I’M not asking for a shipwreck or a beached whale. Or a mermaid luring me out beyond the headland. All I want is the sound of waves crashing on rocks outside a hotel bedroom and I’m in heaven.
Brought up on “Sea View” B&Bs where you needed X-ray vision to locate a grey sliver of estuary between chimney pots, I get giddy at the prospect of a lodging smack bang on the ocean.
So when we arrived at the Fortaleza do Guincho after dark and were shown to our turret room the immediate impulse was to fling open the doors onto our balcony. We were hit by the roar of the rollers, the lather of the tide caught in the hotel lamps – and beyond an immense darkness broken only by the sweep of the lighthouse on Cabo da Roca, continental Europe’s most westerly point.
We left the French doors ajar and slept the sleep of human driftwood. Only 30km from Lisbon and yet we might have been on a voyage of discovery with those legendary Portuguese sea dogs, Bartholomew Diaz, Ferdinand Magellan or Henry The Navigator.
Though they never woke to a breakfast like ours (nary a weevil-ridden ship’s biscuit in sight) as we sat in the Fortaleza’s dining room, surveying the weird mist formations across Guincho bay and dunes. The kitchen holds a Michelin star and the attention to detail seeps down even to the breakfast buffet.
It is hard to credit this wild Atlantic coast once had to be defended against invasion by those dastardly Spaniards. The Fortaleza do Guincho, dating from the 17th century, became one of a line of bastions created in 1762 for the Seven Years War.
Over the following century it was abandoned, then refortified, then fell into ruin until 1959 when the Hotel do Guincho rose on the site of the raized battery. Since 1998 it has been the Fortaleza and is now a Relais & Chateaux property belonging to Macao casino magnate Stanley Ho, who owns the Estoril Casino down the road.
The 24-room hotel retains a stone-clad fortress feel, softened by plenty of discreet baronial comfort. Best ocean views are from the first floor’s 16 superior rooms and a further three suites with open terraces.
The food is exceptional – French with a Portuguese accent. Chef Antoine Westermann honed his haute cuisine in Strasbourg but over a decade and a half at Guincho it has evolved into a more daring take on tradition. Witness, from the €80 menu degustation an amuse bouche or crab scented with yuzu, fine jelly and small vegetables marinated with lemon zest or a fish dish where sea bass is steamed over seaweed and accompanied by Rio Formosa oysters tartare and iodine cream.
The Portuguese provenance of his meat was in evidence on the cheaper “autumn menu” – Roasted black pork from the Alentejo, stewed cepes and preserved onions, dark sauce. The Fortaleza cellar has a stellar array of Portuguese wines to match these strong flavours.
Headier still was the landscape we drank in the following morning, as the sun broke through those steamy mist formations. A stupendous sweep of surfers’ beach ends in cliffs but behind the hard sand strand lies a fascinating natural habitat of sand dunes, criscrossed by boardwalks. The plants are labelled like delegates at a conference: “Hi, I’m Sea Holly”.
Down on the beach a couple of wet suits were trying to catch the waves. It’s a perfect spot for surfing and kitesurfing, home to many major competitions. Strong swimmers only – there are swift tides and a strong undertow. It’s all remarkably unspoilt, enhanced by the unearthly light during our walk. On its promontory the Fortaleza, its walls washed in yellow, cannons guarding the entrance, loomed like some Hollywood castle.
The movies have come to Guincho, as it happens. The beach featured in the pre-titles sequence of the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – the one with one-off 007 George Lazenby. He rescues a Contessa and foils two attackers in the surf.
Now as dusk fell and a sea fret set in, a suddenly rainswept Guincho Beach was For Our Eyes Only. Time for dinner.
So a place to get away from it all, but also a handy base for visiting...
1 A short taxi ride away are Cascais and Estoril, classic 19th century resorts fun to stroll round and grab a meal. Both are now prosperous suburbs of Lisbon, Estoril the more architecturally impressive, but Cascais does have fine museums including the Museum of the Sea and next door the Casa das Histórias devoted to the work of celebrated artist Paula Rego. The futuristic gallery houses her paintings and engravings as well as works by her late husband Victor Willing.
Av. da República, 300, Cascais. www.casadashistoriaspaularego.com
2 Go into Lisbon. From Cascais it’s a 35 minute train ride into the city centre. If time is short, get off five minutes early at Belem Station. A day out in itself, The Belem district is home to unmissable Gothic monastic masterpiece the Mosteiro Jeronimos – a UNESCO World Heritage site – the equally ancient Belem Tower on the waterfront and one of Europe’s best modern art galleries, the Berardo Collection. Find time, too, to sample authentic Pasteis de Belem custard tarts.
For my general guide to Lisbon visit this link
Plus my foodie tips for the city visit this link
3 20km to the north east of Guincho lies fairy tale Sintra. Its historic centre is another World Heritage site. The early Iberians made it a site of cult worship; the Moors built a craggy castle, now in ruins; the Middle Ages brought monasteries; the nobility escaped here after the 1755 earthquake; then, in the 19th century, it became one of the first centres of European romantic architecture. In his travel epic, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Lord Byron wrote of it: “Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes, in variegated maze of mount and glen”. Sintra understandably can get pretty over-populated in high season.
Staying there: Fortaleza do Guincho, Estrada do Guincho P-2750-642 Cascais. www.guinchotel.pt
It holds a Michelin star for its food, offers excellent golf facilities nearby and is a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux association of the world’s finest hoteliers, chefs and restaurateurs, which today has 520 members across the globe. www.relaischateaux.com
TAP Portugal flies daily from Manchester to Lisbon. For further information and to book visit www.flytap.com or call 0845 601 0932.
We took the Alfa Pendular express train down from Oporto (two and a half hours). In 2013 it will be replaced by a high-speed rail service to Oporto, Lisbon and Madrid. Ryanair fly from Liverpool to Oporto www.ryanair.com
The scenic coastal railway down to Estoril and Cascais departs twice an hour from Lisbon’s Cais do Sodré Station (Metro: Cais do Sodré). Fares are very cheap. Take a taxi from Cascais (under €10).
A Lisbon Card offers free or discounted entrance to more than 80 Lisbon museums, sights, and tours, including the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. Free transport includes all trips on the Metro, public buses, the famous yellow trams and the service to Cascais. From €18.50 (€11.50 children) for a 24 hour card.
For Lisbon tourism information: www.golisbon.com
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