Just getting to Nómada can feel a journey in and of itself. Located in Aldeia Galega, a minuscule village on the narrow, winding road that links Portugal’s mountaintop town of Sintra with the coast, the Indian furniture store is a destination – definitely not the kind of place that you’d just stumble across. “The location just sort of happened,” said Stephanie Hillenbrand, who founded the store along with her husband, Paul Rosner, in 1995. “Definitely no market research went into deciding where would be the most strategic spot.”
Still, despite its out-of-the-way location, Nómada’s unique offerings – bold statement pieces that Rosner selects on his yearly trips to India – have attracted a cadre of loyal customers willing to travel the extra mile to exceptional pieces that can’t be found elsewhere. (For example, Nómada recently kitted out the Santiago de Alfama, an award-winning boutique hotel in Lisbon.) A virtual Ali Baba’s cavern, the store is so packed with treasures that it’s hard to know where to look. There’s everything from a cubby hole cabinet that was once used in a post office to a delicately carved crib that’s been turned into a coffee table to folding wooden chairs, left over from an old cinema, to charpais, the traditional Indian string beds, now used as benches or side tables.
There are old juicers and wagon wheels and dowry chests and tin milk pots and thousand upon thousands of glass beads. Nómada also specializes in massive architectural pieces – window and door frames, shutters and even towering arches, all stripped out of old houses that have been abandoned amidst India’s rural exodus. “It’s a real mix, a real masala,” said Rosen, adding that when he goes to India to buy new stock, he’s guide exclusively by his own taste. “I buy only pieces that I love – pieces that if I didn’t sell, I’d be happy to have in my home.”
Nómada actually got its start as an extension of Rosen and Hillenbrand’s family home. The couple met in 1984 in Philadelphia, Rosen’s hometown, when Hillenbrand, a Frankfurt native, moved there to study macrobiotics. In short order, they married and moved to Germany. But she really didn’t want to live in Germany, and he didn’t want to live in the U.S., so they bought a camper van and struck out for Portugal. Why Portugal? “Neither of us knew Portugal but we just had this feeling that it was a special place,”said Hillenbrand. “After about three months on the road, we were pretty fed up with traveling, and I was pregnant, and we liked it here, so we just sort of ended up staying.”
Initially, the couple settled in the town of Fontanela and ran sort a sort of proto-bed and breakfast, catering to macrobiotic travelers, out of their home – an off-the-wall venture in mid-1980s Portugal, where, in Hillenbrand’s retelling, “there will still ox carts on the road, and donkeys everywhere, and people were still cutting hay by hand, with these old scythes.” But Hillenbrand’s aunt marriage to an Indian man would dramatically change the course of their lives. The uncle invited Rosner to travel to India – and he was immediately hooked. “It’s definitely true what they say about India being a place with no in-betweens: You either love it or you hate it,” said Rosner, adding “I just remember thinking, ‘I have to figure out a way to keep coming back.’”
And after a brief stint importing Indian textiles, which he and Hillenbrand sold at street fairs in Portugal, Rosner pivoted toward antiques, which he buys at massive ware houses in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan and ships back to Portugal in shipping containers. It’s a complicated process, but after more than 60 trips to India over more than two decades, Rosner has it down pat. Initially, Nómada was born in an annex to the old farmhouse the family was renting in Aldeia Galega. But as the stock mushroomed with each of Rosner’s trips, they outgrew the 40 square-meter space and moved the store into a larger house next door, which at 160 square meters, is nearly four times as big. But it’s still not enough: In addition to a packed-to-the-gills storeroom on the premises (ask to check it out!) the couple also keeps another storage area for spillover stock. “They just don’t make things like this anymore,” said Rosner, “so when I see beautiful pieces, I can’t resist.”