Cascais, 25km west of Lisbon where the Rio Tejo meets the sea, is summed up by the Rough Guide as “A major resort bursting at the seams in summer!” That’s true. It has three sandy beaches located around a sheltered horseshoe bay; there is a marina and a harbour. The old town and the fish market have retained enough of their traditional atmosphere to appeal to visiting tourists. And yes, the nightlife is lively, maybe livelier than Blackpool!
Rough Guide goes on to say: “The main bars that make Cascais tick are situated in the pedestrianised area. From midnight onwards, bleary-eyed drinkers dance and shout the words to tunes they never realised they knew!”
Having stated the obvious, it is an elegant town, less ostentatious than Estoril (a few kilometres further east down the coast), and gracefully upmarket. Much of the older architecture has been impressively restored.
It was inevitable, when the royal court moved to Cascais in 1870 for the summer season, that the aristocracy would follow. A palace was created by Dom Luís from the old citadel, and over the next three decades majestic mansions were built on the western edge of the original village. Today the Parque Municipal da Gandarinha is surrounded by many of these beautiful and historic buildings.
The park is an exquisite space created from the grounds of two splendid homes. It is filled with wonderfully mature trees, herbaceous borders and pristine lawns and lakes. One of the original residences is open to the public and stands on a creek where the sea washes in at high tide.
The Count and Countess of Guimarães, who selected this perfect location to build their home, lived there from 1892. They did not produce heirs, and in the 1920s they gifted the house to the State, complete with its valuable contents, which included an incredible collection of Indo-Portuguese furniture, rare books, bronzes, carpets, Chinese vases and much more.
The continuous expansion of Cascais resulted in many fashionable homes designed by prestigious architects of the time. One local businessman of Irish descent – Jorge Torlades O’Neill – invested heavily in real estate. The home he built as a wedding gift for his daughter is now a fascinating tile museum where visitors can attempt to make their own azulejos. Next door, there are the remnants of a fort that later became a lighthouse; it is now a museum that tells the history of its own conversion.
Another rather quaint municipal museum at the northern end of the park is dedicated to Portugal’s penultimate king, Dom Carlos, and his interest in the sea. He was a rather wayward king who, alongside a string of mistresses, also liked to examine unusual local marine life. Preserved in jars of formaldehyde – that’s the sea creatures, not the women – there is the incessant cry of seagulls played across the museum’s sound system. Stuffed birds displayed in painted panoramas, a collection of model boats, sea-related artifacts, old costumes and sepia-toned photographs relate to a time a century ago.
A major place of interest in Cascais is the Casa das Histórias Paula Rego Collection. She is Portugal’s most celebrated living artist and her museum contains the largest permanent exhibition of her work, including paintings, collages, tapestries and sculptures. Seen in chronological order, it maps out her artistic development from the 1960s to the 2000s. In the last room is her most recent series, Female Genital Mutilation, a representation that is both powerful and moving.
Throughout the whole of this period she expresses extreme emotions using a figurative approach. These passionate feelings were shaped by her childhood and early adult years, growing up in Portugal where the rigidity of living under a dictatorial regime was patriarchal and Catholic. Eventually moving to London with her English husband, she began to achieve commercial success in the 1980s. The highest auction record for her work was £1.1 million, achieved at Sotheby’s in 2015.
There are many futuristic residential buildings in Cascais, but the gallery/museum containing Paula Rego’s art is one of Portugal’s most distinguished modern constructions. Designed by the acclaimed architect Souto de Moura, it is a masterpiece that enhances the park.
Nearby, the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Assunção has a simple exterior and remarkable interior. The altar is intricately carved and vividly decorated with gold-leaf; the azulejos survived the earthquake of 1755, as did the painted ceiling. On the walls, a series of 17th century paintings feature the talents of Josefa d’Óbidos, one of few female artists of that time. Unlike Rego’s contempt for the Catholic Church, Josefa became a leading practitioner of religious art, depicting scenes of the holy family. Her life story is as colourful as her art. It is a tranquil church recommended for quiet contemplation.
Beyond the hustle and bustle of the beaches, bars and cafés there is much to see and do in Cascais. It has considerably more culture than many other seaside resorts.