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COASTING ON PORTUGAL'S RIVIERA : Put off by the high costs of Europe? Near Lisbon is a little fishing village called Cascais, a chic but inexpensive base for exploring the many treasures along the Estoril Coast.

March 07, 1993|PHILIP SOUSA | Sousa, for 19 years the travel editor of the San Diego Union, is a San Diego-based free-lance writer

CASCAIS, Portugal — At the station in this small fishing port on the Atlantic, lush green topiary and fragrant flowers of every hue greeted my senses as I got off the train from Lisbon, a half-hour's ride away. So did a billboard with revolving panels suggesting a visit to the nearby McDonald's. A short stroll away, on Ribeira Beach, I met a fisherman named Joao, who was mending his nets with the help of his teen-age grandson. Concentrating on their chore, they mostly ignored the tourists and local shoppers strolling by them on the little square just above the sandy shore.

Joao, a wiry fellow whose lined, tobacco-brown face bespoke a lifetime of harvesting the riches of the sea, spotted me watching his work from a few feet away. "Want to see?" he beckoned, motioning for me to get closer.

I did, and marveled at the speed and dexterity with which he went about working on his nets while explaining the procedure to his grandson.

Pointing to the camera hanging from my neck, I asked the old man if I could take his picture.

"OK," he replied with a grin, and I got off a couple of shots.

But before I could express my appreciation, he touched his woolen cap and thanked me for my interest. " Obrigado, " he said with a big smile.

As has been the case on previous visits to Cascais over the years, my first moments in town last year once again reminded me how this village somehow manages a successful mix of New World conveniences (McDonald's) and Old World charms (cobblestone streets and weathered fishermen). It also reminded me why I always choose this seaside town as a base for exploring the Estoril Coast, on which Cascais stands, and even Lisbon itself, its pricier and less laid-back neighbor.

Although Portugal remains one of Europe's least costly and least spoiled countries, Lisbon is no longer a bargain. In Cascais, on the other hand, travelers can find clean, attractive pensions for $50-$100 a night, excellent, multicourse seafood dinners with wine for $7-$15, and cove-protected beaches. The surrounding region is a microcosm of Portugal's diverse landscape, from the misty, pine-scented hills of nearby Sintra to the dazzling luminosity of the rolling countryside. And sightseeing--or even dinner--in Lisbon is just a short train hop away.

Two major events put Spain in the international limelight last year. But although the Summer Olympics in Barcelona and the World's Fair in Seville caught the attention of billions, cost-conscious travelers this year would do better to look next door. Just across Spain's western border, Portugal is packed with architectural and cultural riches, and home to unfailingly hospitable people and what may be the continent's best climate. And this nation, about the size of Maine, is especially appealing in spring and fall.

Except perhaps in Lisbon--the sophisticated but low-key capital--the country is uncrowded during off-season periods. Air fares and hotels also can cost much less than, say, Italy, France or England in the summer; and Portuguese waiters, shopkeepers, cab drivers and others who cater to visitors have more time to provide their services more efficiently.

Throughout the year, the weather--especially in the country's central and southern regions--is similar to Southern California's, but without the smog. This once-mighty kingdom that ruled much of the world--now a democratic republic with a population of about 11 million--is also easy for a traveler to manage.

Portugal extends only 136 miles at its widest point, and only 350 miles from top to bottom--about the distance from Los Angeles to San Jose. Within this relatively small area, more than 500 miles of coastline are dotted with sandy coves with well-kept beaches, rugged mountain ranges, verdant valleys and fertile plains. Over the centuries, this tapestry of natural features has been enhanced by a host of medieval cities, fishing villages stuck in time and old walled towns still coursed by cobblestone lanes and graced with royal palaces maintained as though the owner's arrival was imminent.

But modern--and often chic-- attractions are also part of the landscape, from some of the best golf courses in Europe to super-deluxe hotels.

What may surprise and delight most first-time visitors is the relative low cost of just about everything except imported liquor, cigarettes and film.

And, with the notable exception of some overdeveloped resorts in the southern province of Algarve, where high-rise condos and hotels are crowded with German and Scandinavian vacationers--the smooth blending of old and new is a national characteristic.

I have visited Portugal perhaps 40 times in the past, and to my mind the perfect spot from which to conveniently sample its high points are the coastal and hillside towns along Costa do Estoril, a sort of poor man's Riviera that stretches from the mouth of Lisbon's Tagus River to the surfing mecca of Ericeira. Although not undiscovered by European tourists, very few Americans visit the area.

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