Cascais: A slice of culture on the coast

With exquisite shore-side mansions, sandy beaches, freshly landed seafood - and free bicycle hire - Simon Calder is in his element in Cascais
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The Independent Travel

WHERE?

The coast of northern Portugal curves dramatically down to Europe's most westerly point, Cabo da Roca, then shortly afterwards turns a sharp corner to run east towards the capital. Cascais, planted elegantly on the shoreline, was settled sequentially by Romans, Visigoths and Moors. The 1755 earthquake that wrought so much destruction on Portugal took its toll here, but as everywhere the reconstruction has been impressive. Today the centre of Cascais is an intriguing combination of sun-worn houses and smart hotels, augmented by a strong suit of cafés, restaurants and shops. There are also some notable historic monuments, the biggest of which is the Cidadela, a military fort that is presently being renovated in preparation for being opened up as another cultural space for the town; beyond it lies the Marina de Cascais, a forest of slender masts.

Closer to the centre, the shore is lined with nets; this is still an active fishing port. The town's main open space is Largo (the term for "square") 5 de Outubro, flanked by the handsome Town Hall, the Câmara Municipal. To the immediate east of here, you can get lost in a tangle of narrow lanes; to the west, you find shops, restaurants and hotels, and the north-south thoroughfare Alameda dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra, just rejuvenated for the summer. The double-fronted tourist office has an entrance from this street, as well as from Rua Visconde da Luz 14 (00 351 214 868 204; www.visiteestoril.com); open 9am-7pm daily (weekends from 10am).

Among the dozens of accommodation options, a couple of luxury locations stand out even among the flourish of five-stars. The more venerable of the pair is the Villa Albatroz, a five-star property on the waterside at the foot of the main Alameda, at Rua Fernandes Tomás 1 (00 351 214 863 410; www.albatrozhotels.com). Despite the exterior grandeur, the interior feels cosy and inviting. The rooms, decorated with simple elegance and bright colours, cost €200 (£140) or more during peak season, including breakfast, but lower rates are available at other times. The Villa also has a sister property, the pink-washed Hotel Albatroz, perched on the seafront a short way east.

Three years ago, the design hotel came to Cascais in stunning fashion. The Estalagem do faroldesignhotel ( www.cascais.org) - to give it the full official lower-case name - is a sensationally reworked 19th-century shoreline mansion. The Farol (as everyone calls it) is a textbook of imaginative design, from ambitiously scarlet furnishings in the bar that defy the steely Atlantic outside, via almost clinical grace in the restaurant, to smart indulgence in the rooms. For good measure, a saltwater swimming pool is perched on the edge of the ocean. In peak season (June to mid-September), a "designer room" will cost €370 (£264) including breakfast, but land-facing doubles are €250 (£173). Prices fall by at least 20 per cent in shoulder season, and by nearly half from November to mid-April (see 24-hour room service, page V).

WHY?

You may be in one of Europe's leading resorts, and a short rail journey from the Portuguese capital, but Cascais has managed the transition from fishing village to holiday retreat without surrendering its easy allure. The town is a patchwork of pleasure: from the flagstoned, sun-dappled pedestrian streets in the heart of the town, via a sprinkling of venerable churches to the patchwork of expansive green spaces that give hotels - and their guests - room to breathe.

Excellent beaches are within easy reach of Cascais, particularly if you take advantage of the splendid biCas scheme, where visitors are lent bicycles for free from an office across from the railway station. What really sets Cascais apart, though, is its extraordinary cultural wealth.

WHAT?

"Municipal Museum" is rarely a term of inspiration - but the version in Cascais is like no other. It occupies the early 20th-century home of the Condes de Castro Guimarães (00 351 214 825 407), a mansion on the cusp of being a folly, located in the large municipal park alongside Avenida Rei Humberto II de Itália. This compilation of architectural styles, with even a nod to Scottish baronial, harbours a rich collection of tilework, porcelain, furniture and - in the cavernous library - a collection of several thousand historic books. The views from the rooms are also memorable: the house is perched on an inlet, with access to its own private beach and, under a bridge, the ocean. You can admire the exterior at any time and on any day of the week, but the inside can be seen only on an organised tour: hourly, 10am-4pm, daily except Tuesday, price €1.65 (£1.20).

