Cascais, Portugal August 2021 (Tour 4)

Although we didn’t drive that far (Cascais is only about 40 miles from Torres Vedras) we packed a fair bit in – stocking up on supplies at a supermarket in Mafra and then walking the National Palace and Grounds and, finally, I had a look-see around Sintra. Although there is much to see and do in Sintra (it is a very pretty town with an abundance of impressive buildings – the Palaces of Pena and Monserrate, the Castelo dos Mouros, the Quinta da Regaleira, the Convento dos Capuchos, etc) the place was packed with tourists (No surprise there; it was a weekend during the height of summer) and I decided it should be left for an out of season visit.

The next morning we were off in the Van to explore the former fishing village of Cascais. On the way, we stopped off just a few miles down the coast at a local attraction, a sea arch known as the Boca do Inferno, the Hell’s Mouth. I’d read a number of blogs on the internet which described the Boca do Inferno in quite glorious terms – “an amazing arch”, sensational location”, “must see site with amazing vantage points”, “dramatic” – Forget it!! The Portuguese coast is full of such sites and this one is barely worth parking the car for.

Now Cascais; that’s a totally different matter. Yes it is touristy and it is quite expensive but it is a pretty place and well worth visiting. I once described the town as “hollow” and, in hindsight, that is both unfair and incorrect. At the time I was comparing Cascais with Portofino in Italy and it is inappropriate to make such comparisons. Cascais is a fair sized town in its own right (much bigger than Portofino). Moreover it is situated in one of Portugal’s most popular tourist areas (perhaps the most popular tourist spot on the west coast) AND it is just outside of the country’s capital city. Come on, with that in mind it could never be as exclusive as little Portofino.

So what is Cascais like? It is a pleasant mix of new and old. There are still traces of the charming old fishing port with it’s narrow lanes and cobbled streets full of whitewashed and/or tiled cottages but, early in the 20th century the town became the preferred holiday resort of the Portuguese royal family and other nobility and as a result a great many far more imposing buildings were added to the town and these now sit side by side with the old cottages.

As the twentieth century progressed Cascais and the neighbouring almost equally fashionable town of Estoril were joined by a wide tree lined promenade and the combined towns then developed into a playground for the rich and famous with beautiful beaches, lively bars and restaurants, expensive designer shops and boutiques, premier international motor racing (the Estoril motor racing track ran the Portuguese Grand Prix between 1984 and 1996) and, let’s not forget, the glamorous and sophisticated Casino Estoril (the largest casino in Europe) which Ian Fleming visited before writing his 1953 James Bond novel, Casino Royale.

Surprisingly, it was easy finding somewhere to park the Van in Cascais and minutes after leaving the Van we were in the largely pedestrianised old town. Be warned however, this is not the easiest town to navigate. My initial objective was the Praca 5 de Outubro and it wasn’t easy to find. Indeed, we gave up on it for a while and made our way down to the beach for a drink and a spot of lunch.

The old town is pretty. Most of the squares and streets in the old town are paved with patchwork mosaics (calcada portuguesa) and many of the houses are adorned with beautiful patterned tiles and thick growths of vibrant pink Bougainvillea… and dotted throughout the old town are some amazing street art.

The beaches in this area are generally very good and the sandy Praia Da Rainha is amongst the best. It is overlooked by cafe bars and restaurants and it was at one of these we enjoyed our lunch.

After lunch we continued our search for the Praca 5 De Outubro, taking in the blue and white lighthouse and, next to it, the Casa de Santa Maria. Both are now museums although the lighthouse is still operational.

Another place turned into a museum is a former property of Manuel Inacio de Castros Guimares which he gifted to the town in his will. This property, which was built by an eccentric Irish tobacco baron in 1910 has been described both as a mock Gothic Castle and a whimsical Revivalist Palace. It is quite unique. The gardens, together with land previously owned by the Viscount Gandarinha, now form the Marechal Carmona Park – a shaded public park with lush green lawns, flowerbeds and various water features. It is one of the noisiest parks I have ever visited with free roaming peacocks, roosters and ducks seemingly vying with each other to be heard.

Mafra, Portugal August 2021 (Tour 4)

We were travelling south through the saloia (the rustic area – so called because it has long provided Lisbon with its garden produce) towards our next stopping point of either Sintra or Cascais when we detoured slightly into Mafra for some supplies and lunch. That was when we noticed a most imposing building which needed further investigation. I quickly read up on the town and learned that the building was formerly the Royal Palace built by order of Joao V way back in the 18th century and which was renamed the National Palace after the Portuguese royal family was overthrown in 1910 and sent into exile. Of particular interest in the palace is, arguably, the finest collection of Italian Baroque sculpture outside of Italy; the large Capuchin Convent and Infirmary and; a spectacular library of more than 36,000 ancient books. Even without those things the building itself was sufficient to interest me and so off I went to explore the Palace…

To the front and centre of the building is the Basilica of our Lady and Saint Anthony of Mafra and it is one very impressive church both inside and outside. It is built in the Italian Baroque style of limestone which was mined mostly in the Sintra area. The first stone was laid in 1717 and the church was consecrated in 1730 although the rest of the Palace was not completed until 1750.

