Clois­tered in com­fort

A con­verted French abbey and a con­vent in Brazil pro­vide heav­enly ac­com­mo­da­tion, write Ju­dith Elen and Manuela S. Zonin­sein

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Pic­ture: Ju­dith Elen

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