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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Portugal: Bussaco and the Lisbon Coast

The 18th Century poet Oliver Goldsmith wrote: "I love everything that's old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wines." I loved old Portugal. I began my sojourn there in Lisbon (last week's column) and after a few days there, my wife and I drove out of the city, north, following the signs to Sintra.
Sintra, a favorite summer retreat of Portugal's kings, is a quaint, tourist packed village, with interesting hillside shops selling local linens, china, and pottery. The main attraction in the center of town is the National Palace of Sintra, with a gothic façade, unique landmark conical chimneys, but unremarkable interiors compared to other palaces. In the distance, above the town, you can see the battlements of an 8th century Moorish castle. Drive on to the highest peak in Sintra, up more tortuous roads, to Sintra's more interesting and grander Palace of Pena. Completed in 1885, it is a wonderful eclectic mix of architecture and interior design.
We headed on toward central Portugal, stopping at Mafra to see its massive 18th century convent-palace-cathedral, built by Portugal's most decadent king, Joao V, allegedly to attone for his sexual excesses. It was here that the last king of Portugal, Manuel II, was residing when he was forced to flee the revolution that deposed him in 1910. Our guide through the long corridors and staterooms of the palace was a matronly woman who spoke only Portuguese. I speak Spanish and while the Portuguese language reads like Spanish, it sounds harsh and guttural, more like Russian than any romance language, and to me was virtually incomprehensible. The tour took an hour and disappointingly ended with but a brief view of its best attraction - one of the most magnificent libraries in the world, a two tiered football field length of exotic wood shelves housing thousands of rare books under an ornately carved arched roof.
The road north had head turning views as we passed the castle of Obidos; the medieval abbey of Alcobaca, Portugal's largest church; the Gothic monastery of Batalha: and the city of Coimbra with its heights marked by the bell tower of its university, one of the world's oldest, founded in 1290.
Just two kilometers from the quaint town of Luso - famous for its thermal spas and "curative" mineral water, we found our destination, and the most charming, peaceful, and remarkable accommodations of our stay in Portugal, the Bussaco Palace Hotel (351-231-93-01-01, double room with breakfast, $125). This century old former hunting palace of the last Portuguese king is surrounded by 250 acres of walled forest and rare flora with a scattering of manmade fountains, pools, and lakes, and a multitude of meditative walking trails. The palace has been described as "a mythical architectural fantasy." Designed by the Italian architect, Luigi Manini, he incorporated ideas from Portuguese monasteries, Bavarian castles, and even the Doge's palace in Venice. Many of the hotel's 64 rooms look out upon the intricately designed Florentine formal gardens with swans floating in an adjacent pond. And this is your view as well from an intimate formal dining patio with ornate and uniquely carved stone columns and arches. A royal ambience with equally royal service. There is great history here as well. The adjoining chapel and monastery were Wellington's headquarters in the Battle of Bussaco in 1810 where he defeated Napoleon's General Messina. Staying at the Bussaco Palace Hotel is evocative of the grand life of a long gone era.
We spent our last days in Portugal in Cacais, a Portuguese Riviera, just a half hour train ride from Lisbon and an hour and a half freeway drive south of Bussaco. Our Hotel Albatroz (21-483-28-21, double room with breakfast, $135) was easily visible as we turned into Cacais from the main highway. It also sits within an easy walk from the train station. The Albatroz is a small, welcoming, and well appointed 46-room hotel with a touch of oriental décor. It's pool and balconied rooms overlook a small grotto and the sandy beaches of the beautiful Estoril coast. Yachts, sailboats, small speed boats bob in the harbor. Three kilometers of sandy beach connect Cacais to Estoril to the east, another resort town, famed as the home of exiled royalty, including the last kings of Italy, Romania, and Austria-Hungary. You can stroll along the beachfront between the towns, walking the stone promenade past cafes and concrete tiers for seating and sunbathing that dip into the sea. Modern apartments, elegant hotels, and turn of the last century mansions line the coast. Just inland from Estoril's beachfront is Casino Estoril, the largest casino in Europe. While not comparable to the most elegant competition in Vegas, the casino is nevertheless grand, crowded with players pushing "escudos" into hundreds of slots. Upstairs are the gaming tables. Your passport and a minimal fee are required to enter. Dress here is formal. You must wear a jacket. But if you don't have one, they'll loan you a tuxedo jacket. There's a European elegance to a gaming area with an all-tuxedoed clientele. And while there's roulette and blackjack, the premier high stakes gamble here is called "French Bank," a high-low dice game.
Our last day in Portugal was spent exploring the shops in Cacais and watching the fishermen repair their nets at day's end. We had dinner at the Biera Mar (Rua das Flores, 6). While it is renowned for its fish, we particularly enjoyed our company. We listened to the travel tales of a British couple in their 70's. Since retiring 15 years earlier, they related how each year was split in time spent in their home in London, a condo in La Jolla, and a beachside village in an unspoiled area of the Algarve, Portugal's warm southern coast. And each year, before the rage of summer heat, they drove leisurely back to England through Portugal, Spain, and France. Each year a different route. Cacais was but one of their stops this year. As they regaled us with the places they had been, the sights seen, the hotels enjoyed, I realized anew that my trek through the world, and through Portugal, was far from complete. But the joy of anticipation remains, for there are endless places still to visit and stories to write.