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.