There is something about the half-hour drive from Lisbon to Cascais. Perhaps it is the azure seaside and palm-lined roads of the Portuguese Riviera. Or perhaps it is the fact that I am en route to Hotel Palácio in Estoril, where World War II spies cooled their heels on neutral Portuguese soil and where, consequently, agents and double agents openly crossed paths.
I’m particularly interested in one agent, James Bond. Or rather, I am interested in his creator, Ian Fleming, a former member of the Naval Intelligence Division. Fleming created Bond after having stayed in Estoril in 1941. In fact, the casino in Casino Royale is none other than Casino Estoril, one of Europe’s largest.
When I pull up to the hotel, with its grand 1930s facade—ivory and cream with wrought iron balconies—I recall the scene in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service where Bond, played by George Lazenby, arrives in his Aston Martin. I arrive via a comparatively less glamorous Uber, albeit, on an equally important mission: to have the famed martini in Bar Estoril, aptly nicknamed the “spy bar.”
In the 1969 movie, when Bond walks through the hotel doors, he says matter-of-factly, “Everything seems up to the Palácio’s usual high standards.” With its slick marble floors and mahogany decor, it’s clear those standards are still maintained.
Published reports and the staff cite that while at the hotel, Fleming met a double agent for Britain and Serbia named Dušan Popov, who became the inspiration for Bond. The Bar Estoril is quiet today and a few tables are occupied. I take in the checkerboard floors and emerald and maroon-winged armchairs, imagining the two men making their acquaintance here. As I see a photo of Fleming’s and Popov’s guest registrations inside the menu, the picture becomes clearer.
The bar looks onto a swimming pool: the one you see as Bond enters the hotel. Beyond it are manicured lawns, once trod upon by every exiled royal from France, Italy and Spain during the war.
When the waiter asks me what I want, I feel sheepish. Do I want to be another clichéd tourist, here only for the “007 martini?” (I desperately do.) I clear my throat, ask for it, and am commended for my choice. With Tanqueray gin, Stolichnaya vodka and Lilletvermouth, served in a long-stemmed glass with an olive, the first sip of the martini is fiery. Being more of an “extra dry gin martini” sort of person, I can’t tell if I like it.
When the waiter enquires about my trip, I tell him that I’ve stopped by Estoril exclusively for this martini. I’m not the biggest Bond fan, I explain, but sharing space with Fleming, though a few decades too late, fascinates me. It’s my Midnight in Paris moment.
“You know,” he tells me, “this was Fleming’s table.”
I gaze at him narrowly. He’s much too young to have been around for WWII.
There is, he explains, a bellman who has worked here for the last 60 years, and knows who sat where. The “bellman” is one José Viera: the bellboy from the 1969 flick who hands Bond the keys to room 516. Eighteen at the time of the movie, today, Viera is the hotel’s head concierge.
This is not the best martini in Portugal, but by the time I’m on my second round, I can see why this whole atmosphere would have suited the likes of Fleming and Popov.
The seaside, with its casino, golf course, and eateries, offers respite from the modern world. The Riveria continues to modernise, with more buildings and backpackers. As does the country around it. Hotel Atlántico, favoured by the Central Powers, is now the InterContinental Cascais-Estoril. Sadly, the original structure gave way to a glass-and-concrete structure in 2007. With its old furniture donated to local charities, nothing is left of the original.
As I thank my waiter, he tells me that the next time I’m here, I must stay at the hotel: “I’ll ask around about all the James Bond facts,” he smiles.
“That’d be nice,” I reply. “Maybe I’ll write a story on it.”
Flights between India and Portugal have at least one layover at a Middle Eastern or European gateway. Cascais, a town close to Estoril is a 34 km/30 min drive from Lisbon. Affordable Uberservices ply regularly between the two towns. A meal for two at Bar Estoril costs €60/Rs4,600 and a glass of the signature martini costs €12.50/Rs970 (www.palacioestorilhotel.com).
Akanksha Singh is a full-time culture journalist and part-time coffee fiend based in Mumbai. When she's not writing, she spends her time scouting the world for sloe gin, jazz bars, and cobblestone roads.