Shakes, sardines and sandcastles

22:14, Mar 26 2013
FAIRYTALE: Portugal's Summer Palace in Sintra looks like an outpost of Disneyland.

Lisbon's summer town of Sintra has beaches, cobbled lanes, and crazy buildings.

Either there's something very special about Cascais sand, or some secret ingredient is involved. I study the elaborate sandcastle on the beach below the promenade, a coin-scattered cloth laid in front of it with "thank you" scrawled on it in a dozen languages, and suspect the latter. The edges are too sharp and neat - and who has ever been able to make trees out of sand, even solid knobbly cypresses, and have them stay intact all day under a bright sun?

Nature's had some sophisticated help here, just like Cascais itself. Originally a simple fishing village 28 kilometres from Portugal's capital, Lisbon, it was discovered by royalty in 1870 and rapidly became the gentry's go-to retreat from the city bustle. Now its three little sandy beaches are scattered with buff bodies, the cobbled lanes are crowded with cafe tables, Hotel Miragem Cascais has a degustation menu to die for, and in the elegant Hotel Palacio in adjoining Estoril, spies from both sides hung out during the war and Ian Fleming wrote Casino Royale in the bar.

RATTLING RIDE: A tram winds through the narrow cobbled lanes of Lisbon's ancient Alfama suburb.

The town is still true to its origins, however, with lobster pots stacked at one end of the main beach, and as soon as the catch arrives at market trays of sardines and flounder jerk along the conveyor belt under the critical eyes of local restaurateurs. Although the smell is authentically fishy, these days buyers silently click remotes and check the screen above instead of shouting out their bids as they used to.

There's more noise and activity outside in the busy square with its disorienting wave-patterened cobbles and in the park where, alongside a jingling old-fashioned carousel, an antiques market attracts a steady stream of browsers.

Up the hill the steep, narrow lanes reward the curious with pretty painted tile and stucco houses and sudden views out over the blue Atlantic; below, the harbour bobs with red and green fishing boats while fancy white yachts are moored in the marina below the sheer walls of the 15th- century citadel. Alongside the river we see a lovely turreted chateau with striped tiles, and we're startled when we're told it's "a heart museum"; then we realise that charmingly Portuguese-accented English attaches an h to words starting with vowels. There's another museum of art, by Paula Rego, in a strikingly modern building beyond a little park where, in this strongly Catholic country, I watch a woman shoo pigeons away from a statue of John Paul II, then fondly kiss his robe.


A short ride away on a free-to- use bike, the surf rolls in at Guincho Beach, internationally famous. The waves, though, are empty when we drive past on our way to Sintra, stopping 150 metres above the sea at Cabo da Roca near the lighthouse for a spectacular view both ways along the rocky coast, Europe's westernmost point.

BEHIND, in the hills, World Heritage-listed Sintra is eye-popping, too. It's bizarre, fantastical, dreamlike, the village an extravagant collection of chateaus, castles and manors all with towers, turrets, domes, balconies and pillars. Each building is crazier than the last, until we arrive at the Palacio da Pena, which eclipses them all. A combination of palace and castle in yellow and red, it looks like an outpost of Disneyland: there are colours and patterns everywhere, carved and painted animals, statues, stairways, minarets, battlements, and ornamental watchtowers that were clearly built on a whim.

In fact, the whole building is a whim of Ferdinand II, who bought the original monastery in 1838 and redesigned it in the Romantic style as his summer palace.

It's Moorish, medieval and mad, inside and out, with no detail unconsidered or expense spared. If it was exotic, Ferdinand had to have it: so the approach to the entrance is lined by plantings of cabbage trees and flax, and in pride of place in an inner courtyard is a fresh green tree- fern, growing in an oversized stone scallop shell sitting on the backs of three tortoises.

Inside, the self-indulgent theme continues in room after room. Queen Amelia's bedroom includes a red velvet portable bidet; a wall in the sitting-room of grandson Carlos is covered in his incomplete paintings of nude women; and there is so much trompe-l'oeil woodgrain and stone throughout that we come to suspect everything. It's like a set for the Arabian Nights; and it's a delight in all its elaborate and often astonishing detail.

DOWN the hill, another of Sintra's treasures is the National Palace, occupied since Napoleonic times, and summer residence to all the kings of Portugal until it became a republic in 1910. Despite its distinctive conical towers, it's a more restrained, elegant place, though still intricately decorated with paint and tiles, barley-sugar columns and gold leaf. There are swans, magpies, ships and flowers on the walls and ceilings; a portrait of Catherine of Braganza who introduced the concept of afternoon tea to the English; and the gilded dome of the Blazons Hall is breath-taking.

More subtle, but still impressive, are the panels of hand-painted blue and white tiles on the walls below. Known as azulejos, they've been a feature of Portuguese decoration since the 15th century, and when we return to Lisbon we see them on walls, floors, ceilings. This is quite dangerous, I discover, when I stop to inspect a pretty panel on one building's exterior and have my elbow whacked in the narrow street by a passing tram.

Red, yellow and rattly, it's No 28, popular with tourists for its picturesque route through the Old Town up to the castle on top of the highest of Lisbon's seven hills, a great place to look out from the battlements of the 11th- century keep over the jumbled terracotta tiled roofs below edged by the wide Tagus River.

Though the surrounding district, Alfama, is known for its labyrinth of narrow cobbled lanes and little squares, most of the city is neatly laid out in a grid pattern, a legacy of 1755's great "hurt-quake".

Our guide Carmo tells us of the even more terrible tsunami that followed it, and the final blow of a fire that burnt for five days in the parts of the city not destroyed by the tidal wave.

It was Europe's worst earthquake, estimated at about 8 on the Richter scale, and it's well described in the new Lisboa Story Centre, an interactive museum with realistic animations, models and videos that are particularly chilling for those of us with fresh memories of Christchurch.

It's a relief to go outside into the sunny open space of the huge main square where we sit outside a restaurant and enjoy fresh and fizzy vinho verde, "green wine", with a menu of even fresher fish including, of course, sardines - all the way from Cascais.

The writer travelled courtesy of Turismo de Portugal and Emirates Airlines.

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