It’s been several weeks now since we took a bus from Sintra to Cascais to stay with Jules, Rita’s traveling companion and President You-Know-Who’s personally appointed ambassador to the International Animal Kingdom. After being in Sintra, Cascais felt like clearing the sinuses, the chance to loosen the waist cincher after the formal dinner. Like when you were a child and your mother made you dress up to go to church, how you felt after it was over and got to change back into your regular clothes. I could go on like this but you get the idea.
Though it claims some of the same trappings as Sintra, Cascais is really just a friendly laid back beach town that manages to avoid Sintra’s pomposity and pretension. Where Sintra is Portugal Disney, Cascais is Portugal Lite, or maybe Portugal Jersey Shore for them as knows what that means. I gotta hand it to the Portuguese, they know a good thing when they see it. In Cascais, they’ve created a destination for people who want to visit a foreign country but don’t want it to be really foreign.
Nobody in Cascais speaks Portuguese. We spent a week there and I’m not sure we heard the native language more than a half-dozen times. The waiters and store keepers all speak German, English, French, Spanish and maybe even Italian; but I wonder if they remember how to speak Portuguese – maybe their mothers make them speak it at home.
In fact, we met a man named Bertie, or Birdie, I never found out which, a Portuguese native who moved to the US as a teen and lived there for several decades. He admits that, coming back to Portugal after all that time, he indeed had forgotten the language and it took him months to get it back. He still feels unequipped to use Portuguese in business settings.
For my part, after a week in Cascais, I forgot what little Portuguese I had learned up to then for want of practice. I just kept repeating “The turtle sleeps under the pillow,” the last thing I could remember from my lessons.
Mostly we heard a lot of British accents. I suspect some Brits may think of Cascais as part of the UK. Is it possible that when King Charles II of England married Catherine of Braganza 1662, this was already in his mind?
“This union will benefit our great country for centuries to come. Not only will it give us access to lots of sweet wines, but we will finally have a sandy beach for people to visit on weekends, instead of those filthy stretches of rock we have around here.”
Never having been to the UK, I can’t comment on it; but hearing all those people in Cascais speaking with English accents gave me a serious case of dislocation. To my American ear they all sound fake. They sound like they’re making it up, like when Americans imitate English accents to make fun of snobbishness. I couldn’t get used to the fact that people really talk like that.
On the other hand, I found the range of accents fascinating. I’ve read that the English are traditionally protective of local speech because it gives them a greater sense of place and home but costs less than a T-shirt with their home town name.
From listening to them in Cascais, it sure sounds like they have more different dialects than anywhere else. I can believe they’re able to tell from hearing someone where that person lives within a few kilometers. I’ve been watching BBC television programs most of my life, but I never heard some of these accents.
Coincidentally, I recently ran across a New Yorker reprint from a couple years ago stating that since the whole concept of tourism was invented by Thomas Cook in 1841, Brits have become the most touristy people in the world. Reportedly, upwards of 56 million of them go abroad every year, possibly to escape their own weather; and, the author comments, “I would wager that more of my countrymen have seen the inside of Faro Airport than have seen the inside of York Minster or Lincoln Cathedral.”
The piece also describes British travelers as pretty raucous and alcohol-fueled. At the time of the article, Croatia was the favorite destination for hordes of young Englishpersons whose idea of sightseeing was spilling out of bars on a round the clock basis. They were all said to be dressed in “Morphsuits”, which I gather are some kind of inflatable Halloween costume for so-called adults. I guess they’re inflatable to keep them from hurting themselves when they pass out.
This is all ironic since the aforementioned Thomas Cook started his travel business as an evangelical Christian missionary escorting groups to temperance rallies. In any case, all we saw in Cascais were nice, normal family groups and couples. The Brits were all very pleasant people — they just talked funny.
We met Birdie at the dogpark a couple of blocks from Rita’s apartment where the canines are let off leash to chase each other around, steal tennis balls from each other and wrestle to their hearts’ content. Jules is part of a gang of Labrador Retrievers who get together every day pretending to be the dominant breed, although none of the other dogs pay any attention to them.
The dog owners have their own club; they’re all very friendly, they know whose dog is whom and stand around chatting while the animals play. Sure enough, though, whenever we showed up, they switched mid-sentence into English.
Like Sintra, Cascais is chock full of tour bus loads marching along the boulevard; but here, at least, the boulevard is big enough to accommodate everyone. We saw a lot of Chinese and Japanese groups tromping around with cameras draped from straps around their necks.
Cascais has its share of public spaces, like the expansive municipal park with its private zoo and the Museu de Castro Guimares, which like a similar site in Sintra is an eccentric mansion owned by a nineteenth century industrialist and decorated by an Opera set designer. There’s also the Casa das Histórias which, despite its name, is an art gallery devoted to the work of Paula Rego, a contemporary Portuguese artist whose work has ranged from Surrealism to a style of feminist themed cartooning.
We highly recommend the Museu Do Mar, which is about the sea and Portugal’s fishing heritage. It also features the story of Don Carlos — not the reggae singer of that name but King Carlos I, who ruled the country from 1889 to 1908. Carlos was a devotee of oceanographic research who financed several expeditions to map the ocean floor and catalogue its multitude of organisms. He was also an excellent artist of sea life with a number of illustrations and paintings hanging in the museum. Unfortunately, he was assassinated by a couple of radicals while traveling through Lisbon in a carriage.
