Passengers on the pre-war Sud Express from Paris were elegant: movie stars and millionaires – all anxiously awaiting the finish line. Not Nice or Monaco, as you might expect, but Estoril, half an hour outside of Lisbon.
Once a summer retreat for Portuguese royalty, by the 1930s the Costa do Sol – as the area around Estoril and neighboring Cascais is called – had become a serious rival to the Cote d’Azur.
The glitter had drifted away by the 1970s, but now the coast is back. Footballer Cristiano Ronaldo splashes millions on a house there, and international speedsters including chic French designer Philippe Starck have also moved on to the laid-back atmosphere, laid-back lifestyle and sprawling beaches.
Heaps of elegance: The Costa do Sol – as the area around Estoril and neighboring Cascais (above) is called – was popular with Glitterati in the 1930s, but they disappeared by the 1970s. Anwar Bhatti visits the area and discovers that it is “coming back”
Cristiano Ronaldo and partner Georgina Rodriguez (above) spend millions on a house in the area
Thanks to Portugal’s neutrality during the war, the region became attractive for more serious reasons, attracting many deposed European monarchs – among them King Carol of Romania – and refugees fleeing the Nazis, including the French Rothschilds and Peggy Guggenheim. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor also settled there after hastily leaving France in 1940.
It became a stronghold of spies on both sides, among them Ian Fleming, who was then working in the British Naval Intelligence Department.
The record at the grand Palacio Hotel in Estoril (an Allied hangout – rival Atlantico actually shaved the swastika) shows that Ian Lancaster Fleming, who called himself a “government official”, stayed in May 1941.
He tracked down the Yugoslav double agent Dusko Popov, a potential James Bond model. Part of the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (George Lazenby film) was filmed here.
The Palacio is still one of the most luxurious hotels in Portugal, much preferred by golfers (it has its own course) and those who like the idea of the wonderful Banyan Spa and Wellness Center. Members of the royal family, including Princess Anne and Prince Edward, still live here at the annual camp.
I remember Bond’s link shortly after check-in, when I met the cheerful doorman Jose Vieira, who had arrived as a bell boy at On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The hotel’s Spy Bar serves 007 martinis – made according to Fleming’s own recipe.
In celebration of the Bond theme, I visited the famous Estoril Casino next door. The once graceful white building, believed to have inspired Casino Royale, is strangely preserved within the fabric of a massive Las Vegas-style gaming and entertainment complex. But the original 1930s room where Fleming played baccarat still exists.
Elegant Estoril is predominantly residential and events have moved to the former fishing village of Cascais, part of the same municipality and a 20-minute walk along the promenade. So I went there, to the luxurious Real Villa Italia, where most of the spacious rooms have balconies and sea views. The name reflects the fact that the palace of the last exiled king of Italy, Umberto II, is now part of the hotel.
Across the road I find the dramatic Boca rock formation and cave. Visitors climb to look at the view, especially at sunset, undisturbed by the crashing Atlantic barriers.
It’s a short walk from the village with two guides, Ines, two large villas built in the 20th century by the Irish-Portuguese businessman Jorge O’Neill. We are going to look at the tiled interiors.
Anwar lives in the grand Palacio Hotel in Estoril (above), where Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series, stayed in 1941 while working for British Naval Intelligence. “He tracked down Yugoslav double agent Dusko Popov, a potential James Bond model,” he says.
It is located near the Farol de Santa Maria Lighthouse Museum, which offers picturesque views. It is next to the Cascais Marina, which hosted the America’s Cup in 2011.
A stroll through the quiet Marechal Carmona garden, filled with chickens and peacocks, leads us to the beautiful mud-red gallery dedicated to Paula Rego, the Portuguese-born artist.
Finally, Cidadela, a fortress that serves as an art center, we come to the village itself. Set on a gentle hill overlooking the bay and public beach, it is a bustling mix of whitewashed houses, cobbled streets, restaurants, cafes and boutiques.
We go to Bijou, small but famous for its pastries, and for some travesseiros, a dessert made with almonds and egg cream, Ines tells us that many visitors here are day visitors from Lisbon (trains run from Cais do Sodre station), and although almost half of the hotels on the coast are five-star, but it is not only for the rich.
Cascais restaurants confirm this. I try the Furnas de Gencho, with a balcony right next to the sea, and the welcoming O Pescador. Both are excellent and serve fresh, local seafood.
There is much to see in the area, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sintra. But I’m going to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in continental Europe.
The high slope, exposed and windy, attracts busloads of tourists. Then down to the wide, sandy, dune-fringed Jincho Beach, a favorite among surfers – and another great Bund site.
Spies and resident royalty may have left the Costa do Sol, but it remains alluring – and could once again give places like the Cote d’Azur a run for their money.