Amid the thousands of original, hand-painted “Azulejos,” art exhibitions celebrating the whimsical poetry of Light, and centuries-old furnishings, hospitality, harmony, and intimacy take on new meaning. Here there is such a luxurious emphasis on Lao Tse inspired values and respect for beauty, the everyday disappears, whisked away by the breezes off the Tagus River and the soothing views of Lisbon’s hilly landscapes.
Along with this palpable charm–plush Japanese elements, architecture dating back to the 15th Century, and a relaxful garden luxuriant with bougainvillaea—there is a true sense that the10-suite Palacio Belmonte redefines notions of escape, the savouring of “Mi Casa Es Tu Casa.”
Yet cloistered inside Lisbon’s romantic Alfama barrio, where Fado music echoes off labyrinthine, cobbled streets, the impeccably-restored Palacio (classified as a Portugal Monument of National Interest) is more than enchantment–a distinctive refuge with a black marbled Infinity swimming pool and elegant sitting rooms.
The Palacio is a work of art, a refuge that allows guests to enjoy an ethereal communion with art. It is also an oasis for the artists themselves– one that furnishes them with a forum to showcase their work– and most critically, to stimulate future projects.
“The Palacio is a sculpture, communication, a historical reference point and also a fertile environment for new ideas,” says Frederic Coustols, 77, who along with his wife Maria in 1994 discovered the hollowed-out ruins of a nobleman’s house and painstakingly restored its former glory. They then felt Lisbon itself could be reborn, so they invested incalculable passion into giving the Palacio new life, rebuilding and renewing everything from its terraces with 360-degree city views, to 17th Century wood flooring, and to those brilliantly-detailed Azulejos blue tiles.
“I am a dreamer and a collector of landscapes, not just still-lifes, but also of spaces that communicate feelings. That too is art! “Here each of our suites, from the Cardoso with its remarkable sunlight, Azulejo panels and private library, to the 3-level Padre Himalaya suite with fantastic views of the river, convey a different feeling. No wonder no one ever wants to leave us and visit Lisbon. The Palacio is a place you can be, feel yourself, and return to a different time period.” But Coustols is not just living in an exultant past, an escape from a chaotic present. Along with working to preserve Lisbon’s unique character–a place with ascendent restaurants, Fado Houses, and a burgeoning art scene with multi-cultural galleries—he’s also on a quest that critically impacts the future.
Long dedicated to the Art of Light—presenting artistic visions for which “illumination is more than just a theme, matter, language, mystery”, he is continually striving to reveal special types of Light. Those that are sustainable. One outgrowth of this thrust is the Lightcraft Festival, exhibitions and installations conceived by artists who often use physics, sculptures, and innovative photography to transform light into a medium “making other dimensions of human experience visible.”
Sustainability is a recurring theme in Coustols’ activist agenda to “restore and regenerate” landscapes and communities. Besides sponsoring the Belmonte Cultural Club, art residences, workshops, and tango soirees, he believes “special places, forgotten gems of nature and history” can be given new life, “reborn through Sustainable Restoration.” In essence, that means reinvigorating scenic outposts in France and China, revitalizing stagnant or moribund communities, and spiriting a modernity that spurs a wave of rebuilding consistent with futuristic thinking.
Smoking a Havana cigar while luxuriating next to the Infinity pool, Coustols animatedly says the Palacio is “an elixir, a bounty of sensations.” Admiring the cacti and fruit trees, he insists guests “discover a balance here,” and in that same spirit of finding tranquility,” adds, “I am conceiving numerous restoration projects, ways to live.” To realize his seemingly-endless stream of ecologically-friendly plans, he’s organized DaST (Designing a Sustainable Tomorrow), a collaborative effort pursuing reduced carbon emissions, energy conservation, social welfare, and in general “putting the environment first.”
One highly-ambitious projects was Rostov Port Street, a plan that would have revitalized this Russian city’s industry and given local students/artists a forum to promote sustainable living.
Politics derailed the proposal but the forward-thinking Coustols has not been deterred. Believing social and economic forces must emphasize “ecological truths,” that John Donne correctly surmised “No Man is an Island,” he’s trying to correct a great imbalance. That life can be far less “discordant with what (resources) we have to work with.” Resolved to change that paradigm, he conducts international workshops at the Palacio in an intimate cafe; has restored an entire town in Gascony, France; and is planning several other ecological management programs. Essentially, he’s passionately consumed with pioneering new frontiers.
“We have to keep our planet alive, we have to keep art alive,” insists Coustols, strolling through the Palacio past corridors lined with hidden alcoves, “secret” corridors, and small terraces facing the Tagus.
“In a room, even in one of our elegant suites with marble bathrooms, sections of Roman walls, and lovely frescos, you feel too immodest. In a room you only feel part of your own ego.
“By the sea you feel part of the world,” adds Coustols, heading towards the Palacio’s restaurant, Grenache, where chef Philippe Gelfi, formerly of two Michelin-starred restaurants, offers superlative French gastronomy. “That world consciousness is why I plan to open a holistic center in the Alentejo, and a foundation. I want people to imagine, and to be what they imagine. That is real harmony, real art.”