To the front of the Basilica are the statues, sculpted by some of Europe’s finest artists, of various saints who were among the founders and the reformers of the main religious orders – these include Saint Dominic, Saint Benedict, Saint Clare of Assisi and, most appropriate (given that the Palace includes a Capuchin Convent) Saint Francis of Assisi.

The inside of the Basilica is tremendous. I’ll let the photos do the talking…

The Palace was supposed to have been completed well in advance of 1750 but with wealth taken from the Portuguese colony of Brasil, the original plans were continually updated and the Palace grew and grew. For example, the Capuchin Convent (female equivalent of the Franciscan Order) was originally intended to accommodate just 13 nuns but when finished there was room for 300 nuns.

Only a small portion of the Palace’s 1200 rooms are now open to the public. Principal among these are the king’s living quarters, the library, music room, games room and a trophy room and; not forgetting the convent and it’s infirmary.

To the rear of the Palace are the Palace Gardens, the Jardim do Cerco. Entrance into the gardens is free. They are extensive and parts of them are quite pretty (and there is a small aviary) but there is clearly too much work for the handful of staff currently employed. There is perhaps a case for levelling a small charge at least to tourists. Behind the gardens are the former hunting grounds, the Tapada Nacional de Mafra, which is now a deer park and plans are afoot to create a protected area for Iberian Wolves.

And the rest of the town of Mafra? There really isn’t a lot to it…

Soon enough we had completed our journey to Cascais. We even had time for a brief walk around Sintra – too many tourists, we’ll return in the Winter.

Torres Vedras, Portugal August 2021 (Tour 4)

Vanya discovered something called Portugal Easycamp – an organisation not unlike France Passion but with the aim of showcasing Portuguese products and crafts through motorhome stopovers. She wanted to visit one Easycamp place, the Quinta da Almiara Vineyard (just outside of Torres Vedras) and that, for me, was an absolute no brainer – a private wine tour and tasting session followed by free parking in the vineyard at a site near one of the Duke of Wellington’s first headquarters during the Peninsula War. That ticks a lot of boxes. Vanya booked us in and arranged for us to start with a wine tasting session at 4pm the next day.

Torres Vedras is an unassuming town some 40 kilometres north of Lisbon. It came to prominence in the early years of the Peninsula War when the Duke of Wellington had a huge network of defences constructed in the area so as to protect Lisbon from the invading French Napoleonic army under Marshall Andre Massena. The Torres Vedras Lines (there were actually three lines of defences) stretched a total 100 kilometres and included 152 fortresses. What was particularly impressive about this feat of engineering was that it was all completed within a year and it was kept totally secret from the French. Massena reached the line(s) with 65,000 troops and was so shocked by the scale of the defences that he immediately retreated back into Spain. There’s not a great deal left of the Torres Vedras lines now but the largest of the forts, Forte de Sao Vicente, which could house 4,000 men and 39 cannon is to be found just outside of Torres Vedras. For the real Peninsula War buff, there is also the Grande Rota das Linhas de Torres Vedras, a walking trail which follows the old network of defences.

Overlooking the town are the ruins of another much older military installation, the 13th century Torres Vedras castle which was built on the site of an even earlier Moorish Castle. The Torres Vedras castle was almost totally destroyed in the 1755 earthquake but some significant reconstruction in 1809 saw it become Redoubt No 27 of the Torres Vedras Line and it was occupied by 500 men and 13 pieces of artillery under the command of Colonel Edmund Mulcaster.

It is a fairly short walk down from the castle and through the medieval lanes of Torres Vedras old town to the main square, Praca de 25 Abril. Walking through the town, a number of interesting churches are to be seen. The first is the pretty little Church of Santa Maria de Costelo which sits within the castle grounds and was built in 1148 on the instructions of Alfonso I immediately after he evicted the Moors from the area. The second is the Igreja de Sao Tiago (a simple but very attractive design on the outside but in need of work on the inside ) and the third is the Igreja de Sao Pedro which needs tidying up on the outside but has a beautifully tiled interior.

The Praca de 25 Abril is a pleasant area to sit and escape the hot midday sun. There’s an obelisk in the centre of the square commemorating the Peninsula War and on the south side of the square is the 16th century Convento de Graca (now a museum) and it’s church, the Igreca da Graca. There was an older convent on this site but it was destroyed in a flood.

Four 4 pm came soon enough and we had a very informative and enjoyable tour of the family owned Quinta da Almiara. We tried 4 wines and without a doubt my favourite was the Touriga Nacional red. I bought a 3 litre flagon (it cost just over 10 euros – that’s for nothing) and it went very quickly. No surprise that Vanya favoured the white wines.

I read that in the past this area of Portugal has been renowned more for the quantity of wine it produces than the quality and that the white wines are generally low in alcohol. If the wine we drank is anything to go by, I would say that Quinta da Almiara is bucking both trends. The Quinta retain and bottle just 1% of the 4 million litres they produce every year. The rest is sold on. The wines we came away with are 100% Quinta da Almiara and the red is 14% and the white is 13%. Both taste fine.

Jose Constantino bought the vineyards as a going concern in 1980 but has since totally remodelled it and expanded it to 180 hectares. All 4 million litres of the wine they produce is made with home grown grapes and there are now three generations of the family working in the business. Good luck to them.

We stayed in the Van on the estate and awoke after a quiet night’s sleep to the most beautiful sunset…