Lisbon shows off its own Riviera touch
The charm of Portugal's capital is immediate, says Madeleine Keane, whether in the city or along the coast
SEMINAL moments come and go, but this was a very special one. My first-born had achieved a law degree, so, with my younger child happily ensconced in Spiddal doing a three-week stint learning Gaeilge, I felt both mother and elder daughter had earned a week of sun and relaxation.
Our family has long been a lover of Portugal, though inevitably it has been drawn to the Algarve and has hit most of its hot spots, from Alvor to Albufeira. For a change, in early June, the two of us headed for Lisbon -- or Estoril to be precise, the small seaside town 20 minutes from the capital.
This pretty coastline once rivalled the Riviera for glamour, and though that day has gone, vestiges of its allure remain -- not least in our lodgings. The five-star hotel the Palacio Estoril is the jewel in this coastline. A stunning building dominating the small town, it dates back to the Thirties, when the beautiful people descended upon it. Its epithet is Grand & Cosy, which sounds like an oxymoron, but, in fact, the elegantly appointed surroundings, and the benign and charming staff ensure it lives up to its name.
Our bedroom had all you'd expect from a hostelry of this calibre -- immaculate bathroom, mini-bar, multichannel TV, dainty balcony overlooking the glittering ocean, and each evening, chocolates and a note of tomorrow's weather forecast left on our pillows.
Breakfast in the palatial dining room every morning was comprehensive -- everything from continental to cooked food. There was also champagne -- to which some honeymooning couples helped themselves -- and a Nespresso machine, the modern accoutrement no self-respecting hotel is without these days.
The hotel bar was intimate and welcoming, and the haunt of spies during the Second World War. Indeed, the Casino, Estoril's most famous building, was frequented by Ian Fleming, and there, it is said, he found his inspiration for James Bond.
A fabulous spa, the Banyan Tree, is attached to the hotel. I was served green tea by a smiling Thai girl called First, who followed this with a superb 90-minute Thai massage. It's pricey, but a promotion for guests meant I got 40 per cent off -- so an hour and a half of pure heaven was a more affordable €75.
The town itself was quiet, and while it was pleasant to spend most days reading and swimming (we alternated between beach and pool), punctuated with lunch at one of several unpretentious beach bars, most evenings we repaired to Cascais.
This town is a couple of kilometres away and linked to Estoril by a waterfront promenade. During our week, we developed a lovely rhythm. After showering off the day's sand and changing, we would walk most evenings at around 6.30 in the direction of Cascais. We would break this killer marathon (one mile) halfway with a glass of crisp, local white wine, while we watched the sea and the passing parade.
Arriving at Cascais's working harbour, there's plenty to do and see in this lively fishing village. Small cobbled streets lead you to its heart, where there's a variety of restaurants serving typical holiday fare.
Scratch the surface, though, and you'll come upon Brasserie de L'Entrecote -- a well-kept secret on the far side of the marina, much loved by locals. There's no choice on the menu: dinner is Caesar salad followed by succulent, finely sliced steak served with a spicy pepper sauce and pommes frites. With a bottle of wine, this enjoyable meal was €50 for two (desserts are extra, but we had no room left).
The charm of this area is that it's not just about buckets and spades. A trip to Sintra -- 15 minutes away in a taxi -- is well worth the journey. This Unesco world heritage site -- where once the high kings of Portugal holidayed -- is very beautiful. We visited it on a Monday evening, when its old, leafy main square was cool and quiet. Choose your time carefully though -- in high summer, it can a bit of a nightmare, as it gets very overcrowded when tourists throng its steep, winding streets.
The great joy of this June week though -- apart from time with my darling girl -- was Lisbon. We took a train along the coast and spent a few hours in this stunning city. Its charm is immediately apparent, in its historical buildings, the medieval castle on the brow of the hill, the vibrant squares dotted with cafes and bars, and all this against the backdrop of a shimmering waterfront.
We wandered up from the water's edge through atmospheric Baixa to Chiada, where the narrow zig-zagging streets offer a plethora of choice for the dedicated shopper. My young fashion-mad companion indulged herself in Mango, Stradivarius, Zara et al. Hot and shopped out, we stopped for icy refreshments at Cafe a Brasileira (on Rua Garrett) the city's most famous cafe and an art-nouveau delight of stucco, mirrors and paintings. Sadly, we didn't have enough time to visit the internationally famous Gulbenkian art museum or the cathedral, whose old stone glows golden with the setting sun.
We dined at Leao d'Ouro, a fashionable fish restaurant, where I had sole lagareiro, cooked simply with onions and garlic. Natasha dined on grilled dorado, which she declared delicious. With a typical cover of olives, sardine pate and bread, and half a bottle of good house wine, our bill came to a staggeringly low €37.50.
So, how lovely was it? Put it like this: I always leave a holiday, planning my next one -- which will be a weekend city-break in Lisbon.
Madeleine Keane travelled to Portugal with Sunway Holidays and stayed in the five-star Palacio Estoril Hotel on the Lisbon coast. Seven nights in the hotel on a B&B basis, including flights, transfers and all taxes and charges, starts from €899 per person during September. Sunway, one of Ireland’s leading tour operators, is fully bonded and licensed and operates to more than 70 destinations worldwide. Visit www.sunway.ie or phone Sunway 01-2886828