The local butcher, with his daughter standing by his side, was selling roasted whole chickens and slabs of fresh-cut beef to customers who only had to look into the store and nod to put in their orders, much as it has been done in this tiny hillside village in rural Portugal for decades now. Routines here are as well-worn as the cobblestone streets.
Just a block away, French-speaking visitors waltzed into the row of recently opened boutiques selling designer dresses and bikinis, next to the site where the French shoe designer Christian Louboutin is preparing to build this town’s first hotel. It is a hint of the two worlds that have come together in this beachside town.
Melides is in the midst of a transformation as a wave of super affluent Europeans — artists, bankers, actors and sports stars — have discovered this extraordinarily beautiful spot, which happens to sit in the middle of a 40-mile stretch of nearly untouched Atlantic Ocean beaches, and at the edge of hundreds of square miles of cork oak fields, vineyards and rice fields.
The Alentejo region, as the area is known, has the last unspoiled stretch of Atlantic Ocean coast in all of southern Europe. The coastis largely unknown to visitors from the United States, whose bucket list for Portugal is generally the famed cities of Lisbon and Porto, and the Algarve region to the south, which has some beautiful towns like Lagos, but is often overrun with tourists, especially in the peak summer months.
Melides (pronounced Melidesh) and the rest of the Alentejo coast — which starts about an hour south of Lisbon and runs about 90 miles down to the southwestern Portugal town of Odeceixe — is what St. Tropez used to be in the 1950s, before Brigitte Bardot, or Ibiza, before the first wave of summer partyers ever heard of the Mediterranean hot spot.
That explains why Louboutin is not only trying to build a boutique hotel in Melides. He has his own oceanside house here. His neighbor is Noemi Marone Cinzano, a countess and winemakerwhose family formerly owned the famous Italian brand of vermouth.
“I have been traveling all my life and I have not seen a place in Europe that is this untouched,” Ms. Cinzano, who built a rustic, seaside home here, said in an interview. (It looks laid back, but it was also recently featured in Architectural Digest.)
Other A-list homeowners in the area include Philippe Starck, the interior decorator and hotel designer; Anselm Kiefer, the German artist; and Jason Martin, the British abstract painter, who took over a cavernous former nightclub as his studio, and also built a home on the nearby hillside, where he is also producing wine.
Eric Lipton is a Washington-based investigative reporter. A three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he previously worked at The Washington Post and The Hartford Courant. @EricLiptonNYT