By working with local artisans, the UXUA Casa Hotel in the Bahian town of Trancoso has built up a reputation for authenticity while helping to promote native craftsmanship. It’s a hotel created with soul…
Evandro is busy in the lobby. But he’s not checking in guests or collecting baggage – as you might expect to see in any other luxury hotel – but, rather, he’s sat at an antique wooden loom carefully weaving a blanket.
UXUA Casa, in the remote Bahian town of Trancoso, is no ordinary hotel. It’s made out of a collection of 12 rustic fisherman’s houses – which are dotted around the town’s grassy square known as the Quadrado. Each one is brightly painted – parrot green, cobalt blue or fuchsia pink – and individually designed with recycled-wood furniture, folk art and handcrafted textiles.
Opened in 2006 by Dutch designer Wilbert Das, it was originally intended as an homage to the artistic heritage of the rural town, which boasts a sweeping UNESCO-protected coastline as its backdrop. Das began collaborating with many local craftspeople – some of whom – like the weaver Evandro – now work directly from the hotel. As well as stamping their personality on the interiors of the property, the artisans also work with Das to create the UXUA CASA collection – think: hand-woven rugs, lampshades made of basketry and furniture crafted from antique ox-carts – for guests to replicate the rustic-luxe look at home. As a consequence, over the years, the hotel has been instrumental in encouraging a resurgence of artisan work in the area.
“UXUA is certainly an organic place,” says Das. “We are intrinsic to the local community and work hand in hand with them, as well as being greatly influenced by the rich culture that is found here.”
The idea of UXUA came to Das, back in 2004, when he first arrived in the sleepy town. He was looking for a retreat away from his demanding role as creative director at fashion label Diesel Jeans in Milan. With his business partner Bob Devlin in tow, they wanted to find somewhere to holiday which would place them nicely off-the-radar.
“Straight away we fell in love with the authenticity of the place,” remembers Bob. “What started out as us a search for a holiday home became something that we wanted to share with the rest of the world, and, two years later, UXUA Casa Hotel was born.”
Since then, UXUA – with its charming cottages and curated décor – has been credited with putting Trancoso on the map with a hip, glitzy set: Brazilian models such as Alessandra Ambrosio and Gisele Bündchen have holidayed here, Beyoncé shot some of her Blue video in the town, while her sister, Solange, spent her honeymoon here. But it’s not always been quite so fashionable.
“When we first arrived, Trancoso was a very simple town,” recalls Das. “Its main influence had been a commune of hippies and artists who made it their own in the 1970s and it was as if time had stood still since then.”
Affectionately labelled ‘biribandos’ by locals, the hippies were an enterprising bunch with a flair for arts and crafts. Back then, the town still had a barter economy and was filled with close-knit families of fishermen, farmers, and amazingly-skilled craftsmen. The village’s isolation spawned a spirit of ingenuity and creativity, especially in working with wood and other organic materials, as well as in the simple art of recycling.
There are also deeper cultural influences in Trancoso, which play their part in lending a distinct flavour to the remote spot. The native Pataxó Indians, who have lived in the area for centuries, the Portuguese, derived from the first explorers who first discovered Brazil by landing in Bahia in 1500, and an African influence, dating from the slave trade, which saw many ships arriving in the region – all blend together to create particular chemistry.
“It really is an exceptional town,” says Das, looking out over the Quadrado, which is dominated by a stark white 16thcentury church. “When I arrived I discovered a local atmosphere, history and culture unlike any other, and I made a commitment to work with the local community and share their talents with a wider audience. I don’t see myself as a hotelier, but simply as part of the community.”
Evandro, who specialises in weaving bags, blankets and pillows, agrees: “I was originally taught to weave by my mother, who comes from a long line of craftspeople from the nearby state of Minas Gerais,” he says. “But the demand for the skill was dying out. Ironically, I first came to Trancoso to work as a waiter, and then I met Wilbert. By working with him on UXUA CASA, it means that I can continue with my longstanding family trade. It means a lot.”
Dialogue between Trancoso’s craftsmen, says Das, is flowing and ongoing, allowing creative input on both sides. “Many UXUA CASA artisans now run their own craft companies locally,” he says. “And as a happy consequence, this creative micro-industry has become an important pillar of the local economy. It is good news for the community; and for visitors to Trancoso which, as a result, steer clear of the typical t-shirt and snow globe merchandise found in other beach resorts.”
Since opening, the hotel has continued to evolve, with the latest project being a series of luxury houses, known as the UXUA Alma Collection. These have been commissioned by private owners, such as CNN newsreader Anderson Cooper and Chelsea-based art collector Ivor Brakor and are seriously high-end. Dotted around the square or found further afield, such as in the nearby seaside town of Praia do Espelho, Das works personally with owners to create a polished, albeit rustic, finish. While each property has it owns personality, they are all unified, by a strong Bahian sense of style, which includes inside-out living arrangements, lush, tropical gardens and reclaimed furniture. The result are a range of luxurious boltholes, which can also be rented as vacation homes.
UXUA Casa’s guests, meanwhile, will also find themselves immediately integrated in the local community. You can try your hand at the Brazilian martial arts capoeirawith a local master, or go horse-riding with a Bahian cowboy along the beach. There’s also surfing, sunrise yoga, or simply plenty of opportunities to sample the sweetest ever passion-fruit caipirinhas.Then there’s the simple act of returning to your casa each night. It means crossing the Quadrado, past an assortment of pretty boutiques, pousadas and hacienda-style restaurants. From the local children playing freely to a cool Cariocacrowd, this is a place where everyone mixes together. Come night-time, a certain magic fills the air, with lanterns swinging in the trees, and a bosa nova soundtrack carried on the breeze.
The beating heart of the hotel is made up of an al fresco restaurant (the traditional fish moqueca stew is a must), a glimmering travertine-lined swimming pool, holistic spa and homewares store, filled, naturally, with hand-crafted pieces. Here, you might meet Caio, a Pataxó Indian, with tribal tattoos adorning his face, who is responsible for a range of monochrome, geometric textiles. You might also come across an assortment of art by Isaka and Neshani, who are part of the Huni Kuin indigenous tribe, from the Amazon. They are among artists who are part of the hotel’s Artists in Residence programme – another recent project – which sees Das seek out a line-up of international (and lesser-known) names to work in one of the casas (the deal is they have to leave their art behind to be showcased in the house).
Meanwhile, a short stroll takes you to the beach and what is perhaps the hippest hotel beach bar you’ll ever come across. Carved out of an old fishing boat, it was made by Dati, a local fisherman who learned his woodworking skills from his grandfather. Together they built most of the bridges crossing the rivers and streams in the area and became known as the best carpenters in the Bahia region. “The boat is a symbol of my passion for the sea and natural materials,” he says.
It turns out that ‘UXUA’ – pronounced as ‘Ooshwa’ – means ‘wonderful’ in Pataxó. “It’s a daily reminder of all that we need to live up to,” says Das.
Room rates at UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa are from US$410 (approx. £315) per night, based on double occupancy and includes breakfast, taxes and fees.
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This article was also published by City AM newspaper on 3 June 2019