When visiting Lisbon it is worthwhile taking a journey on the coastal train from the station at Cais de Sodré on the city’s river bank to the sea-side town of Cascais some 25kms to the west. The Linha de Cascais hugs the coast and on leaving the station and slipping beneath the grand Ponte 25 de Abril bridge, the train immediately passes some of Lisbon’s most iconic monuments and buildings including the Padrão dos Descobrimentos that celebrates Portugals era of discovery. The Palácio de Jerónimo, and the famous Torre de Belém each classified as a UNESCO World Heritage sites. And nearby, the sleek new Museum of Art Architecture and Technology (MAAT) which is linked by a landscaped park to the early 20th century Central Power Station that in its time was the source of electricity for the entire city and is now an exhibition space.
The contrast between the old and the new is striking and perfectly executed. The coast along here is sometimes referred to as ‘The Portuguese Riviera’ and at its centre is the town of Estoril. This affluent town grew as a result of its location as the holiday retreat of Portuguese nobilities. The famous Palácio Estoril Hotel, which opened in 1930, hosted numerous exiles from Europe’s royal families during the War because Portugal remained neutral.
It was also the meeting place of spies and messengers from both the Axis and Allied sides. Ian Fleming, who was a naval intelligence officer during the War, used the hotel as inspiration for his book On Her Majesty´s Secret Service; in fact, scenes from the Bond film of the same name would in later years be filmed there. The looming Casino Estoril which is the focal point of the town is said to have influenced Fleming’s Casino Royale.
The train line ends a short distance away at Cascais, a very attractive town with a horseshoe bay, a beautiful sandy beach, a marina and a fishing harbour. But what is immediately obvious about the town is the abundance of majestic mansions and houses dotted around the place. At least three of these houses were commissioned in the early part of the 20th century by a local business man and dignitary, one Jorge Torlades O’Neill, a descendent of an old Irish dynasty.
A family matters
The most striking of theses houses, simply because of its dramatic seafront location and lighthouse backdrop, is Casa Santa Maria. The house was commissioned by O’Neill as a wedding present for his daughter in 1902 and was designed by the architect Raul Lina. It was aquired by the Espírito Santo family in 1934 because as Marta Espírito Santo, Head of International Relations at Quintela + Penalva, explains: “My grandfather bought the house because it faced my grandmother’s house. We’ve always called the house Santa Marta because of its location ‘enseada Santa Marta’. It was in my family for 70 years and we were lucky to have a house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean”. The magnificent beautiful house was acquired by the municipality in 2004 and is now a museum which houses a superb tile collection. The adjacent lighthouse, Farol de Santa Marta, has also been renovated and includes its own museum designed by the Portuguese architect Aires Mateus. A new radio station called Lusophonica now broadcasts live from a café in between the two monuments.
Before leaving Cascais, there is another building that is well worth a visit is just a stone’s throw away from the town’s centre. It is called Casa das Histórias Paula Rego. Completed in 2009, it was designed by the acclaimed Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura and houses an exhibition of the works of the visual artist Paula Rego. But it is more than just a exhibition space; the design and colours of the buildings and its respectful inclusion in the landscape are stunning. Souto de Moura collaborated with another acclaimed Portuguese architect, Álvaro Siza Vieira, in the design of the Pavilhão de Portugal for Expo ‘98.
The remarkable feature of Casa das Histórias Paula Rego is an enormous suspended concrete ‘blade’ roof that weighs 1,400 tonnes and appears to hover between two buildings.
A diferente chord
Souto de Moura´s home city of Porto is the location of one of the countries most distinctive modern buildings. A Casa da Música, designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, was inaugurated in 2005 and has been described as “one of the most important concert halls built in the past 100 years”. The building is entirely dedicated to music and not used for any other purpose. Its polygon shape make it unique as it appears to teeter on its base. There are two walls of glass and through one of these walls an open space is covered in tiles, designed to be visible from street level outside. Of course, Porto is famous for its azulejo-decorated buildings – most notably São Bento train station, Porto Cathedral, Igreja do Carmo and Capela das Armas, the latter situated right beside Bolhão metro station, where the design reflects the azulejos on the Capela but in monochrome white – another design by Eduardo Souto de Moura.
Blending a building into the landscape can be difficult but not if you already have a sizeable portion of the building jutted out of the earth already. This is the case of Casa do Penedo or The Stone House of Fafe which is a dwelling sandwiched amongst four enormous boulders. It was originally constructed as a holiday home but is now a small museum and a growing visitor attraction. It is located in the northern district of Braga. Further towards the centre of the country near Idanha A Nova is the village of Monsanto where houses are also built into the rocks of the landscape. This amazing place was named ´The most Portuguese Village in Portugal’ in 1938 which is a bizarre claim as there is nowhere else to compare it to.
Another curious location that makes it unique because of its buildings, is the coastal village of Costa Nova near Aveiro. The colourful candy- striped houses on the sea shore were originally built as shelters for the nets and equipment of the local fishermen who came to this ‘new coast’ in the late 1880s, but eventually the huts expanded into accommodation for the fishermen and their families.
Closer to home is a house that has a connection to fishing although it was built by a fishing industrialist with a canning empire and not a simple fisherman scraping a living out of the ocean. Vila da Nossa Senhora das Dores was built to serve as the family home for the business man António Júdice de Magalhães Barros in 1918 and situated on a wonderful cliff top setting.
The magnificent building is now better known as the splendid Bela Vista Hotel in Praia da Rocha. It became an hotel in 1934 and is a curious reflection of its counterpart, The Palácio in Estoril, being a popular destination for members of Europe´s royal families and celebrities. The ubiquitous spies congregated here as well during the war. After all, the Algarve was not far from the action in Gibraltar, North Africa and the Mediterranean sea.
Amongst the hotel’s many illustrious guests were the Finnish hero and statesman, Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim; the progressive Brazilian president and founder of Brasília, Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira; and long-time Cascais resident, the last king of Italy, Umberto II. The parallels between the glamorous lifestyles both here in the remote south of the country and the prosperous north at the time are noteworthy but were also out of reach for most people.
Fortunately today there is a robust wealth of talent in both design and architecture here in Portugal that is creating inspirational buildings and homes that rate amongst the finest in the world. Here is an art form that can be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone and everyone.
Words: Brian Redmond