· Personality · · T. Maria Cruz · P. ©PMC

Conde de Calheiros 

«I have lived life very intensely»

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He welcomed us at the Paço de Calheiros – a manor house in existence since Portugal was first founded – his family home, the place where he was born and where his great-grandfather, his great-great-grandfather, his father and his aunt Teca once lived. At the age of seven, the «boy» went to the capital, Lisbon, to be educated by his aunt. During our visit, he showed us around the house and told us about the moments he has enjoyed in it during the past 60 years or so. His friendly demeanour and welcoming nature are hard to forget, along with his smile. He is a true gentleman. He also showed us his Turismo de Habitação project (tourism in manor houses and country homes) – the count is one of the founders of the Associação do Turismo de Habitação (TURIHAB) –, in the parish of Calheiros, which shares the family name with him. In this interview, Francisco de Calheiros also shared with us his good relationship with neighbouring Galicia, a connection that the family has maintained since the far-off Middle Ages. He also spoke of the Way of St James, tourism in Portugal, Ponte de Lima and always... his family.

What do you do here at the manor house?
The manor house began with tourism. My father gave me the house in 1980. I renovated it between 1980 and 1986. Then the first guests began to arrive. The very first guest unfortunately passed away in 2018. It was the prime minister of the Netherlands, Ruud Lubers. A great friend. We remained friends over the years, he came here several times; I went there several times. Today, many of our guests come from the Netherlands.

They come from the Netherlands for a range of reasons, right?
Yes. I have been involved in international cooperation projects in which the Netherlands has also been part. When I renovated the house I also founded TURIHAB, which today has 120 houses nationwide, and its headquarters in Ponte de Lima. These are old houses, manor houses. This is an association that supports the environment, heritage, and sustainability. Tourism is a great help and, at the same time, we also develop products made at the house. We have the fruit and vegetable gardens, the vineyard, chestnut trees, animals,  and even the lavender patch (he laughs). The fruit is made into jams, which are what give to tourists; the vegetables become the accompaniments of the food we serve and the wine is for celebrating. We develop our ‘microeconomy’, for it to then create self-sustainability and organic products, which today are in great demand.

Does the Paço de Calheiros produce wine only for its own consumption?
At this moment we don’t sell it yet. It is made for our own consumption. We have two types of wine made from the Loureiro grape variety: the Quinta do Paço Calheiros and the Conde de Calheiros. My father founded the Ponte de Lima cooperative winery, so we would send the grapes to the winery. Six years ago, my son remembered that we made wine and revived the practice. It is a successful wine. We introduce vinho verde to our tourists.

There is also a very special ‘friend’ who welcomes tourists... we are talking about the Leão, the family dog.
The dogs we have at home have always been called Leão (Lion in English). I don’t know if this was out of some atavistic desire to have a Lion. In my father’s they bred hunting dogs. Then, in our generation, we had Serra da Estrela dogs. Then the Labrador came along. This Labrador is still alive, and ever since this one came along too, which was a gift from Dom Duarte – who is friend of mine – we have been left with a problem. We named him Leão. My son even said, «dad, you can’t name him Leão because when you call the dog they won’t know which one you are calling and they’ll both come.” I told him: «Oh Francisco, the boy is called Francisco, and his father is also called Francisco, and that’s not why we don’t know who’s calling for us» (he laughs). So we had to distinguish them. As this one was given to us by Dom Duarte then it was renamed Rei Leão (King Lion). Thus we have Leão and Rei Leão. 

«I can still do a lot for the region, especially for Ponte de Lima»

Tell us a little about the Calheiros family...
Our immediate family is not very big. But the Calheiros family can be found all over, for example, in Brazil (the former president of the Brazilian Senate is called Renan Calheiros). As a matter of fact, the Calheiros are based in Brazil in the state of Alagoas, which is a state next to Pernambuco. I have already had the opportunity to go there and introduce the Calheiros family to the Brazil Calheiros. And I invited them to come here. There are also some Calheiros in Recife and in São Paulo. There is Calheiros beach, which is in Florianópolis. It is a small fisherman’s beach to which I never given up on the idea of ​​creating a little corner of my own there, one day.

Is Brazil special to you?
I lived in Brazil for three years. At the time when our country was more ‘effervescent’ following the Carnation Revolution. My eldest daughter was born there. I am the ambassador of Rio de Janeiro. This year I was called to Rio and they gave me this accolade. I have very strong ties with Rio and also with the «Farms of Rio». Through TURIHAB, we have created in Brazil, the farms of Brazil. Just as we have created, through TURIHAB, a European network. «The Europe of Traditions», with the association in England, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia (I am Honorary Consul of Slovenia in Oporto and northern Portugal) and Italy.

