Cloistered in comfort
A converted French abbey and a convent in Brazil provide heavenly accommodation, write Judith Elen and Manuela S. Zoninsein
Abbey road: The Abbaye de la Bussiere, founded in 1131, is now a luxury country house hotel HE lengthy driveway leads through green-clothed grounds to a grey stone building of arched and dormer windows, angled wings and even a small turret. The Abbaye de la Bussiere, a former medieval Cistercian monastery, is now a Relais & Chateaux-listed country house hotel.
I’m in France, deep in the Burgundy countryside and plunging into another era.
Founded in 1131 by the third Abbot of Citeaux, an Englishman, the abbey is again in the hands of the English; having completed the restoration of 12th-century Amberley Castle in England, the Cummings family took over here four years ago, restoring and decorating what was by then a spiritual retreat for pilgrims, still owned by the church.
The tranquillity of the abbey building and its 6ha of grounds continues to be its most overwhelming virtue. Behind the main building, through a cottage garden that includes towering topiary and a bridge arching a small stream, are more abbey buildings: a wine press, the cellar and the kitchens.
Around a corner and down stone steps, a chapel is being restored; here stone images and frescoes have been uncovered. As I stroll through the garden, chefs and kitchen hands in their whites scuttle back and forth across the bridge and down the gravel path to the main building and its ground-floor restaurant.
Gargoyles leer from roof edges; above the grounds on one side, a small church and churchyard are just visible, and beyond is a village schoolhouse. Bird calls punctuate the silence and a couple of Shetland ponies occasionally wander into view.
Full-length windows in my guestroom look over a wide view of lawns, trees and natural woodland and, on one side, a stone pool of milky green water with its own stone pump. Guestrooms have been individually decorated with an eye to elegance and comfort in a French-English country house mood; all have ensuite bathrooms with whirlpool baths.
My corner room is white and deep rose-red, with toile de Jouy curtains framing two sets of wrought-iron skirted french windows, matching toile bedcover and toile-draped canopy above a velvet bedhead, deep rose carpets, a mahogany armoire and flat-screen television.
The Abbaye has three lounges decorated with antiques and featuring intricate woodwork panels, stone carvings framing fireplaces and heavily draped windows with estate views beyond, but it may be difficult to pinpoint which are the sitting rooms, there being so many vestibules, stairway landings, anterooms and nooks and crannies, all comfortably furnished.
The reception foyer, which drifts upwards into stone stairs, arched colonnades and huge ecclesiastical windows radiant with yellowtinted glass, is awash with light when I come downstairs in the morning. A paved and glassed corridor cum conservatory, full of plants and intriguing bric a brac, leads to the dining room, or is it the breakfast room?
There are two restaurants, a bistro with outdoor terrace tables in good weather, and the gastronomic restaurant’’, which was awarded a single Michelin star two years ago and has a Gault Millau toque. Chef Olivier Elzer supervises both.
The matching local wines are also worth travelling for (remember we are in Burgundy)
Quiet retreat: The pool at Brazil’s Pestana Convento do Carmo and a surprising touch, served with the handmade bread, is lightly salted, smoked butter. It’s a gesture that seems to sum up the Abbaye de la Bussiere: that of tradition leavened with pure subtle pleasure. Judith Elen Abbaye de la Bussiere, La Bussiere-surOuche, Burgundy, France; www.abbayedela-bussiere.com or www.relaischateaux.com. The hotel is a half-hour drive from Dijon, which is 90 minutes by TGV (very fast train) from Paris. RISING over the roofs of a rainbow of Portuguese colonial buildings, a square and sturdy bell tower extends toward the heavens. At its base, the spartan whitewashed facade of the Pestana Convento do Carmo, a convent turned luxury hotel, guarantees rest for those wearied by walking on tricky cobblestones and unrelenting hills.
I am in Pelourinho, the bohemian quarter in Salvador, in northeastern Brazil’s Bahia state. Like much religious Ibero-American architecture, the convent’s exterior is unadorned and stern, a bastion of discipline and order, exactly as intended by the Carmelite friars who began construction in 1586.
Inside, the fortress becomes airy and delicate: blue-and-white azulejos (traditional Portuguese ceramic tiles) garnish the serene walkways edging three internal squares. The exterior reflects sunlight, tiles retain little warmth and a breeze blows through the space, so guests, like the friars before them, are cooled from the humidity and heat.
Tropical trees include the original banana, coconut and bamboo, though ascetics may frown on the fountain in the third and final square, converted into a swimming pool.
There are festivals year-round in this neighbourhood. Though it is said there are enough churches for every day of the year, allout parties, Afro-Brazilian dancing and religious celebrations are what make this city the nation’s second most visited by foreigners.
From its headquarters on Rua Gregorio de Mattos 22, just blocks away, Grupo Olodum, a social-action musical youth group, which provided percussion for Paul Simon’s album, Rhythm of the Saints, begins parading its open-air rehearsals. Smells of moqueca, a coconut milk-based seafood stew that resulted from West African, Portuguese and Brazilian traditions, waft from restaurants.
For a contemporary spin, taste the inventive European cooking influenced by local flavours at the chic but hidden Maria Mata Mouro, on Rua 3A Ordem de Sao Francisco. Ask for a seat in the back garden below hanging philodendrons while savouring a filet mignon with cassis sauce and grilled figs.
There’s plenty inside Pestana Convento do Carmo to keep history buffs entertained as well. Builders in colonial Brazil reserved extravagant decoration for church interiors, and here is no different.
The Carmo’s museum gathers more than 1500 pieces of art, some of them, such as a set of chairs, linked to Dom Joao VI, the monarch of Portugal in 1822 when Brazil claimed independence and declared Salvador as the country’s capital. Up to 10 can dine privately in the Nonciate Chapel, where a floor-toceiling tiled mosaic has been preserved, at the same jacaranda wood table where the Dutch passed the city’s deeds to Portuguese hands in 1623. Everything has been carefully restored to honour the convent’s past. The bar mixes royal blues and purples with modernist furniture and art collected by the owner of Pestana hotel group, Dionisio Pestana, at auctions in Denmark.
Hallways are paved with wine-red rugs and bordered by bare white walls; forest-green doors lead into tasteful rooms. Most of the modern bathrooms required raising the floors for piping, but otherwise, most details have been retained, including the fofocadeiras, or gossipers, which are windowside seating nooks from which friars prayed or, likelier, chatted with neighbours.
Rooms 203 and 205 look into the cloisters, while 236 peers over Pelourinho and snatches a shot of the ocean beyond the city roofs.
Pestana Convento do Carmo encapsulates Bahia’s magical combination of old world wonder and New World commotion. Manuela S. Zoninsein. Pestana Convento do Carmo, Rua do Carmo 1, Pelourinho, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil; www.pestana.com. The property is a member of the Leading Small Hotels of the World. More: (02) 9377 8400; www.lhw.com.