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In a Fading Portuguese Village, the Gardens Bloom Again

September 24, 2021


IN 2013, JOSE Luís Vasconcellos e Sousa, a now-62-year-old retired private bank executive living in Estoril, Portugal, cold-called the legendary Madrid-based landscape designer Fernando Caruncho with a proposal. Perhaps Caruncho, whose minimalist works evoke the monumental quality of 1970s land art, could create a contemporary extension to complement the 400-year-old formal garden of his ancestral estate in Santar, a village in Dão’s wine region, 90 minutes south of Porto. 

But not long after Caruncho arrived and stood on the colonnaded granite veranda of Casa dos Condes de Santar e Magalhães, a 16th-century manor house with views of the Serra da Estrela mountains in the distance, he knew that Vasconcellos e Sousa had been asking him the wrong question. Below him lay the meticulous three-acre post-Renaissance garden — a terraced French-Italian fantasia of boxwood topiary obelisks, rosebushes in disciplined parterres, spring-fed fountains, marble statuary and an allée of Italian camellias whose petals carpet the ground in late winter. But walking through the town with Vasconcellos e Sousa, Caruncho saw the estates of several other grand families who had been in the verdant valley for ages, as well as the twisting lanes with several hundred modest houses belonging to the 1,000 or so villagers. Such a layout, he knew, was unusual: In other communities where nobles had reigned, their villas were outside of town, distant from one another and from the locals; in Santar, the skeins were tightly knit. “I thought, ‘Why not take advantage of this?’” says Caruncho, 64, who trained in philosophy as well as landscaping in his native Madrid, making him as likely to reference pre-Socratic Greeks, the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and Al-Andalus Islam as botanical genus and species. “Why not just leave your perfect garden as it is and instead bring all the others back to life, to join with it and return dignity to the whole town?” 

And so the men began a nearly decade-long collaboration, connecting the series of walled properties with gates and bridges in a unified 50-acre master plan, one that incorporated the agriculturally cultivated countryside. Their aim was not merely aesthetic, Vasconcellos e Sousa says on a recent summer day, as he stands on the veranda in the battered straw hat he wears to protect himself from the sun. Now accessible to outsiders interested in gardens, viticulture and the complex relationship between the local aristocracy and the people, the resuscitated properties are an attempt to restore the town. Santar has been steadily losing its population since the 1960s, with young people leaving for better opportunities in the cities and wealthier European countries while the older generation subsists by cultivating their small plots of grapes, olives and fruit trees on the outskirts of town, selling their crops to large regional cooperatives.

The landowning families have felt the pressure, as well. It takes vast sums to maintain large historic estates, and their fortunes were made during Portugal’s centuries of rapacious colonization, but that was long ago, and their wealth has mostly petered out. A few families have already sold their land to large-scale winemaking operations; others have let their properties run fallow. Vasconcellos e Sousa’s mother, Maria Teresa Lancastre de Mello, Countess of Santar e Magalhães, who died in 2015 at age 86 and through whose lineage the house was passed — his father, José Luís Andrade de Vasconcellos e Sousa, was equally titled — was able to maintain the estate’s garden but had trouble keeping up with the constant repairs demanded by the 30,000-square-foot manor. Its remaining original construction — in the vernacular idiom, with touches that prefigure the Baroque, and an Orientalist flared red ceramic tile roof — dates to the late 1500s. Until 1990 or so, when a more modern kitchen was installed, the family used the original 17th-century one, with its giant domed Romanesque fountain and basin once used to rehydrate salt cod brought by fishing boats from Norway. 

Vasconcellos e Sousa could manage the upkeep, but he feared that his three children, now in their 20s and scattered around Europe, might not want to assume the burden. And even if they did, who wants to stand by and watch the town of their ancestors become further hollowed out, waiting until it disappears altogether? 

STILL, TRANSFORMING SANTAR into a cultural destination — Vasconcellos e Sousa and his brother, Pedro, 56, an agronomist, winemaker and co-inheritor of the estate, would like it to one day anchor a nonprofit foundation — has been laborious and costly. Vasconcellos e Sousa began the project when he was still working at a bank in Lisbon (he and his partner, Patricia Poppe, 58, live primarily in their Estoril home, not far from there), financing it with the help of Pedro and João Manuel Mora de Ibérico Nogueira, heir to another of Santar’s great estates. They spent the first few years developing their plans with Caruncho and bringing neighbors on board. A turning point was when the Bragança royal family — whose ancestor Catherine de Bragança became queen of England when she married King Charles II in 1662 — agreed to turn their near-derelict Casa das Fidalgas into a 22-room hotel and spa. (The Santar hotel, as yet unnamed, is due to be completed in the spring.) 

