About a half hour northwest of Lisbon, even beyond the Belem District, is a coastal area popularly known as the “Portuguese Riviera.” This picturesque stretch of land includes the swanky municipality of Sintra and the beach towns of Cascais and Estoril, among others.
The region’s warm weather and total absence of Nazi Panzer divisions attracted royal families from all over Europe. They chose to “vacation” here for the duration of World War Two, some of whom stayed on for the rest of their now much longer lives.
Portugal has a global reputation as “the home of kings without thrones,” and, whether the cause of their ouster was Nazi invasions, Communist revolutions, or populous uprisings, no less than six European ruling families opted to take early retirement packages and live in exile on Portugal’s beautiful Sun Coast. Spend any amount of time on the Portuguese Riviera, and you’ll quickly understand why.
Want to live on the Portuguese Riviera? Too bad.
The Portuguese Riviera is consistently ranked as one of the wealthiest and most expensive municipalities in the entire Iberian Peninsula. Not surprisingly, it’s also one of the best places to live in Portugal with numerous Michelin star restaurants, and some of the most sought-after properties. Basically, if you want to live in this area, you have to marry into it.
Sintra doesn’t have a beach, but you won’t really care.
Though it’s twenty minutes from the beach—yet, incredibly, still part of the “Greater Lisbon” region (jeez, how big IS that city!)—Sintra is nonetheless a popular tourist destination in itself. Famous for its historic estates, gardens, palaces, and castles, Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must-see stopover for fans of unabashed income inequality.
Bilderberg puts the “sin” in Sintra.
The city of Sintra is well known for hosting numerous cultural and political events, including the secretive and sinister Bilderberg Meetings. These controversial meetings are believed to be part of installing a one-world government, controlled entirely by the world’s elite.
In 1999, the most powerful titans of business and industry gathered at the Penha Longa Resort to plot global domination and the absolute subjugation of all humanity, crushing all resistance beneath their blood-stained jackboots. I think they hold golf tournaments there, too.
Sintra’s real showpiece is the Pena National Palace.
The Pena National Palace looks like something straight out of a fairy tale, one in which a king goes mad—and broke—after hiring and firing an endless procession of architects who each have a different idea of what a castle should look like. At the end of the story, the king’s 3-year-old daughter draws her vision of a castle in crayon, and the king builds that. Watch for the movie adaptation airing on Disney Plus+ soon.
Imbued with Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish, and Renaissance elements, this insane castle’s construction started in 1842 and was mostly complete a mere five years later—no small feat because managing a workforce of Trolls and Ogres isn’t easy, especially when their trade union reps are Goblins.
The castle’s impending inhabitants, King Ferdinand and his wife, Queen Maria II, weighed-in heavily on matters of decoration and symbolism, so it’s pretty clear from the look of the place that neither of them had ever heard the old maxim, “less is more.” Hell, Liberace would’ve found this place a bit over the top.
Even outside this Romanticist palace things get excessive. It’s surrounded by acres of unparalleled park lands, planted with rare and exotic trees, decorated with fountains, watercourses, and a series of ponds, cottages, and chapels—even mock ruins! Walking paths meander throughout the park ensuring that when you get lost (not if), no one will ever find your decomposing corpse.
Pena Palace wasn’t always a palace.
During the Middle Ages, this mountaintop had a simple, small chapel on it which was perfect for looking down on the less pious.
However, as “dudes with shaved heads” became a more popular look, the chapel was enlarged and converted into a monastery. Sometime later, it was transformed into a large pile of smoldering ash and rubble. Finally, the monastery’s remains were replaced with the Lego® Knights Kingdom Royal Castle Set that stands there today.
After finishing construction in 1847, the royal family inhabited their new castle for 42 years. But they tired of making Home Depot runs for Turret & Tower Sealant® every weekend, so they pawned their majestic money-pit off on the Portuguese State who—hoping to recoup the castle’s massive maintenance costs—classified it as a national monument and transformed the palace into a museum for tourists. If you’re staying in Lisbon, the Pena National Palace is definitely worth a gawk.
