The year is 1969, and James Bond has just pulled up to the luxury Hotel Palacio Estoril in his Aston Martin DBS. Unshaken by the assassination attempt he has defeated on the way over, he strides into the lobby and greets the manager with the words: “Everything seems up to the Palacio’s usual high standards.” Quietly, a bell boy with tidy brown hair and a serious expression hands over the keys to room 516.
That bell boy is now a white-haired, suntanned man of 68. José Diogo Vieira still works as a concierge at the hotel and will ditch that serious expression for a huge grin if you ask about his starring role in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (pictured below).
The Bond movie was George Lazenby’s first and only outing as 007 – and several of the scenes were filmed in this five-star hotel on Portugal’s Estoril coast near Lisbon.
But the Bond connection goes back even further.
As the Second World War raged across Europe, the Palacio was flooded with royalty and nobility taking refuge from the fighting in politically neutral Portugal. Along came royal families from Spain, Italy and Bulgaria, followed by aristocrats and wealthy traders. The hotel quickly became a hotbed of secret agents buzzing around like mosquitos.
In fact, Ian Fleming himself spent 1941 here on a mission to shadow Serbian double agent Duško Popov, who is thought to be one of the inspirations for Bond. In the evenings they would drink in the Bar Estoril, with Fleming and Popov – so Mr Vieira tells me – taking the table near the exit in case of trouble. Once enough had been drunk, the bar regulars would head to the casino next door for a tense game of baccarat.
Bar Estoril is now nicknamed the “Spy Bar”. Entering this dark lair is like taking a step back in time: chequered marble floor, the wood-panelled walls, the low-slung plush armchairs and mirrors that reach to the ceiling. Artfully placed lamps throw out a dim light and waiters in spotless white uniforms glide noiselessly around the room.
I order a “007 Martini” (Tanqueray Gin, Stolichnaya vodka and Lillet) and wait for the waiter to roll his eyes at me for being an embarrassing cliché. (He doesn’t.) It comes in a stemmed glass with an olive and I can’t tell if it’s shaken not stirred, but it’s strong enough to make me tipsy. In fact, it does come pretty close to Bond’s own recipe laid out in Casino Royale: “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel.”
But if you want to experience the finest alcohol Portugal has to offer, put away the cocktail menu and order some “green wine”. Vinho verde is Portugal’s speciality. Light and fresh, it is “green” in the sense of being “young”: bottled quickly and consumed even more quickly (is that just me?), it goes down amazingly well on a hot sunny day. It is also excellent with seafood, which is handy because you’re unlikely to eat much else on the Portuguese coast.
In fact, it seems I consumed half an aquarium during my time in Portugal and probably kept the entire fishing industry in business. Tuna, monkfish, scallops, crab, mackerel, octopus, squid, sardines – all of it wriggled its way into my belly.
I can’t say I ate a bad meal, but though a traditional dinner at Gambrinus restaurant in Lisbon was a highlight, the absolute best restaurant was tucked away in an unassuming back street of Estoril. Local chef Daniel Estriga has expanded his family’s bakery to create Conceito Food Store, serving up experimental plates at reasonable prices. Who would think a pineapple, basil and coconut sorbet would work so perfectly? And yet it does. I could eat it in vats.
Back at the hotel, it’s time to relax by the pool with my copy of Casino Royale and a strawberry daiquiri. This broad expanse of cool blue water is the same pool you can see in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, though Fleming himself never got a swim as it had yet to be built.
Flicking through Casino Royale with water-wrinkled and suncream-stained fingers, I am surprised to find Bond himself was partial to a bit of unwinding and relaxation during his stay at the fictional Hotel Splendide, which is loosely based on the Palacio Estoril: “The masseur, a Swede, presented himself. Silently he got to work on Bond from his feet to his neck, melting the tensions in his body and calming his still twanging nerves.”
Should the modern visitor be suffering from body tension and twanging nerves, they may not be able to order a Swedish masseur on room service – but they can pay a visit to the hotel’s Thai Banyan Tree Spa. At the end of my back massage I’m so chilled out I can’t see how Bond could ever be bothered to get up and take on a SMERSH spy at the baccarat table. I just want to lie still forever.
But lying facedown on a massage table for too long would be a waste, because there’s so much along the coastline to explore. Estoril itself is a pretty little town and then it’s a quick train ride to nearby Cascais – or better still, make your way there on foot. A 45-minute walk by the sea takes you along sandy beaches where children splash around in the waves and stretches of coastal path where the locals walk their dogs.
Go the other way on the train – or drive – and you’ll reach Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon. The first thing you should do is head to the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém and order a plateful of Pastéis de Belém, little custard pastries served fresh with icing sugar and cinnamon. You’ll find knock-off versions everywhere (Pastéis de Nata), but they pale in comparison to the original.
Exploring the winding streets and watching the ancient trams clatter up the hills are the best ways to while away an afternoon in Lisbon. You will find shops selling sweet little tins of sardines, leather glove shops so small only one person can fit inside and bakeries offering local delicacies.
Keep walking uphill and the city will open out below you, or climb the Arco de Rua Augusta to look out over the Baixa district in the heart of the city – with the sea sparkling in the distance. For those with an interest in the city’s history (or those who simply want to get out of the midday sun), there’s the imposing Ajuda National Palace.
West from Estoril is Cascais, east is Lisbon, to the south is the sea and to the north is the town of Sintra. This World Heritage site is home to Palácio da Pena, a sort of fairytale castle. Originally a monastery, Pena is painted in bright yellows, reds and pinks and tiled in dark blues. In the 19th century, Portugal’s royal family adapted it in the Romantic style, drawing on medieval and Islamic styles to create this eclectic monument to their ambition.
James Bond may have been too caught up in his love affair with troubled Tracy (Diana Rigg) and mission to destroy the evil Blofeld (Telly Savalas) to pay much attention to the delights of the Estoril coastline. But if you follow in Bond’s footsteps to Portugal, be sure to soak it all up – and you absolutely must try the green wine.
Eleanor Bley Griffiths was a guest of Sovereign (01293 765 003), which offers a seven-night holiday to the five-star Palacio Estoril, on a B&B basis, from £949 per person. The package includes one free night’s stay, private resort transfers, and return flights from London Heathrow with TAP Portugal. The airline flies direct from London City (from 29 October 2017), Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon up to 12 times daily.
For more information on Portugal’s capital, see Visit Lisboa.
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