You take TURIHAB around the world.
I was recently in Macao, where I was involved in the presentation of TURIHAB. I was also in Venice at a conference organised by the OECD. I was also in neighbouring Galicia, because there is a proximity and exchange with Galicia. Galicia is as important to this house (Paço de Calheiros) as the North of Portugal. This isn’t just in terms of the relationship between people. There is a political and cultural relationship, in which I have a permanent presence in Galicia and vice versa.

Is Italy also very special to you?
The question of Italy has meant that today, in this house, we speak, as the Italians would say, mezzo Italian, mezzo Portuguese. My son married an Italian, Elena Ravano, who also has a beautiful castle – Castello di Rivalta –, in Piacenza, Italy. It stands in a beautiful city, 100 km south of Milan. In the middle of all this we are also, my son and I, Knights of the Order of Malta. I am Chancellor of the national order.

This house is full of memories for you is it not? You were born here after all.
I was born here. The house was always being renovated. I say I finished renovating it in 1986, but to this day I have never stopped doing work on it (he laughs). It never ends. That window you saw being restored... I had told the carpenters: «Be careful, this window was commissioned by my grandfather». This window and this veranda are more than a hundred years old. I would love to have the time to sit upstairs in the library and write. I’m quite good at writing. Back in my day, at times of hidden passions, I would write poetry. I have lived my life very intensely, ever since I was little. We all have our lives, our stories, our feelings and our vibes.

«Today tourism is often done with affection and with the extraordinary ability to captivate people, so that they want to do it again and return»

The dedication you have always shown to the people of Calheiros and Ponte de Lima is well known. This is reflected in the honours made to you. Do you feel that this recognition is deserved?
I was parish mayor for 20 years. They were five terms, always elected by an absolute majority. Why was that? Because I devoted myself to this area and not because I was who I was. Politics is very ungrateful in this respect. When I devoted myself to public service, I devoted myself heart and soul. I can say that this parish has been completely transformed. People recognise this. One of the recognitions that I received, and that moved me the most, did not come from here, it came from Galicia. I have the Medalha da Galiza (Galician Medal), which is the highest accolade in Galicia. It’s the same as the Military Order of the Tower and Sword, the Portuguese honours system. It was given to me by Don Manuel Fraga, for services that I was providing in the interests of the Way of St James and tourism in Galicia. I was the one who created Rural Tourism in Galicia. Fraga came here and I went there several times. He was one of the people with whom I enjoyed a great friendship. I also have Portuguese recognition. I have the Portuguese Government’s Tourist Merit Medal.

Do you see this as a mission properly accomplished?
I think it (the mission) is not over yet. I’ve been challenged by many things, to take on various positions. I never said yes. But I think I can still do a lot for the region, especially for Ponte de Lima.

How can you do this?
This is not in my hands. I am President of the Integrated Rural Development Association of Lima (ADRIL), which has supported many projects in the region. To get an idea, since 1991, and that means 28 years already, we have supported, here, in terms of the Lima Valley, more than 50 million Euros in projects. ADRIL occupies the entire Lima Valley, supporting all the way from the Peneda-Gerês Park to Viana do Castelo. I would love to be able to give something more to Ponte de Lima. And I am open for this to happen, but it is not in my hands. People know that I am open to this; if they need me they will talk to me.

You represent the Turismo de Habitação. How important is this type of tourism in more rural areas?
Tourism in Portugal has evolved a lot and Turismo de Habitação has always been an icon. It was launched in 1980, precisely with the aim of recovering heritage and supporting tourism in inland areas, that is, instead of creating faceless hotels in inland regions, why not restore buildings with architecture that could be used for tourist accommodation? This is how the Turismo de Habitação came about. And, through our association, through Solares de Portugal (Manor Houses of Portugal), it has accomplished this mission. We certify and categorise the houses. Today, Turismo de Habitação has an image of high quality, setting it apart from other tourism types that have appeared.

