Retreat and Recharge at Convento de Mértola

Written By Deirdre Mendoza

If you dream of going off-road and offline to a less-discovered region of Portugal, a stay at Convento de Mértola may be just what you’re looking for. A 400-year-old former Franciscan monastery in the southern Alentejo region in the town of Mértola, this unique nature reserve overlooks the Oeiras and Guadiana Rivers, with stunning views of the countryside and the Castelo de Mértola. Throughout the year, Convento attracts artists, filmmakers, musicians, and literary types, as well as naturalists, biologists, and social scientists who stay for a few days or multiple weeks. 

Studio Options at Convento de Mértola, Photo by Cheryl Schurgers

Surrounded by more than 40 hectares, this site once housed relics from the Cross of Christ and later became famous when a statue of St. Anthony housed with the Convento’s church started to cry. From 1612 to 1834, Convento de Mértola provided lodging for an abbot and 12 Franciscan monks. Over several years, excavations have revealed archeological remains from the convent’s Roman and Moorish roots. On the southern border, there’s even a Roman road that once linked Mértola to the Algarve. 

Restoring the Convent  

Convento de Mértola has been lovingly restored over four decades by the Zwanikkens, a Dutch family who acquired the convent and the land in 1980, with the idea of creating a space in which to create. Along with the 17th-century church, which now serves as an exposition space, there are several areas dedicated to work, study, meditation, and relaxation. Today, the compound is still maintained and curated by the same family and is the setting for expositions, seminars, culinary workshops, and community-based events. 

Convento de Mértola, Photo by Cheryl Schurgers

“My father, a photographer, was the one who first saw the potential of this place,” says Christiaan Zwanikken, an artist whose pioneering work integrates art, technology, and science. “With some creative friends, my parents imagined this beautiful place where we have lived and worked most of our lives. We now see so much potential here, and we hope to give back to the community by hosting people from all over and presenting events and workshops. We open up to the public so others can enjoy it and possibly learn from what we do.” 

My Stay at the Convent

I had the pleasure of staying for a month at Convento de Mértola during the summer of 2019 while I completed the first draft of a play. I also read a few books, including a novel by Haruki Murakami that was a thoughtful leave-behind from a previous guest. I was joined that summer by a South American filmmaker working on a documentary, as well as a biologist researching the bird population of the region, and a Chinese photographer, studying at NYU, who was creating site-specific images.

A morning walk to town, across the Ponte Velha bridge and along a cobblestone path, was a small but delightful adventure that allowed us to start the day with great coffee, a warm welcome from local residents, and a divine pastel de nata. Our days were divided between concentrated work hours, afternoon siestas with curtains drawn, sunset canoe trips on the river, occasional birding, visits to the horse stables and the peacock hut, delicious communal or individual meals, and evening hikes to cool off with a dip in the creek. 

The views at Convento de Mértola, Photo by Cheryl Schurgers

Accommodation

Three cozy-vibe guest studios, painted a calming white, are renovated stables. Each includes a kitchen area and in-suite bath. Mine had an unforgettable view of the Castelo de Mértola from the terrace, and I often parked my computer in that spot, concluding my writing for the day with the dramatic lighting of the castle’s facade. The studio next door featured a rooftop deck for late night stargazing, chatting, and reading. Zwanikken says some visitors have expressed interest in staying in the cells, once inhabited by monks, and these renovated spaces may eventually be offered for short or longer-term stays. 

Studio Options at Convento de Mértola, Photo by Cheryl Schurgers
Studio Options at Convento de Mértola, Photo by Cheryl Schurgers

The Library

If you’re in search of a great art book or novel to read by the river, or curious about the biodiversity or origins of Alentejo, the library located off the living room of the main house has shelves lined with a curated selection of art and scientific books in several languages, as well as a long communal table for working, pondering, or daydreaming. Sleepy cats and dogs will join you in this space, cooling themselves on the concrete floor. Though some visitors may enjoy the rare opportunity to unplug throughout their stay, others can access the Wi-Fi, which works efficiently in each studio and covers the grounds. 

The Library at Convento de Mértola, Photo by Cheryl Schurgers

Culinary Options

According to Zwanikken, in the post-COVID era, they have reimagined elements of the experience at Convento de Mértola. Along with self-service cooking and meal prep, there is talk of inviting chefs to hold different kinds of workshops. A culinary program will center on cooking local fare while drawing inspiration from the botanical ingredients found in the extensive garden designed and tended by Geraldine Zwanikken, a former dancer and founder. 

The convent’s ancient water irrigation system has been restored and many varieties of plants and botanicals have been cultivated as part of Convento’s ambitious ecological mission. According to Zwanikken, “Along with food, we also want to continue workshops about water conservation—we have our own ancient well—and we invite people to have these public conversations about ecology practices.”

If you’re ready to devote time to an intensive project or would simply like an unconventional holiday in this spectacular region of Portugal, far from the noise and daily routines of city life, all are welcome at Convento de Mértola. You may be asked to do a brief interview simply to make sure you are a good fit for this unique setting. It’s important to note that, while there may be others joining you during your stay, solitude is something you should anticipate about this retreat. 

Convento de Mértola, Photo by Cheryl Schurgers

As Zwanikken says, “This is a place to find serenity and a place to decompress,” adding, “Some people like other types of holidays. They like to be busy all the time and that’s fine. “This is not that. It’s a place of exploration and a place to be self-sufficient. Of course, you work if you choose—while enjoying the natural surroundings. You’ll soon know if Convento is for you.” 

How to Get to Convento de Mértola

Faro airport is the closest airport to Convento de Mértola. Guests can request a car service to pick them up from the airport, which is about a 90-minute drive. There is a direct bus service from Lisbon airport to Mértola.

For more information about Convento de Mértola, check out their website. Guests interested in staying need to first send an email to [email protected], which is part of the application procedure.

The views at Convento de Mértola, Photo by Cheryl Schurgers
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