rational city built in 1773 according to the ideas of the “Enlightenment”. With 41 building blocks in an orthogonal grid as a kind of checkerboard pattern with in in the middle a large square with an obelisk. A form of urban planning that the Roman architect Vitruvius already describes in his 10 books about architecture and that was mainly motivated by military strategy and rationality. But especially because of the possibility of aligning the two main axes of the city with the dominant wind directions and keeping the city fresh and dust-free.
Around the square with radiating lines in the pavement are some buildings of interest, as the Igreja Matriz church, the customs office, the military headquarters and the town hall. Most of the buildings have been realized using a prefab construction method that consist of a wooden latticework system covered with (hard) stone. A construction method that Pombal already used to rebuild the lower city of Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755. The Grande Hotel Guadiana, with its fine architecture, is clearly different than the fairly uniform “Pombal architecture” that dominates the facade towards the water.
But the actual purpose of our visit to VRSA is not the hotel, but the Grand Beachclub. In addition to a collaboration with “Culinaire Bar” LPA, which is one of the 10 best restaurants in Ayamonte across the river in Spain, the Grand Hotel also has its own Grand Beach Bar on this side of on the river. At the beginning of the stretch dam where the river flows into the Atlantic Ocean, they made a modest sandy beach with a swimming pool and luxurious sunbeds with parasols. Next to it a restaurant with a spacious terrace and "sea view". And an outdoor bar with seats in white sand under a beautiful Alfaroba tree.
It is a kind of oasis, To get there you have to go through a very typical part of the Portuguese city outskirts, with the ever-present messy industrial estates and even a small motley group of residents in ramshackle buildings. But once you are there: It's "Whauw...". It costs a bit, but then you get something. After our surprising lunch experience this afternoon, we know what it is that you get and certainly how it tastes, but ... You will really have to wait for the review, which will certainly appear soon, of the new culinary website of the Algarve: www. hotspotsalgarve.com from the sympathetic Dutch entrepreneur Jan Peter Cruiming, who will shure discover this new “hidden gem”.