Casa da Ínsua, in Penalva do Castelo, is a historical hotel, housed in a baroque manor house. But it is also a museum that can be visited by whoever wants to visit it. Built in the late 18th century, it was one of the first places with electricity in Portugal.
Whoever arrives and walks through the streets of Penalva do Castelo does not notice it. And yet, Casa da Ínsua is right in the center of town, with one of the entrances to its gardens right behind the Town Hall.
The best kept secret
The Casa da Ínsua is, therefore, the best kept secret in the village at the gates of Viseu. It is the only Portuguese hotel that is part of the Spanish paradores network, but it is much more than that. It is a must-visit place for anyone walking through those magical places in Lafões.
During the visit to the region we made at the invitation of Turismo do Centro de Portugal, someone whetted our appetite by saying that the house “is a paradise on earth”. It will depend a lot on how we define paradise. What we found is an impeccably restored manor house, an interesting museum center, and French and English style gardens.
Also known as Solar dos Albuquerque, Casa da Ínsua is considered by the Direção-Geral do Património as being “one of the most significant baroque manor houses in our country”. It is the whole set that stands out in this complex that can also be visited. The house and garden have been maintained over generations.
The house can be reached through one of several doors. The one near the town hall opens onto a cool lane that leads to a building completely covered with virgin vines (which do not produce grapes). Next to it, a second gate opens to the closed pático, where for the first time you can see the Casa da Ínsua, with its perfect baroque design, two turrets on top, and the chapel on the left
The builder of Casa da Ínsua and a mysterious letter
Casa da Ínsua was commissioned by Luís de Albuquerque de Mello Pereira e Cáceres who distinguished himself at a very young age by his intelligence and military spirit. When he was Adjutant to Field Marshal Francisco MacLean, he received a letter signed by the Marquis of Pombal. The ruler asked him to go to Lisbon because they had business to attend to. At the age of 31, Luís de Albuquerque is invited to be Governor and Captain Major of the States of Cuiabá and Mato Grosso, in Brazil.
Don’t think that Luís de Albuquerque was thrilled. Quite the contrary. Legend has it that when he returned home he was even considering refusing the invitation and that only his father convinced him, promising him a beating with a stick if he did not agree to the invitation. This stick is on display today at Casa da Ínsua.
Luís Albuquerque not only went to Brazil, but became an excellent governor, promoting the mapping of Mato Grosso and increasing the borders, as well as sponsoring a “philosophical” exhibition to record the flora and fauna of the area.
He built the Real Forte do Príncipe da Beira, which would eventually play a major role in repelling Castilian pretensions, and his dynamism was such that a Castilian commander dubbed him “the most ambitious of the Portuguese governors.” Luís Albuquerque was the longest serving governor of Mato Grosso, having held office for 19 years. It was from Brazil that he sent the plans for the construction of the Casa da Ínsua.
A “cursed” inheritance
Even today, Casa da Ínsua is in the family that indirectly descends from Luís Albuquerque, who granted the hotel’s operation to Visabeira’s Montebelo group. The inheritance has always worked in a system of “morgadio”. This means that there were very specific rules about who received the property, which could not be subject to division after the death of the owner
Luís Albuquerque died in 1797, never having married or had children. So he stipulated that the Casa da Ínsua passed from uncles to nephews.
But the morgadio of Casa da Ínsua had a clause that was a real trap. Perhaps afraid that the heirs would not focus their energies on taking care of the property, Luís Albuquerque stipulated that only nephews who did not marry could inherit.
Electricity arrives at Casa da Ínsua
The first experience with electricity in Portugal happened in 1878. On the 15th birthday of Prince D. Carlos, September 28, lamps were lit for the first time at the Cidadela de Cascais. The amazement was great and real excursions were made from Lisbon. Some time later, these same lamps lit up the Chiado area.
The town of Gerês, in 1891, and Braga, in 1893, were among the first places to have electricity. And only very slowly did electric light begin to reach the country, with a few exceptions that were the result of the initiative of benefactors or the population.
The Casa da Ínsua soon embraced the novelty and saw how electricity could be an asset to the farm. Thus, in 1906 an electric power plant was installed that took advantage of the hydroelectric power and made the olive oil press work.
A hotel that is also a museum
All this can be seen in the various museum sections of Casa da Ínsua, which, besides being a hotel, is also a museum that can be visited. Guests can freely visit the facilities.
But even those who are not in the historical hotel have a chance to learn a little more about the history of the house and its builder. There are guided tours, but it is also possible to do it by your own means. The price of the visits should be inquired at the hotel, and entry to all museum spaces costs 3 euros.
The gardens of Casa da Ínsua
We purposely left the gardens at Casa da Ínsua for last. The entrance, as already mentioned, is through a closed patio, but it is in the back that the Baroque building shows itself in all its splendor.
The façade is reflected in a rectangular lake, beyond which opens the French garden, obviously inspired by Versailles. With an aromatic zone and some rare flora, it is possible, for example, to see the lotus flower.
Whether in this more formal garden or throughout the property, there are always points of interest in the gardens at Casa da Ínsua.