Cascais is to the Portuguese Riviera what Monaco is to the French one.
Cascais is the relaxed and flabby core of the Portuguese Riviera. A sun-kissed haven for aristocratic Europeans living in exile, this cosmopolitan yet laid-back beach town is famous not just for its golden sand beaches, but also for its manicured parks, upscale shopping, and multitude of restaurants and outdoor cafés. It’s a nice respite from the day-to-day drudgery of State receptions, building openings, ship launchings, and peasant beheadings.
Originally a humble fishing village, Cascais hooked the Board Of Tourism’s “White Whale” in the 1870s when it reeled in the House of Braganza-Saxe-Coburg and Gotha who chose the beach town as their official royal summer retreat. #summeroffun #hangingwithmyroyals
Cascais’ sudden notoriety in High Society circles soon attracted Portugal’s other nobility, which, in turn, attracted price-gouging contractors who built huge, eclectic summer mansions for anyone with title and a family tree that didn’t fork. Sadly, the town’s halcyon days didn’t last forever.
With hemophilia taking out 19th Century royals faster than assassins’ bullets, the original inbred inhabitants of these homes gradually abandoned the Sun Coast over the ensuing decades. By the 1940s, those languishing mansions made Cascais an ideal home-away-from-home for the exiled royal families of Spain, Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria who were “between countries” during World War II.
Today, Cascais is a popular vacation spot for the international jet set as the town hosts many international events, including JesterFest® and So You Think You Can Joust.
Where the Portuguese Riviera ends, abruptly.
When you get to the westernmost edge of this Eurasian land mass, make a point to stop driving or you’ll careen off the cliffs of Cabo da Roca, a mini-version of Ireland’s Cliffs Of Moher. The cliffs are more than 100 meters in height in places, so taking a header over this rocky lands-end pretty much guarantees you’re not getting your rental car security deposit back.
Not far along the Cabo da Roca cliffs is the Boca do Inferno—aka, “Hell’s Mouth”—an arched rock formation where the Atlantic Ocean’s wind and waves rhythmically thrust into the hole, periodically climaxing in an orgasmic explosion of surf and white-water. So maybe leave your kids in the car.
Boca do Inferno’s unique arch shape generates a very audible and very unnerving wail that sounds like the cries of a thousand tortured souls. The haunting howl is rumored to be coming from unfortunates who’d been swept off the cliffs to their untimely deaths, but is most likely coming from one of those fake plastic rock speakers.
Estoril, Portugal is the birthplace of Bond, James Bond.
If you leave Cascais walking due-east along a scenic promenade for about two miles, you’ll collapse from heat prostration about the time you get to Estoril, yet another attractive beach town on the Portuguese Riviera.
Besides acres of golden sand, Estoril ups its ante with tranquil neighborhoods of cobble-stone, tree-lined streets and white-washed stucco homes. All of which combines to create the town’s well-known air of easy elegance. Sadly, its cosmopolitan sophistication is mostly undone by the many sun-beaten, Crocs®-wearing foreign ex-pats that hang out there.
For over a century, this tiny village has been a playground for royalty, celebrities, and foreign dignitaries. They were all attracted by Europe’s largest gambling establishment, Casino Estoril.
This upscale, modernist entertainment emporium, located just across from the beach, was especially popular during World War II. It was a well-known hang-out for foreign spies who were apparently not all that great at remaining inconspicuous.
More importantly, the casino was the inspiration for, and where Ian Fleming wrote much of, “Casino Royale,” the first James Bond novel. I’m sure the casino bosses loved having a guy who looked like a Narc hang around, sucking down free drinks and scribbling notes—all while not gambling. We drive past it, but didn’t stop in as I had somehow neglected to pack a tux on this trip.
The Portuguese Riviera in retrospect.
It’s easy to see the appeal of this place even though we visited during the shoulder season (March). Judging from photos I’ve seen of the French Riviera, this one seems more sedate and less pretentious—both good things unless you’re a desperate attention-craving celebrity who’s seeking outside validation from strangers to replace the love you never got from your parents. But, assuming you’re emotionally secure, you’ll probably enjoy the place.