Such as?
For example, Alojamento Local (Local Accommodation), which, perhaps, in terms of cities, has solved many problems. It has led to buildings being renovated. Even so, just a few days ago, my cousin, who shares my name, Francisco Calheiros, President of the Portuguese Tourism Confederation, told me: «Alojamento Local is our Low Cost». But the fact is that this situation created some ‘non requirement’ to comply with rules, which we have in Turismo de Habitação. We are not a hotel, rather we are family tourism. As far as I see it, and I have drawn the attention of the Secretary of State for Tourism to this, we need to look at the Turismo de Habitação. Turismo de Habitação in Portugal is an icon. It’s about welcoming tourists in the first person; it’s about telling the history of stories; it’s experiencing a unique relationship opportunity. Therefore, today tourism is often done with affection and with the extraordinary ability to captivate people, so that they want to do it again and return.

«I believe that Turismo de Habitação is a safe bet for the future»

Conde de Calheiros with his dog Rei Leão
But within the concept of Alojamento Local, there are already some people working with this mindset.
Yes, but there are very few. But who are the biggest promoters, if we can call them that, of Alojamento Local? As incredible as it may seem, it’s the hotel industry. Who owns Alojamento Local? It’s the hotel industry. We are not tourist accommodation. We are a tourism product. Increasingly, the profile of our tourists is people coming in search of experiences. Today, this house receives groups, and they aren’t pilgrims per se, they are people who organise walking trips. They do the Way of St James. It may be a pilgrimage trail, but most people don’t necessarily do it for reasons of faith. Although eventually they end up becoming swept away with it, I presume, but they do it with the aim of walking and as a cultural itinerary. 

How, with current policies, can this type of Turismo de Habitação be further boosted? What can or should be done?
There is no other way but to promote it. To talk about it. And, at the same time, us too, within TURIHAB, to sell programmes; circuits; the vinho verde experience; Douro wine experience; experiencing gardens. I think, above all else, that tutelage, which is responsible for tourism more than anything else, must do anything.

But what exactly?
Introduce Solares de Portugal in their ‘Visit Portugal’ campaigns, in films about promoting Portugal, in marketing Portugal abroad. Don’t they promote Pousadas? So why don’t they promote Solares?

That’s just what happens with inland destinations of the country. They aren’t marketed so much.
Exactly. Today municipalities are already making great efforts to ensure things happen differently. They do it through events. Television is also a means of communicating. We had, for example, the Seven Wonders of Villages. Now they are planning the Seven Wonders of Sweets. I hope one day we hit the jackpot with the Seven Wonders of Solares.

In your opinion, what does Ponte de Lima have that is so special to attract tourists?
I have always lived in Lisbon, in my childhood, in my adolescence. Ponte de Lima has a mystique that goes far beyond the medieval bridge, the Roman bridge, which is the fact of being a well preserved town and having a very interesting relationship with its heritage. Ponte de Lima is attractive, but it also has people. There has always been this image to a certain extent, of aristocracy, maybe not this, but in this direction, I didn’t want to use that word exactly, but that what it has, in a way, by dint of the people and families who come from Ponte de Lima. I often say that the Lima Valley is a Petit Loire, on either side of the Lima Valley there are many manor houses belonging to Portuguese families, like the châteaux in the Loire Valley. We are not of the same dimension as the castles of France, but, similarly, they are simpler houses, where part of the Portuguese families of renown in social and public life have settled. Ponte de Lima is the heart of this Lima Valley. 

Tourism is in full swing. Can the Portuguese expect even more years of growth in this sector?
There is a slowdown in the economy, both in terms of the European Union and internationally. The thing is that, in tourism, destinations that had been slowed down during recent years by wars and conflicts, as in the case of Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt, have begun to rebuild themselves and attract tourists. Although we have been able to establish some situations in terms of attractiveness, as has been the case of the purchase of real estate, which had its influence in France and neighbouring Spain. This won’t continue forever as it has been, and indeed, during the low season, people are already complaining. But this is also normal; we have strong seasonality. There are now emerging markets that have a huge potential, an example of which is the United States. We are welcoming many Americans. And people from Brazil. Each has its own characteristics. Our Atlantic front is very important for us catalysing tourists. We, in Turismo de Habitação, are in a very interesting position. The future tourist has our profile. Tourists who spend money; who actually come and come again. I believe that Turismo de Habitação is a safe bet for the future.

To end, what do you do in your free time?
I like horse riding. I have little time for free time. And I combine many of my trips to be able to enjoy destinations a little. In fact, I like to travel. There’s something else I like and I don’t get to do. I am President of the Ponte de Lima Golf Club. It’s a gap in my life, but that’s going to change, because I’m going to start playing golf again.

Well here’s your invitation to play this year in our Villas&Golfe tournament...
I’ll have to improve my handicap by then (he laughs).

Maria Cruz
T. Maria Cruz
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