In August this year, in the middle of a pan-European heat wave, we embarked on what is fast attaining the status of a tradition: our annual villa holiday. Eight friends; one week; no rules! Wait…no, I think that’s the tagline of a film I saw recently. Scrap that. Anyway, our destination this year was Cascais, a small town on the Estoril Coast, a half-hour train ride from Lisbon.
Once a small fishing village, and latterly home to members of the Hungarian, Spanish and Italian royal families exiled after World War II, Cascais is now a popular holiday destination for both foreign tourists and locals. It has a pretty harbour, plenty of fish restaurants and small coves for sunbathing and swimming. We spent a few hours on the first day on the beach near the Farol de Santa Marta lighthouse and a similar length of time on Praia da Rainha on the last day, but the coves were busy and the Atlantic sea cold, so we actually preferred hanging out around the villa pool. We did, however, enjoy a day on Praia do Guincho, a surfing beach about 5km from Cascais. Making camp by the dunes at the back of the long stretch of sand, we spent the day relaxing, eating, reading, investigating the giant beached jellyfish, and catching rays. Rob donned his wetsuit and braved the waves, but despite being initially quite gung-ho, I chickened out when I saw the size of the swell. The rest of us had a go at body-boarding, finding it much easier to catch a wave than on our last attempt in Devon, but mainly kept our distance from the pounding waves and aquaplaned in the shallows. We returned to the villa with red, wind-beaten cheeks, salty hair and big grins on our faces!
Sintra proved to be a highlight of the trip. We travelled by taxi as always, since the taxis in Portugal are incredibly cheap and incredibly prompt (seemingly anticipating our calls, we’d find them already waiting for us by the time we got to the end of the driveway). The drivers in our group were pleased they hadn’t had to navigate the winding roads up through the nature park, and by the time we reached the Pena National Palace we were up in the clouds. Pena is considered to be one of the best examples of 19th-century Romanticism in the world. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and boasting a small but impressive chapel from the middle ages, the palace began life as a small sanctuary for monks but was transformed into a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family by King Ferdinand in the 19th century. The brightly-coloured palace, with its various arches, terraces and courtyards is really interesting to look around. And the nearby Castelo dos Mouros, an 8th century Moorish castle, is in some ways even more remarkable, enjoying panoramic views over the area. After a respectable amount of walking up and around the turrets, we worked our way down through the park to the town for a late lunch at Tasca do Xico, where we shared a range of local dishes and our first pastel de nata pastry of the trip (many more would follow!).
Of course, we also visited Lisbon, the oldest city in Western Europe and the de facto capital of Portugal (having never been officially confirmed as such: good pub quiz factoid). I think the city has a lot to recommend it; unfortunately, we chose the hottest day of the trip, making sight-seeing a bit of a chore. I had to kerb my usual instincts to pound the streets, particularly after a near-fainting episode at lunchtime, brought on – no doubt – by the attempt to drink Albariño whilst dehydrated. We still managed to fit plenty in though, including a trip on the distinctive yellow N28 tram to the old district of Alfama. Up on the hill, we visited the Castelo de São Jorge, another Moorish castle commanding views over the city and Tagus river below. Dozens of majestic peacocks, some featured in my recent ‘Cocks & ‘Hens post, wandered the grounds and we also saw some beautiful birds of prey. From the top of the turrets, you can see down the river to Cristo-Rei (Christ is King), a large statue on the opposite bank that’s modelled on Christ the Redeemer in Rio. It was erected after World War II, as a reminder that the city managed to escape the worst effects of the conflict.
In the afternoon, after succumbing and buying a gorgeous handmade tile at a little shop near the cathedral, we jumped on a train to Belém, famous as the place from which many of the great Portuguese explorers set off on their voyages. In particular, it is the point from which Vasco da Gama departed for India and Pedro Álvares Cabral left for Brazil in the 15th century. The tall and very impressive Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) can be found on the bank of the Tagus, adorned with 33 figures (monarchs, explorers, cartographers, artists, and missionaries) from the Portuguese age of exploration. We also visited the stunning gothic church in Jerónimos Monastery, walked through the Praça do Império gardens and popped in briefly to the modern art gallery at Centro Cultural, where you can see one of Salvador Dalí’s lobster phones and works by Warhol. Phew, I’m feeling faint again just rehearsing all that back!
The night after, we returned to Lisbon to eat in 100 Maneiras in Bairro Alto. Chris – owner of Number 22 (one of the best restaurants in London) – had recommended it, so we knew we were on safe ground. There’s only one choice: the 10-course tasting menu. Forgive me for being boring, but the food was so delicious and unusual, I have to list the courses: we started with a clothesline of dehydrated codfish (literally; complete with little pegs); then moved on to octopus nuggets; an oyster, kiwi and passion fruit cocktail; salmon sashimi with a basil sorbet; foie gras lasagne; fresh water fish with a chlorophyll and lime risotto; raspberry Poncha with lime meringue; pigeon in ras el hanout and coconut in a beetroot sauce; watermelon soup with goats cheese and caramelized figs; and finally a deconstructed nata with coffee toffee dust. I’m unlikely to ever have a more interesting meal, unless I make it to The Fat Duck. We had an amazingly haughty sommelier, who looked at Mim with utter disdain when she tried to order a glass of red wine too early in the night and who walked away completely when Steph ordered a peach juice, but he was very funny and all the waiters made it a really relaxed affair. I’d really recommend it, if you’re in the city. It was late by the time we left the restaurant, so we didn’t have time to explore the fado bars of Bairro Alto before the last train back, but popped into a bar for the largest and strongest tequila-based cocktail ever, and subsequently felt rather worse-for-wear the next day!
Despite eating out in some lovely restaurants and enjoying the sights, the best part of the holiday was definitely the communal barbeques in the villa. Thanks to Jumbo, the super-sized supermarket in the centre of Cascais, we got lots of great value meat and seafood (including a 2kg bag of fresh prawns for under €10) and cooked up a feast twice during the trip. With Rob and Laura on ‘Team Charcoal’ and Paul on ‘Team Gas’, we ate royally – pork kebabs, steak, the aforementioned prawns, mounds of pesto pasta salad (courtesy of Nick, of course), heirloom tomatoes, grilled asparagus and other roasted veg. Yum, yum, yum! Sat out late with candles under the lemon and bougainvillea trees, drinking wine and laughing (lots) with a great bunch of friends, I felt incredibly fortunate. Incidentally, the house – Birre Villa – was great; definitely the best one we’ve stayed in on this type of holiday. A fantastic trip!