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Dá Licença

Rural Refinement

“To set up a gallery in the middle of nowhere, like this, is almost utopic. Especially with the pieces placed throughout the hotel, to be experienced amidst daily life."

As we leave the Portuguese town of Estremoz through Alentejo hills, cork groves pass by on either side. The trees’ thick boughs spread from their crowns like reaching arms, perfectly encased in grey-blue lichen. Below, their colour changes abruptly to dark red, almost black, where the trunks have been stripped. I notice the digits ‘17’ painted in white across a tree trunk. “That is the year the bark was stripped,” explains Vitor Borges, the co-owner of Dá Licença. “The tree will be left for six years now until it can be harvested again.”

We continue along a gently ascending gravel road. The rural retreat of Dá Licença comes into view, its clustered, whitewashed buildings perched neatly atop the hill. As I step out, our position feels remarkably elevated. Hills swathed in olive groves rise to meet me from two sides, whilst low plains stretch out to the town of Estremoz below, its castle just visible against the horizon.

I follow Vitor into the main courtyard, and meet his partner, Franck Laigneau. Inside the property, a metal chimney hangs from the centre of the ceiling almost to the floor. Behind it, through the windows, olive trees slope away from the house. I follow Vitor and Franck through connecting rooms, past a sprawling decorative screen depicting a sunset, and a hefty wooden table, its crystalline structure seemingly hewn out of stone rather than of wood.

We sit in the airy lounge. Fragrant olive smoke drifts from the burning log fire as the light outside grows darker. Quiet shadows collect in the corners, across rough textured walls. “My mother was born 50 kilometres from here,” says Vitor, sipping espresso. “We used to visit the Alentejo region when I was a child. When Franck and I started looking for a new setting, where we could be in contact with nature and where we could combine our artistic sensibilities, we found this location that would become Dá Licença. We arrived late one afternoon in 2013; the sun was just setting — it was beautiful. At the time, these buildings were abandoned and in very poor shape. But looking back now, after all the work we have done, it is very satisfying. There is good energy here again.”

Having uprooted their life in Paris, the couple began renovating these former farm buildings into a calming, understated hotel. Three guest rooms reside in the main building, whilst five suites lie in spacious outbuildings, connected via wooden walkways through the garden. Vitor previously worked as director for the silk department of Hermès, whilst Franck worked as a gallerist dedicated to Jugendstil and Dornach design – the former a German and Scandinavian variant of Art Nouveau; the latter an organic, vernacular style based on the Anthroposophical philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. Franck’s collection of furniture and art is found throughout the property, and showcased in the former olive press building, which has been converted into a restaurant and gallery. “To set up a gallery in the middle of nowhere, like this, is almost utopic,” enthuses Franck. “Especially with the pieces placed throughout the hotel, to be experienced amidst daily life. This kind of collection is usually found in museums, but we wanted to bring the pieces back to their original context: the home.”

We walk through the lounge to a day room, designed in an austere manner, as a nod to the building’s convent-owned origins. I look across dark granite slabs, past an angular bed in the Anthroposophical style, lying beside a window. Ahead, a contemporary sculpture by Portuguese artist Rui Chafes hangs above a chair, resembling a horse’s harness weaved in metal. Beside it, a hand-carved marble basin catches the light, its imperfect texture inviting the touch of a hand.

Franck and Vitor designed the interiors themselves, commissioning craftsmen to create door handles, light fittings and baths out of the local, light pink marble Alentejo is known for. “The olive and cork trees surrounding us are all emerging from marble,” says Franck. “When you walk outside, you see the pink rocks jutting out everywhere. We wanted to bring this material inside, to have this conversation between inside and out running through the whole hotel.” Vitor adds: “The pieces were all made by hand. We wanted to take our time, using old methods. The marble wardrobe handles, for example, are joined to the wood without screws. These small details are important. It is the spirit of Hermès: these hidden, discrete details, like something sewn in the lining of a jacket, that only the wearer could possibly know about. Something that you feel, but do not show.”

The following morning, I eat breakfast at an octagonal table by Hans Itel, in one of several rooms available to guests for private dining. I look at the vast wardrobe opposite, at the low chair in the corner. The Dornach designs that appeared so unfamiliar at first have eased themselves comfortably into my company. Low sunlight from the tall window beside me slants across the table, over muffins baked with port, local cheese in olive oil, homemade jams, and a pot of lúcia-lima tea.

After breakfast I join Vitor for a walk around the estate. We pass the gravelled garden, dotted with orange trees – their bright orbs peering between the branches – before heading downhill to the closest olive groves. The upper leaves of the trees appear silver in the brilliant sunlight. “The youngest trees here are 60 years old,” says Vitor. “And the oldest are up to 800 years old.” As we venture into these older parts of the estate, the groves begin to deviate from their ordered rows. The trees are gnarled, their trunks twisting impossibly around jutting rocks, thick beards of grey-green lichen dangling in their hollow spaces.

Pink marble slabs extend from the earth everywhere I look. As I walk, small pieces kick about my feet. I stop to pick one up, turning the smooth stone slowly in my hand. The sounds of bleating goats and jangling bells pass between the trees. Apart from this, there is silence. After a time, Vitor continues: “There is a Portuguese phrase we use when maintaining the olive trees: ‘To let the light in.’ We prune the branches around the centre, opening the tree, to let it breathe.” We look back towards Dá Licença, small now, on its distant hill. I think to myself, this is precisely what Vitor and Franck have achieved for this group of buildings: they have let the light in.

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