Waves lap at the doorways of the smart boutiques and dolphins frolic around the tables of the pavement cafes. The marine-themed cream and grey cobblestones, reminiscent of a Roman mosaic pavement, can be initially disorienting, creating an impression of moving water as they shimmer in the autumn sunlight. We soon find our sea-legs and saunter down to the real sea and fine golden sands of Baia Rainha, one of several pristine beaches in the delightful fishing port cum tourist town of Cascais on the Lisbon Riviera.
Only a forty minute and 4 Euro return train ride from Lisbon, which was voted Europe’s 2010 top city break destination, Cascais is perfectly positioned for a short break in Spring or Autumn. Less ‘touristy’ than much of the Algarve, there are plenty of amenities for both couples and families, but it feels more authentically Portuguese, more fado than disco.
Based here, you can experience both the buzz and culture of a capital city and the gentler delights of a string of south-facing, Blue Flag beaches. With temperatures often hovering around 70 degrees, sipping a coffee outside a Lisbon pastelaria or a beer at a sea-front café, is an agreeable way to pass an hour between sightseeing or sunbathing.
Walks or bike rides along the coast in either direction from Cascais’ busy fishing harbour, fringed by pastel-coloured, neo-Baroque buildings, yield many delights.
Go west, past the impressive citadel and iconic striped Santa Marta lighthouse (now a museum) and you reach Boca da Inferno (Hell’s mouth), an imposing grotto whose name derives from the fearsome sound of wind and waves crashing on the rocks. On a windy March day we have seen it more than live up to its name, but on this calm Autumn morning it is deceptively meek. Continue past the attractive craft-shop and restaurant complex of Guia, though, and you soon feel the forces of the wild Atlantic breakers as you reach the surfers’ paradise of Guincho beach.
Or stroll eastwards along the pleasant promenade to Estoril, home of Europe’s largest casino, set at the end of a formal, classical garden. Setting of the Bond movie, Casino Royale, Estoril has other claims to fame: during World War 2, it was a major espionage centre and battlefield of a secret war fought between British and German undercover agents. The impressive Palacio Hotel, where the agents used to base themselves, is still thriving. Sometimes both sets of spies would share the bar, eyeing each other to determine from body language and choice of drink whether the popping champagne corks on one side indicated that the latest battle or intrigue had been won or lost – “champagne news” as the press agencies called it. If you ask politely, the Maitre’ D may even show you a copy of one guest’s registration card from 1941, a British ‘government officer’ by the name of Ian Fleming!
When you are ready to move on to the sights of Lisbon, there’s an abundance of choice. The train ride along the Tagus estuary from Cascais provides a tantalising glimpse of some of the major monuments. Across the elegant red April 25th suspension bridge (longer than San Francisco’s Golden Gate which it closely resembles) stands the statue of Christ the King, hands outstretched. It is the nearside shore, in the suburb of Belem which was the point of departure for the great voyages of discoveries, which holds most treasures though: the fairytale-like 16th century Torre de Belem and the filigree tracery of the Jeronimos Monastery of the same period being the most significant. In architectural contrast, is another, equally impressive shimmering white structure, built in 1960 in the form of a ship’s prow with billowing sails. This is the Monument of the Discoveries, erected to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. If you are based in Lisbon rather than Cascais and have the time, it is well worth taking the train out the few kilometres west to Belem to explore at close range these remarkable monuments to Portugal’s distinguished history.
Lisbon is a hilly city: save your legs as we did by squeezing onto one of the narrow yellow trams, the number 28, to the Castelo Sao Jorge, from where you get a magnificent view over the city and its port, before wending your way slowly down through the narrow cobbled streets of quirky, ancient Alfama. For a complete contrast, take the underground train out to the modern Parque Das Nacoes on the waterfront, developed for Expo 98, with its amazing aquarium great seafood restaurants and cable car with its panoramic views.
We have been visiting the Lisbon area for the last eight or so years and are pleased to find it still remarkable value for money: public transport, eating and drinking, and museum fees are all modestly priced. Our favourite lunchtime venue is the elegant Confeitaria Nacional in the Praca da Figueira, established over a century ago. With its chandeliers, stuccoed ceilings, polished wood and crisp linen tablecloths you can have a delicious two course meal for a mere 8 Euros, leaving enough to indulge in a bottle of the local crisp, vino verde.
This most recent short visit, taken to recharge our batteries, is spent mainly enjoying the sea air of Cascais, though. No time to explore the hilltop palaces and castle of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage site only a short bus ride away, though for the first-time visitor it is a must. We’re staying in a well-appointed apartment, centrally but quietly situated. There is a fine choice of hotels to suit all budgets in the area, however. We explore the historic backstreets of the town, the shady, tree-lined squares; we buy giant fruit and vegetables in the sprawling, raucous Wednesday morning market. On our last evening we climb up to the softly-illuminated fort and walk back along fisherman’s beach. It’s a full tide. We can hear the waves lap.