The beaches are conveniently located, or rather the town has located itself conveniently on the beaches, so you can walk the whole way from one end of town to the other and choose your piece of sand. The shoreline has several beautiful spots; but the water, emptying out of the Tagus River after flowing past Lisbon, is polluted. Makes me nostalgic for the New Jersey shore, where the all-time favorite beach game is “Count the used hospital syringes washing up in the surf.”
If you want to go swimming near Lisbon, I strongly recommend our own Setúbal, where the water in the Sado estuary is clear and the river bottom golden. The guidebooks recommend sunbathing in Cascais instead of swimming, but the rocky cliffs are pretty spectacular places for clambering over, around and on.
A big draw is the Boca do Inferno, or Mouth of Hell, famous for its “thundering waves . . . carved a wide hole in the cliffs.” Of course, the thundering waves only occur in bad weather when you don’t want to be there anyway, so the mouth of hell is usually more of an irritable whisper. There’s also a plaque there commemorating the 1930 suicide of a well-known occultist, which turned out to be a hoax. I can’t think of many other natural wonders that commemorate fake suicides.
Overall, Cascais’ big advantage is convenience. For example, the restaurants are open from 11:00 AM to 2:00 AM straight through, unlike in Setúbal, aka Our Home Town, where they close from 4:00 – 7:00 PM, aka Our Usual Dinner Time. Because of the tourist trade, there are also a greater variety of restaurants. We ate some great Indian food for here for the first time since leaving the US and also enjoyed a terrific South African place.
The whole area by the sea is lush and beautifully landscaped. As a matter of fact, we wandered through an open gate one day into a virtual Eden of a garden, assuming it had to be a public space, and toward a mansion we figured was a museum. Suddenly, a woman drives up behind us, parks by the building, gets out of her car carrying a bag of groceries, and starts screaming at us while waving the grocery bag threateningly. We think she was screaming in Portuguese but we didn’t wait around to verify that. Obviously having wandered into a private residence, we backed out at top speed while making apologetic gestures.
A 40-minute hike along the ocean brings one to Estoril, a resort area with luxury hotels, two golf courses right next to each other, and a casino in the center of town. I read that Estoril was a hotbed of activity for spies during WWII, due to Portugal’s neutrality; and that Ian Fleming used it as a model for his James Bond novel Casino Royale. In fact, the international character of Cascais and Estoril gives one a little of the feeling of a 50’s movie in which spies try to outwit each other and stab each other in back alleys.
Rita’s apartment is in Cascais’ old town, a nicely preserved enclave of narrow streets and two-to-three story buildings, surrounded by and hidden from the commercial district as though keeping itself a secret. It’s a great place for restaurants so removed from the tourist spots you have to hunt for them. On some streets every other building houses a restaurant, but they’re all unmarked in courtyards behind stone walls. Presumably, they thrive on their regular patrons; but for newbies like us, the way to find them is to wait for sundown and walk down the street. When the shadows start to lengthen they all suddenly turn on the lights to reveal themselves and are immediately filled with the sound of customers. They do nothing else to advertise. I can’t think how anyone knows about them other than word of mouth. This phenomenon is new to us; maybe it’s common elsewhere in Portugal, but we haven’t seen it in Setubal.
At night, the old town is a concert venue playing outside the bedroom window. Groups of drunks in a celebratory mood because their futbol team won; the father of a clan in a family gathering singing off key at the top of his lungs; couples pretending to casual conversation just a little too loudly on their way to consummate their trysts. Then, no sooner does the evening shift end and suddenly it’s 6:00 AM. Delivery trucks grinding through the narrow streets in first gear. Street sweepers with corn brooms coming down the street at dawn with a steady “Swoosh . . . swoosh . . . swoosh,” that you get to listen to as they make their way through the neighborhood. Restaurants emptying their garbage in the public bins on the corner. Chattering kids bursting out of their houses ready to take on the world. Birds, cats, dogs calling out to the sunrise . . . .
So, we’re lying in bed listening to all this and we hear the patter of paws padding around the apartment. Jules is definitely an early to bed early to rise kind of girl. Promptly at nine PM she disappears to her doggie bed, flops down and goes out like a light. Conversely, at six AM, we hear her telltale “PHOOSH!” announcing she’s in imminent need of a morning constitutional. If no one gets the hint, she starts licking bare toes.
The couple of nights Barbara and I slept in separate rooms because my back was acting up, we separately and simultaneously jumped out of bed and threw on our clothes in response to Jules’ announcement. Both times, we met in the hallway and looked blearily at each other to determine which of us had first taken possession of the leash. We each got our turns taking her for an early morning romp in the nearby dog park.
All in all, Rita’s neighborhood is a lively place, but the sound sleeper definitely has an edge.
We enjoyed our time in Cascais. If we decide to stay in Portugal permanently after our projected two-year trial period, it would be easy to settle there. It’s convenient and comfortable in that run-down beach town way. On the other hand, it feels a little like cheating — it doesn’t seem like Portugal. Our attitude has been that if we’re going to live in a country, we ought to embrace the language and culture of that country. In Cascais, I’m not sure we’ll keep that sense of place.
We could use it the way Rita does, as a jumping off place from which to explore the rest of the country. Besides, Portugal might change a lot in years to come. The country has staked its future on developing a tourism industry. Who knows but every major town in the country may turn into a Cascais, and that exotic foreign country feel may disappear. The world gets a little smaller every time we pass a McDonalds or read about the German supermarket chain Lidl opening 1000 stores in the USA.
Jules our favorite canine intellectual has a wealth of insight into these issues. However, after I wrote about her once before, she’s demanded prior approval of any future posts. I’m still waiting to hear her response to the latest one.