Sea, Sand, Royalty, Roulette & Spies.
Now that spring has arrived and the weather’s improving I’ll often take a walk with my wife along the promenade from Estoril to Cascais. It’s a great way to work up an appetite before dinner, take a relaxing Sunday morning stroll or simply enjoy the fresh sea air and magnificent views.
The paredão, as it’s known locally, is a hive of activity: runners and fellow walkers, local fishermen, surfers, beach goers, dog walkers, tourists, cyclists, ice cream stands, bars, restaurants and, in the summer months after the sun has set, night clubs.
During the summer the local tourism authority normally arranges a series of thought provoking sculptures and art installations at different points along the route and there’s often a montage of wonderful old photographs depicting historic landmarks and the development of the seafront through the ages. It’s certainly an area with a colourful past.
Until the middle of the 19th Century the Estoril/Cascais coast consisted of nothing more than a few fishing villages and strategically placed forts. Then in 1870 the reigning Monarch, King Luis I, chose the Cidadela de Cascais as his summer retreat and, with the subsequent construction of villas, hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues for the royal entourage, the town rapidly developed into a centre for tourism.
With the introduction of the railway in 1889 expansion along the coast towards Lisbon took an exponential leap forward: Monte Estoril, São João do Estoril and Parede (replete with vineyards) all sprung up and became hugely popular with the rich and powerful.
And then in 1930 the Hotel Palacio opened in Estoril and the now world famous Casino followed a year later. These two establishments transformed the region into Portugal’s foremost destination for international travellers. Among the first guests at the Palacio were the future emperor of Japan, Prince Hirohito, and his new bride on their honeymoon.
The visitor experience was further enhanced when Estoril Golf Club opened in 1929 (clubhouse in main photo) – it became an 18 holes championship course seven years later. The Duke of Windsor, who helped finance the project, frequently played there with his Portuguese hosts and it remains part of the Palacio’s business portfolio today.
When the Second World War erupted in 1939 Portugal’s President, Antonio Salazar, was desperate to maintain the nation's neutrality and through astute negotiating he successfully kept the country out of the war. In fact Portugal’s role on the international stage during this period is a case study in diplomacy. Salazar played both sides by continuing to supply the Third Reich with much needed tungsten whilst at the same time leasing land to the Allies in the Azores which they used for airbases.
The Portuguese were also instrumental in helping POW’s and thousands of refugees to escape to Britain and America via Lisbon. Indeed the city became a symbol of hope - as depicted in the classic film Casablanca – with an estimated one million refugees passing through it during the conflict.
Portugal also became a safe haven for aristocrats fleeing Nazi occupied Europe and many of them settled on the Estoril coast. The litany of displaced royals was really quite something and included amongst others: King Umberto II of Italy, Carol II of Romania, the Archduke of Austria and Hungary, the Danish Royal family and Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg.
As well as dozens of aristocrats and a multitude of displaced refugees there were also some notable celebrities: economist John Keynes, film director Orson Welles and star of Gone with the Wind, Leslie Howard, whose plane was tragically shot down by the Luftwaffe when he attempted to return to England in June 1943 (it's rumoured that the Luftwaffe thought Sir Winston Churchill was onboard).
And thrown into this maelstrom of humanity was a vast number of spies: the Portuguese secret service, British operatives including Kim Philby, Graham Greene and Ian Fleming plus Spanish, Italian, American and German agents. In fact there were so many Gestapo that they requisitioned the Hotel Atlântico in Estoril and brazenly flew the Swastika from the rooftop flagpole - until Salazar told them to take it down. Not surprisingly, the town became a cauldron of intrigue and espionage.
Fleming, an intelligence officer in the Royal Navy, was temporarily based in Portugal to devise Operation Golden Eye – a secret Allied plan to monitor Spain and defend Gibraltar in the event that the Spanish entered the war on the side of the Axis Powers. During his time in Estoril he stayed at the Hotel Palacio and mixed with exiled royals, fellow spies and wealthy refugees. Indeed the Hotel bar (apparently it’s most popular drink at the time was a martini, shaken not stirred) and the nearby Casino became notorious haunts for undercover agents. Their nefarious activities served as the inspiration for Fleming’s fictional hero – James Bond - and the various characters at the blackjack tables gave him the idea for his first 007 novel, Casino Royale (1953). Incidentally, his residence in Jamaica where he wrote all the Bond books was named Golden Eye.
The region's connection with Bond continued after the war. Parts of the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, starring George Lazenby, were shot in Estoril, some scenes took place on Guincho beach (just outside Cascais) and others a little further north on the road to Cabo da Roca - Europe’s most westerly point. And throughout their time in Portugal the film crew stayed at the Hotel Palacio which also featured prominently at the start of the movie.