Portugal’s national football team might have plodded to Euro victory in the most boring fashion imaginable, but the country’s Atlantic resorts of Estoril and Cascais more than compensate, providing the kind of spark and excitement their players were sadly lacking (not that we can talk).
From the historic setting of Penha Longa Resort – Ritz-Carlton’s hotel in the lush mountains occupying the site of a former monastery – I had a taste of the Portuguese experience in three fantastic days, kicking off with a tarte de nata, or three.
Penha Longa, or ‘long rock’, offers golf, spa treatments and, most appealingly, Michelin-quality food. My travel pal and I were determined to do things properly, so plumped for the tasting menus at both Arola (the restaurant of two Michelin-starred Portuguese chef Sergi Arola) and Midori, which offers modern high-end Japanese cuisine.
Never one to quail at courses running into double figures, I delighted at the various offerings of ‘leche de tigre’ (sadly not real tiger’s milk but a citrus marinade in which slivers of sea bass are ‘cooked’), codfish and beef carpaccio.
Arola’s flavour combinations and mix of textures have earned him acclaim and the patronage of locals and non-residents alike. His snazzier experimental venture LAB was sadly closed during our stay, but if you can time your visit to fit in both (pack forgiving waist-bands) you should.
In this part of Portugal you’re spoiled for top-quality seafood, and on-site Japanese restaurant Midori is among the best you’ll find. The meal included tuna, scallop, squid and, due to a mix up, four desserts, as well as the flowing vinho verde, a Portuguese wine that’s bottled before it’s fully matured.
The former monastery around which the Penha Longa resort was built has been wonderfully restored and maintained, and is a busy venue for weddings and conferences.
When the schedule allows, guests are free to wander through the elegant rooms adorned with typical azulejo, the stunning Arabic-Portuguese glazed tiles. For those who golf, the bedroom terrace offers a great view of the first green.
The development of Cascais was given a boost by Portugal’s neutrality during the Second World War, leading to many of Europe’s exiled royals flocking there. It was the obvious choice for royals on the run as the area was established by the Portuguese royal family as its summer residence in the 1870s.
The proximity of Europe’s brightest families led to a certain amount of one-upmanship when it came to building family homes, the happy and sometimes bizarre result of which can still be seen along the coast.
The wonderfully named Irish/Portuguese merchant Jorge O’Neill built Casa di Santa Maria as his holiday retreat in 1902, though the Disney-princess palace of Condes de Castro Guimarães at the entrance to the town won my heart with its gleaming turrets and stone steps leading down to a pseudo moat.
Estoril, along the coast in the direction of Lisbon, owes its status as a luxury resort to Fausto Figueirdo, a local pharmacist who had the vision to see in the pinewoods behind his house the chance to create a Portuguese Biarritz. The casino was started in 1916 with the grand Palace Hotel following in 1930.
Legend has it (and certainly the den’s patrons would have you believe) that our very own James Bond was inspired by the suave characters who gambled against Ian Fleming at the Casino Estoril.
The highlight of the trip, however, was the bizarre, fascinating and utterly inspirational Quinta da Regaleira.
How to describe this UNESCO World Heritage site? It manages to be a grotto, a palace, a landscaped garden, a grand house, a Templar chapel and a relic of classical antiquity all at the same time. Built by Carvalho Monteiro who made his fortune in Brazil, the estate sits up in the hills above beautiful Sintra, worth an entire day to itself.
Conceived in the early 20th century as an expression of culture in all its forms with emphasis on the Greek myths and legends, the Knights Templar, the occult and masonic rituals, Quinta de Regaleira is a real one-off that has to be seen to be believed.
The centrepiece of the grand gardens is an inverted well hewn out of the rock of the hill, once the site of a chivalric initiation ceremony. The enthusiastically informative guide – if only all my lecturers at university had been this engaging – led us down the 27 metre well to the tunnels below, where we emerged purified and ready to embark on our very own quest.
Which turned out to be consuming yet more seafood. A befitting side note: Quinta was for a short time owned by a Japanese company who used it for private functions (now there’s a team-building excursion I’d actually want to take part in) but it was restored to the local government in the 90s who rightly see it as the diamond in their touristic crown jewels.
Definitely choose the English-language guided tour or you won’t pick up on all the symbolic references, and leave feeling inspired, cleverer and possibly touched with mystical insight. Dan Brown eat your conspiracy-theorist heart out.