Just beyond the Municipal Museum on the road out from town along the coast, you should not miss the Casa de Santa Maria - though this partially concealed gem is often overlooked. Yet another oceanfront mansion? No, this one is different. It is one of the earliest works by the architect Raúl Lino, commissioned in 1902 by Jorge O'Neill as a residence for his daughter, Maria Thereza. Its exterior combines Mediterranean simplicity with the Arab revival style; inside, it is enriched with an extraordinary collection of 17th-century tiles that were taken from an old chapel in Frielas. They are flowing and evocative, though occasionally disturbing - such as a violent attack on a naked woman depicted at the foot of the stairs. The ceilings, too, are works of art - as is the view from the patio, which you are free to wander around. The Casa de Santa Maria opens 10am-1pm and 2-5pm daily except Mondays, admission free.

Close by, the Cascais Cultural Centre on Avenida Rei Humberto II de Itália (00 351 214 848 900) comprises a dramatic sequence of spaces that host a rolling programme of exhibitions. Known as the Casa Cor-de-Rosa (pink house), this is the former 16th-century convent of Our Lady of Piety. It opens 10am-6pm daily except Mondays, admission free.

For the cultural conclusion, pay a visit to the maritime museum, the Museu do Mar (00 351 214 825 400), housed in the former Sporting Club of Cascais building. Among much else, it charts the sad tally of shipwrecks on the sometimes wild Atlantic coast. It is named after King Dom Carlos, who ordered a study of Portugal's shoreline and seas (he was assassinated in 1908, an event that led to Portugal's republican constitution.) It opens 10am-5pm daily except Mondays, admission €1.65 (£1.20).

Feeding you body is just as important as nourishing your mind, so it is convenient that you can barely walk for 10 metres in any direction in town without encountering yet another dining opportunity. Seafood is, naturally, the main attraction, and you can survey the offerings at the al fresco restaurants on a pair of squares: the Largo Luís de Camões (presided over by a statue of the man) on the west of the Alameda, and the Largo Cidade de Vitória on the east. One worthwhile location that is hidden on a lane behind the town hall is Dom Pedro I, a no-nonsense favourite of the locals known for its good value, freshly cooked lunches.

The main retail drag, for speciality shops at least, is Rua Frederico Arouca; along it you can take your pick of jewellery, fashion, and vintage port. The dazzling new alternative is the big mall just north of the station, with a supermarket the size of a small Portuguese colony just further east.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

From Lisbon airport, a direct shuttle bus to Estoril and Cascais runs every hour, on the hour, from 7am to 9pm, with a final departure at 10.30pm. The service along the A5 motorway is operated by Scotturb (00 351 214 699 100; www.scotturb.com). The journey takes 28 minutes to Estoril, a further five to the centre of Cascais, then continues to the hotel area by the sea. The fare of €8.50 (£6) includes travel for the rest of the day on other Scotturb services (see below). A cheaper, slower and more scenic alternative is to catch a local bus, number 44 or 45, from the airport to the final stop at Cais do Sodré; fare €1.30 (£0.90). From here there are trains every 20 minutes (more during rush hours) to Estoril and Cascais, fare €1.50 (£1.10). The line runs along the north bank of the Tagus, under the dramatic 25 April Bridge.

GETTING AROUND

The main bus operator for the area is Scotturb (see above), whose hub is the bus station beneath the Cascais shopping centre. It runs frequent services from Cascais and Estoril in both directions along the coast, as well as inland to Sintra and beyond, and a special service (number 403) between Cascais and Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in mainland Europe (see Trail of the unexpected, page IV).

Taxis are comfortable, reliable and cheap; the 20-minute journey from Estoril to Sintra costs about €20 (£14). To call a cab, try the following local numbers: Radio Taxis Costa do Sol (214 660 101); Cooperativa de Taxis D Pedro I (214 670 850); or Auto Taxis Vasquinho (214 864 731).

MORE INFORMATION

Both Cascais and Estoril have very helpful tourist offices. They keep almost identical hours: 9am-7pm from Monday to Friday, 10am-6pm at weekends, except that the Cascais branch opens until 7pm on Saturdays. In Cascais, it is centrally located at Rua Visconde da Luz 14 (00 351 214 868 204; www.visiteestoril.com).

Also see www.visitportugal.com and for specialist tour operators, www.discoverportugal.org. Call the brochure line on 0845 355 1212 (local rates apply), or e-mail tourism.london@icep.pt

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