Monday 23 October 2017

Going posh in Portugal

James Bond, suburban beaches and royal getaways -- Paul Whitington struggled to tear himself away from Lisbon's suburbs to relax on the golden sands of the Algarve

Paul Whitington

The short train ride from Lisbon to Estoril trundles through inauspicious suburbs and bland stations before suddenly giving way to a vast expanse of shimmering sea.

The urban sprawl is replaced by a string of distinguished seaside resorts. The best known, Estoril, has more than a touch of Riviera glamour. Manicured gardens form the entrance to the town's celebrated casino, moneyed types in chic casuals float by in terrifyingly expensive cars, and in the hills above the town sit some of the most exclusive summer homes in greater Lisbon.

This, one senses, is not a spot for the penny-pinching bargain hunter.

Our hotel, the impressive and impeccably run five-star Palacio, has a kind of old-world quality to it, which is not surprising considering it dates back to 1830.

In the early years of the 20th century the hotel was the summer retreat of the Spanish, Romanian, Italian and Bulgarian royal families -- King Juan Carlos of Spain's father, Juan de Borbon, sat it out here during the wilderness years of the Franco regime.

Later, during the Second World War, it and Estoril were overrun by war-shy grandees and Allied and Axis spies.

Portugal's neutrality made Lisbon a popular escape route to the Americas. The posh satellite town of Estoril became a hotbed of intrigue, and among the British secret agents cooling their heels there was one Ian Fleming. He stayed at the Palacio and haunted the gaming tables of the neighbouring casino, which would provide the inspiration for the climax of his first James Bond novel, 'Casino Royale'.

Estoril retains a certain elegant reserve. Geographically speaking, it is to Lisbon what Killiney is to Dublin, a plush suburb about 15km from the bustling capital. It has its own public beach, which is invaded on summer weekends by overheated city folk.

The water is pretty clean out here, and above the beach is a handsome promenade that skirts the shore all the way to neighbouring Cascais.

A handsome, stonewalled fishing village, Cascais feels less stuffy and exclusive than Estoril, and has a far better selection of restaurants, such as the excellent Beira Mar Restaurante, which specialises in fish and seafood. Cascais is also reasonably lively at night, but not as buzzy as Lisbon.

The train from Estoril and Cascais delivers you at the foot of a steep hill that leads into Lisbon's lower town, Baixa. Lisbon is a city of hills and narrow streets that plunge to the sea like San Francisco, where the persistent peal of tram bells is always heard.

It has the grandeur and self-importance of a former colonial capital. Statues of pioneering explorers such as Vasco de Gama dominate the public squares, and Baixa is an imposingly grand quarter whose handsome streets and public buildings evoke Portugal's former opulence.

Very former, as we know, for the country is now beholden to the IMF and the EU, but strolling around the exclusive Chaido shopping district, you'd never know it. The cafés that line the great squares of Praça de Comércio and Praça Dom Pedro IV are great spots for people watching, but as night falls the crowds drift upwards towards the Barrio Alto, where the best bars and restaurants are.

Portuguese food is not just about fish, but the grilled sardines, fresh squid and especially the bacalao (salted cod with potatoes and bacon) are justly celebrated.

There are atmospheric, wood-lined traditional taverns in the Barrio Alto, such as the Boca Alta Restorante, where we ate wonderfully oily sardines at crowded, rowdy tables.

With its cathedrals, museums, bars, restaurants, glitzy shops and endless spectacular views (the sea has a habit of appearing suddenly when you round an unpromising corner), Lisbon is a town you could stroll around every day for a week and not get bored with.

But Estoril, and the Palacio, are a great base to explore it from: you can go wild in the Barrio as much as you want, but it's a lovely feeling to return to the soothing calm of the hotel afterwards.

It was something of a wrench when the time came to leave, but we headed south to the sandy beaches of the Algarve.

The train from Entrecampos station in northern Lisbon to Faro takes about two hours, with brief pauses in sleepy, dusty towns. As we headed south the earth grows redder, the houses plainer, the vegetation more exotic.

The Algarve's picturesque coves and spectacular Atlantic strands are justly celebrated. In fact, they're like our beaches with sunshine, and it's little wonder the region is Portugal's biggest tourist draw.

Faro, the capital, sits around a third of the way along the Algarve's sweeping coastline. To the east, a string of quietish and very Portuguese resorts stretch all the way to the Spanish border; to the west, extensive development has created a series of opulent resorts that attract huge numbers of foreign tourists during the summer.

Places such as Vilamoura, our final destination; a pristine, newish resort that boasts access to several impressive golf courses via a rather bewildering local road network.

Sport is a recurring theme: our hotel even has the word golf in it, and each morning men in slacks and bad jumpers gather in the reception of the Dom Pedro Golf Hotel awaiting transport to some well-watered, verdant course.

For those of us who consider golf to be a good walk spoiled, there's always Vilamoura's beaches, and they're pretty impressive.

Despite an apparent connection to our hotel, the beach's sunbeds are not free -- they're about €6 a day but it's cheaper if you book them for a week rather than by the day; a chap saunters around selling tickets.

The day is also punctuated by the singsong calls of men who wander by, flogging a kind of local doughnut that tastes excellent, especially with coffee.

The real action in Vilamoura, though, is around the handsome marina, in which absurdly opulent yachts pitch camp for the summer. The marina is rimmed with restaurants of all shapes and sizes, some of them pretty good.

The Mayflower, on the eastern corner of the marina, makes nice steaks and pizzas and has decent views across the harbour. Il Lamparo has more of an Italian flavour and a bustling atmosphere.

The food is more expensive in places such as Vilamoura and neighbouring Albufeira than it is in Faro or the resorts east of it, but there's consolation to be found in the endlessly changing human parade that files along the Vilamoura seafront come nightfall.

When vacationing continentals get it wrong on the sartorial front, the results can be spectacularly entertaining. Poseurs abound in Vilamoura come nightfall, with dodgy loafers, sunglasses lodged like hairbands on top of their heads, and open-top sports cars all round.

The high number of passing freckles suggests, though, that Vilamoura is as popular with Irish people as it is with Mediterranean beach lizards, and the preponderance of Irish accents is ultimately rather reassuring.

As is the persistent good humour of the Portuguese, both here and in Lisbon, who could teach us a thing or two about being stoical in the face of financial disaster.

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