A hidden past in Portugal

A hidden past in Portugal

There is much to see in Lisbon whose maritime history includes the exploration of the African coast as early as 1418, with the Cape discovered seventy years later.

A hidden past in Portugal

Do take time, however, to travel on the coastal railway to Estoril only 16 miles westward. The whole Riviera is long past its heyday, but romance, glamour and intrigue still cling to buildings old and new in its main resort. This was the playground of Europe’s royalty during half a century whose later years saw the arrival of Hollywood film stars, followed by sportsmen.

They arrived after the two world wars that made Estoril a leading rendezvous for secret agents. Even the classic thriller Greenmantle puts the South African hero there briefly in 1915, because the author, John Buchan, had once collected intelligence in Mozambique.

Spies of a later generation included such literary figures as Graham Greene, who went on to West Africa, and Malcolm Muggeridge, before he was stationed in what is now Maputo, as well as Colonel Dudley Clarke, the camouflage genius from Johannesburg.

They based themselves either at Europe’s largest casino or the Palacio Hotel, both of which still face a palm-fringed park only ten minutes’ walk from the station and sea. The hotel’s main corridor is lined with the photographs of guests ranging from the former kings of Spain, Greece, Italy and Rumania to the more recent Princess Anne and Prince William.

Estoril also attracts kings of sport. Kevin Anderson is the latest South African to play tennis there, while Louis Oosthuizen has played on the 27-hole golf course that was partly financed by the exiled Duke of Windsor.

Back in 1940, the influx of deposed monarchs, wealthy refugees and black-marketeers into nominally neutral Portugal made Estoril a happy hunting-ground for spies. The cleverest was Juan Pujol, who lured a fellow-Spaniard away to the Casino, and then copied his exit visa so as to reach England. He duped the Germans with false intelligence right up to 1945, sometimes pretending to use a courier on Dutch-crewed Dakotas flying between Bristol and Lisbon.

Germany had a huge diplomatic presence in Madrid and Lisbon, but their agents used the Casino for meeting contacts – and calling Zurich. Their hotels included the Inglaterra and the Atlantico at more secluded Monte Estoril, both of which exposed bugging paraphernalia when renovated or razed. Last year, the latter was replaced by an InterContinental, all gleaming glass, which has photographs of the old hotel in every bedroom and in its Atlantico Bar.

Even the Nazi flag was flown until ordered down by the Portuguese dictator, Antonio Salazar, whose residence was at nearby Sao João de Estoril. The new hotel retains the Riviera’s best view of the ocean, so the site was superb for ship-watchers.

InterContinental’s spokeswoman, Barbara Mendonca, told me, “It was also the base for dirty tricks against the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who spent July 1940 at a Portuguese banker’s villa further along the coast. Hitler sent his ace agent, Walter Schellenberg, to lure them back to Madrid, from where they would be taken to Germany as puppets”.

Seven months later, Commander Ian Fleming checked into the Palacio, along with Dusko Popov, a cosmopolitan Yugoslav, who was as unmarried and flamboyant a double agent as Juan Pujol (codenamed Garbo) was married and unseen. Fleming shadowed Popov (codenamed Tricycle) to ensure he was fooling the Germans rather than the British, while the playboy used the casino’s tables to communicate with an Austrian sub-agent, Friedl Gaertner. Bets placed on certain numbers identified rendezvous.

With ample funds from both sides, Tricycle so thoroughly enjoyed himself that Fleming used him as the model for James Bond, and what is now a garish depot of slot-machines, owned by Mister Ho from Macau, became the inspiration for the first thriller, Casino Royale. Unsurprisingly, 007 returned to the Palacio in the person of George Lazenby to make part of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service half a century ago. He is filmed being shown to Room 516 by a real bell-hop, Jose Diogo, who is now deputy concierge, and hopes for a grand reunion next year.

Today, it is hard to realise that the quickest way to Portugal from wartime Britain was on the KLM Dakotas which took eight hours. In June 1943, a British film star, Leslie Howard, was on the only plane shot down by the Luftwaffe, starting rumours that he had been in Intelligence as well as propaganda.

Easyjet flies to Lisbon from Gatwick in 105 minutes as well as from Luton, Bristol and Edinburgh, the lowest price being £29. Hostels in Lisbon cost about the same, and tickets between Lisbon’s Cais do Sodre tube station and Estoril cost under £4 return.