Because of his family’s long involvement with the town, it was important to Vasconcellos e Sousa that the villagers approve of the project, too. “You have to understand how hard it was to convince people to do this,” he says. “They thought I was a nut case at first.” Many were persuaded as soon as they visited the vast stone-walled ground floor of the manor house to see the giant maquette Caruncho had made of the planned changes to the town. (This floor of the manor has been converted to a mini-museum, with vitrines displaying the robes of the bishops and a cardinal who were among Vasconcellos e Sousa’s ancestors. Caruncho’s son Pedro, 27, an architect, has turned a structure near the gates of the manor, where firewood was once stored, into a small shop that sells silky tannic red wines made from touriga nacional, alfrocheiro preto and alicante bouschet grapes and fragrant, citrusy whites fashioned from encruzado and malvasia fina.)

But the gardens, which are irrigated entirely by the underlying watershed, are the main lure. Considering that Caruncho once transformed a property in New Zealand into overlapping sculpted mounds of escallonia to conjure the lava flow of a nearby volcano, and a golf course in Marrakesh, Morocco, into a Miesian grid of water and turf, these interventions, by comparison, seem subtle. Known for precise modulations of space that harness the shade as well as the sun, he is loath to impose a signature style on the landscape, instead allowing its natural contours — the quality of the light and the history of the place — to inspire his designs after a lengthy period of contemplation. His work is both sculptural and scholarly; Caruncho is convinced that society is returning to a pre-20th-century understanding of how humans are meant to live with nature. Through his namesake practice, started in 1979 when he was 21, he has found that clients lately want to integrate agricultural cultivation with purely aesthetic pleasures, a balance of elements that coexisted before the Industrial Revolution but largely disappeared once the means of production became elevated above all else. “Santar presents a way to restore the original dignity of the land and its people while at the same time bringing it into the 21st century to ensure it can be sustained,” he says.

To unify the village, each grand property now includes a well-defined vineyard, most with newly planted or revived orchards; the espaliered grapevines’ geometry and orderly fruit trees create a thematic structure. For the capacious acreage of Casa das Fidalgas, Caruncho planted the vines in undulating waves instead of the usual straight rows; from a distance it resembles a vast Op Art dreamscape. On the land of the early 19th-century Casa Ibérico Nogueira, there are now also 18 vegetable gardens, each 650 square feet. Four of them are cultivated by local families, with eggplant, peppers, kale, strawberries and crimson gladioli lining the edges like sentinels. Globe artichokes tower on six-foot-tall spikes topped by lapis blue centaurea-like flowers. Four boxwood parterres in the Linhares garden are now a meadow of California poppies and Cosmos bipinnatus in fluorescent shades of tangerine and yellow that bloom from May through October. 

Caruncho’s small gestures to link the properties are perhaps the most trenchant changes, challenging the country’s complicated attitude toward land ownership and privacy. “The Portuguese are very territorial,” says Vasconcellos e Sousa. “We love walls. The idea of going through someone else’s gate, of walking on their land, has always been unthinkable.” But now, a rustic wooden staircase of Caruncho’s design, with an unlocked gate at the top, leads from the garden at Casa dos Condes de Santar e Magalhães to the neighboring 17th-century Casa de Magnólia, named for the 200-year-old tree at its center. To connect the former to the garden of the neighboring Casa Ibérico Nogueira, Caruncho, who rejects what he believes is an artificial division between formal geometric landscapes and more profuse natural ones, built a wisteria-covered pergola atop a ramp. And at the end of a path through the new Casa das Fidalgas vineyard, there sits an elevated, covered pavilion, with views of the entire town and the mountains beyond. Twenty feet tall and 40 feet long on granite pillars, it has open sides made from the trunks and twisted limbs of a Scots pine, pieced together like an airy geometric lattice. Around the base, Caruncho has planted a mix of Macassar ebony and osmanthus. Eventually the fragrant, flowering trees will grow tall enough to make the platform appear to be floating above the vines.

For Caruncho and Vasconcellos e Sousa, the pandemic delayed the project in some ways. But it was also a boon, proving that nature gives, even as it takes away: Many of the plantings that Caruncho oversaw before Covid-19 have had the time to reach near-maturity, now lush in the radiant Portuguese sunshine. As planned, it’s almost impossible to spot the landscape architect’s hand. This season’s harvest is expected to be among the best in recent memory, making it all the more satisfying that where there were once dusty, quiescent fields, new vines now thrive, laden with fruit. “You have to have an enormous amount of faith to do something of this scale,” says Vasconcellos e Sousa. “You have to believe that this is your purpose, what you were born to do.”

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