Andy Mossack, a well-known British travel writer and the creator and presenter of BBC Radio’s “Where in the World is Andy” travelogue series, describes why Portugal’s Riviera should be on your summer travel wish list. Be sure to check back in for other insightful reviews from Andy’s travel exploits.
Only a little way down the coast from Lisbon, Estoril is often overlooked because of its nearness to Portugal’s capital. Still mainly residential, what the city lacks in visitors, it more than makes up for in substance. Its classic elegance is the perfect foil to the majestic backdrop of the UNESCO-protected Sintra-Cascais Natural Park that surrounds it on three sides. Here the park’s spectacularly rugged scenery is home to a vast array of wildlife and a magnet for bird watchers.
In fact the whole Estoril coastline offers a seemingly endless amount of dramatic and ever-changing scenery, culminating in the extraordinary town of Sintra, the end-of-summer getaway for royals over 100 years ago and now an official World Heritage Site.
Truly one of the most unusual and magical places to experience in Europe, Estoril’s centerpieces are undoubtedly The Pena Palace and Park, which many say was the inspiration for Cinderella’s castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom; the mystical and symbolic Quinta da Regaleira Palace with its tunnels, magical grottos, fountains and gothic architecture; and right at Sintra’s highest point, the Moorish Castle offering outstanding views across the mountains and down to the Atlantic.
Back in town, Estoril’s glorious Tamariz Beach is an absolute delight. You can stop a while in one of its many beach-front cafes and absorb the clean swathes of golden sand with the wide stretch of the Atlantic sweeping around the bay to Cascais. Perfect. Sitting there, sipping on a galao, Portugal’s version of a café latte, you can limit yourself to thinking nothing but good thoughts. Tamariz is, however, just one example of the many fine beaches along this stretch of coastline. The local rail gives you easy access to Estoril’s many other beaches, such as Carcavelos and Guincho, where the rolling waves are perfect for surfers, and Cascais’ secluded Praia da Poca and Bafureira. Also try the Paredão, a long beachfront walkway where you can stroll along as far as the mood takes you.
Estoril was the “in” place to be in the early 1900s when it was labeled the Portuguese Riviera and the playground of the royal family. The well-heeled flocked here in droves to be seen promenading with royalty, and the grand mansions along the front are remnants of its illustrious past. There are the great beaches of course, but you’ll also find stunning golf courses, all the nightlife you could possibly want in Cascais (just a five-minute cab ride away), as well as one of the biggest casinos in Europe.
In fact, with Cascais being so close, it is possible to dine there most nights. However there are a few excellent restaurants to sample in Estoril too. In particular you should try Costa do Estoril just next to the casino where you can get a wide choice of local fish dishes and a vegetarian speciality called “Mothers Soup,” a very tasty bean and vegetable broth that is hard to resist. For a high-end experience, go to the Four Seasons Grill at The Palacio Hotel, a classic example of old-fashioned five-star elegance. Of course fresh fish and Portugal go together like honey and bees, and this region in particular is famous for Cascais sole, sea bass, sea bream and well over 100 different varieties of bacalhau – dried cod fish. You’ll also find excellent examples of travesseiros – a sweet dish made with puff pastry — and queijadas de Sintra, a snack made with a thin pastry case and filled with a mixture of sugar, egg, cinnamon, and fresh cheese. In fact Portuguese egg-based confectionary is unique the world over, and its finest hour is the delightful pasteis de nata, the little egg custard tarts that were born just up the road in Lisbon.
Exploring neighboring Cascais is a voyage of discovery. On the one hand there is the original historic area that has a distinct nautical air about it – with its cobbled winding streets leading down to the cozy harbor, where the day’s fresh catch is still sold by local fishermen in the nearby square. Don’t miss the Seixas Palace, a magnificent 19th-century palace overlooking the sea, or the Municipal Museum, so close to the sea that waves often reach the steps at high tide. Have a light lunch at the restaurant/cafe in the charming Santa Marta Lighthouse Museum and check out the Atlantic views.
Alternatively explore the trendy, vibrant side of Cascais. It offers nightlife for every taste – from traditional fado (a mix of African slave rhythms and the music of Portuguese sailors) to late-night clubbing – as well as a modern marina and serious shopping opportunities, from small designer boutiques to a large shopping center with more than 70 high-street names.
The Portuguese royal family clearly knew a thing or two when they chose Estoril to be their summer retreat all those years ago. The temperate micro-climate formed by the surrounding mountains, and the gardens and palaces give you a clue to its rich and glorious heritage. And if you’ve already enjoyed a visit to Lisbon but like the idea of going back to the area, try Estoril—you might not get treated like a royal anymore, but you will appreciate its regal qualities.
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