Monday, July 4, 2011

Cascais: Do it like Bond!

 I enjoy good cinema, the kind that produces magic, whether it portrays reality, fantasy or comedy, but am not a movie-buff rushing to catch the Friday opener. Certainly there’s no testing my patience in front of predictable, uninspiring scripts. Nonetheless there’s one genre, okay one character, whose movies I can view anytime, despite them being awfully predictable and childishly fantastical. The James Bond flicks! It’s the silken ease and finesse with which 007 performs his craft that makes them engaging. Suspense aside, the locales of these films are mouth-watering, having been chosen from amongst the best the globe offers. One of these happened to be Cascais, Portugal, where I was heading with a group of fellow travellers. The Bond-connection made it the pick of the itinerary for me.   
A little-heard place outside of Europe, some parts of Bond’s ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ were shot here. And it didn’t take long to know why. Picturesque and brilliant as an ocean-side can be, Cascais appeared made-to-order as an  escape that let’s you truly unwind. Its sun, sand, surf, song and salubrious air has been reason enough to draw them all: royalty, nobility, celebrity and the Joneses. 
Those attributes aside what I found most attractive was it being a lovely train-ride away, all of 30 minutes, from the capital sights of Lisbon (Lisboa to the Portuguese). What's more, for the major part of the journey the rail track runs along the Atlantic Ocean. It couldn’t get better than that, could it! Though I stay away from comparing places, I can’t resist asking you to visualise Goa being a few km beyond Delhi. If the mere thought is relaxing you’ll know why Lisboans cannot be found at home on the weekend. 
Our Portuguese host Ana, a loyal Lisboan who’s now relocated to Holland, shared her childhood memories of cycling and walking along the ocean, from the outskirts of Lisbon, to Cascais (25 km). “Oh! I do miss the trail. Those were wonderful times,” she reminisced. “It would seem the whole city was moving out. Surf-boards, beach-umbrellas, cycles, boats etc stacked atop cars or as baggage in trains was a common sight.” 
It appeared quite similar to us as we boarded the commuter train at Cais do Sodre train station in Lisbon. The seater coaches were delightfully packed with feisty passengers in beach-wear, with a lot of them carrying gear Ana had mentioned. Apart from handful tourists like us, the majority were locals, clearly reflecting the ‘sussegado’ temperament of the Portuguese, the carefree legacy of theirs that’s happily stereotyped the Goans too. When travelling by train to Cascais, there’s a grab for seats on the left of the aisle, quite simply as the ocean borders that end.  We were a little late in boarding the train and had to be content peeping over shoulders to view the aqua spread. Very sportingly those seated by the windows would shift around to let us catch a glimpse, with some graciously offering to swap places. The Portuguese are disarmingly friendly and it’s their warm, welcoming spirit that leaves a lasting impression.
Ana wanted us to experience the joys of walking on her favourite path, flanking the ocean, and made us hop out at Estoril station, two stops before the destination. Estoril is the twin city of Cascais and a 4-km waterfront pathway connects the two. Walking towards Cascais turned out to be very leisurely, with views of the ocean being constantly impressive and beaches filled with sunbathers and sun-shades providing immense colour. Of what I recalled from the Bond flick, Estoril was shown to be a spot famous for its casinos. Ana confirmed casinos remained the biggest draw of the town and pointed out the location where scenes of the film were shot; at the five-star Hotel Palacio, almost adjoining the famous Estoril Casino, amongst the largest in Europe. 
The Estoril coast was pretty but Cascais certainly exuded more appeal, coyly flaunting itself as one of those postcard-perfect beach towns, all cosy, compact and cosmopolitan. It was our ‘day-off’, so to speak, after a hectic tour of Portugal and the agenda for the day was to relax by the ocean. It would have been worthwhile to spot some city sights (see fact file) but on the flipside there was a definite charm in being a local on foreign shores and not go tick-marking. And we did that quite spectacularly by settling ourselves in a buzzing open-air café by a cliff, where we lazily—oh! sussegado is so, so contagious—tucked into succulent Portuguese marine food. We ordered quite a variety and our tables were soon bursting with vibrant platters of gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns), ameijoas a bulhao pato (fried clams), robalinho grelhado (grilled bass), pescada c molho camarao (hake with prawn sauce), and yes, febras de praco na brasa (grilled pork scallops). Sangria was sipped as an accompaniment even as the eyes dreamily drank in glorious views of the vast, sapphire Atlantic. Near us a fado singer strummed his guitar and belted out quick numbers to add distinct flavour to the afternoon.    
Post-lunch the historic city centre beckoned. It was typically old-world with elegant pedestrian pathways typically cobbled with beige-black stone blocks recreating wave patterns. Inviting souvenir and apparel shops, snug bistros, lively restaurants, colourful houses with quaint balconies and trailing bougainvilleas lined the paved paths making the montage picturesque. The royals of Europe had found Cascais an ideal getaway and many had villas here. At present it’s the address for the rich and famous, and their luxurious properties dot town. Many can be spotted browsing around and sometimes are roped in by fans for a photograph, just as a popular Portuguese television anchor was when we were wandering the markets. A lot of Bangladeshi nationals have set up shops here and one of them gave me a generous discount on my purchases on account of being “neighbours back home”. Most cotton-attire stalls were retailing the ‘Made in India’ label and it was heart-warming to see bit of your country and its neighbourhood around.      
Back on the train we had a new lot of passengers. This time around there were tanned bodies and composed faces. The thought of going back to work the next day after a splendid seaside holiday universally makes everyone exhausted. If wishes were horses... the return journey would have had nobody on board. Cascais is one of those sort of places you would never want to leave. Else, Bond would not have been here!  

Quick Facts: 
Air: Lisboa International Airport, 25 km from Cascais, has daily flights to and from hubs of Europe that connect with India. 
Train ( Cascais is reached by a breezy journey from Cais do Sodre train station in Lisbon. (This station is the final stop on the Green Metro Line). 
Road: Connected with the A5 highway and the scenic EN 6, the national marginal road along the ocean.  
City sights: Museu do Mar (Museum of the Sea); Museu do Castro Guimaraes (housed in a mansion of the Counts of Castro Guimaraes); Forte de St Jorge;  Boca do Inferno, a stunning cliff ; Church do Nossa Senhora da Assuncao (decorated with 17th-century paintings of artist Josefa de Obidos); Guincho beach, featured in the Bond flick and a haven for surfers
Published in JetWings International, July 2011 

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