In every bedroom a photograph of the German spy-nest.

John Burke uncovers the Portuguese resort’s secret past


There is a lot to see in Lisbon, but do take time to go on the coastal railway out 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 such as Orson Wells and Gina Lollobrigida.


They arrived after the two world wars that had made neutral Portugal a leading rendezvous for secret agents.   Even that classic thriller Greenmantle puts the hero there briefly in 1915, because the author, John Buchan, had himself collected intelligence in Portuguese East Africa.

The highest hotel between Estoril and Cascais.

British spies of a later generation included Malcolm Muggeridge, before he too was posted to Mozambique, and Graham Greene, who went on to West Africa, as well as Kim Philby, the double agent, and that mastermind of deception, Colonel Dudley Clarke.  American agents also stopped by on their way to Portugal’s other big colony, Angola, as it bordered the Belgian Congo where Germans were suspected of getting uranium for an atomic-bomb.

Today, it is full of slot-machines, not master-spies.

Allied agents 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.


The first guest was the brother of Emperor Hirohito, but it was the exiled Duke of Windsor who partly financed the 27-hole golf-course which, like the tennis tournaments, has attracted international kings of sport like Severiano Ballesteros and Ryan Harrison.  Even during the Spanish Civil War, the influx of deposed monarchs, wealthy refugees and black-marketeers  made nominally neutral Portugal  a happy hunting-ground for spies despite Salazar’s secret police who were more watchful in Lisbon.


The cleverest spy was Juan Pujol, who lured a fellow-Spaniard to the Casino, then copied the exit-visa left in his hotel-room so as to escape to England.  Both from Estoril and north London, Pujol duped the Germans with false intelligence right up to 1945, sometimes pretending it came by a bribed courier on civil Dakotas flying between Bristol and Lisbon.

spy’s bar

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 Atlantico at more secluded Monte Estoril and the Inglaterra, both of which exposed bugging paraphernalia when renovated or razed.  In 2017, the former 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 ambivalent Portuguese dictator, Antonio Salazar, whose residence was at nearby São 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 July1940 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”.

“The name’s Fleming, Ian Fleming!”

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, also starring Diana Rigg, 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 shortly.


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, Leslie Howard, who had already used Estoril as a location, was on the only plane shot down by the Luftwaffe, starting rumours that the famous actor 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.