Edward Stephens is shaken and stirred after uncovering a shocking truth in Portugal.
I’ve got a shock for James Bond fans everywhere.
Believe it or not, the archetypical British spy wasn’t born in the UK at all, but in Portugal. In Estoril to be precise, at the Hotel Palacio.
For, according to local guide books, it was there during World War II that a batch of British spies were based, including Ian Fleming. Close by, at the Hotel Atlantico, the rooms were occupied by rival German spies. Real cloak and dagger stuff.
And it was in that environment of intrigue, adventure and mistrust that Fleming created 007, based in part, I’m told, on a roguish character of the time called Popov, who always had a girl on his arm and more often than not was in the company of two or three.
The Palacio and numerous other hotels with intriguing pasts are still in evidence in Estoril and the neighbouring town of Cascais. And while the sense of intrigue has long since gone the area has managed to maintain a suave, upmarket, upper-crust air that Bond would have been proud of.
There are no glitzy neon-clad buildings or ear piercing discos in evidence on the streets of Cascais. Instead it’s more an area of genteel refinement with quality shops, pavement cafes and restaurants, attractive parks and some of the cleanest and best beaches in Europe.
And the added bonus is that it’s within a 30-minute drive or train ride of Lisbon airport, not to mention the breathtaking town of Sintra. But more of Sintra later.
Cascais and Estoril were the holiday playgrounds of the Portuguese royal family, so perhaps that’s why the air of exclusivity set in.
Estoril itself is relatively small and centres on a large square area of parkland with fountains which is dominated by the casino, the aforementioned Palacio Hotel and a seafront vista.
The more tourist appealing town of Cascais, on the other hand, has far more to see, is more widely spread out yet still easy to get around.
And the town’s authorities make it even easier to explore by providing tourists with bicycles free of charge. There are three pick-up points in different parts of Cascais and all I had to do was show my passport to be able to borrow one for the whole day.
After a couple of circuits of the town I was off along the cliff-top cycle path passing Boca do Inferno – an inlet and cave where the sea rushes in creating a massive roar as the water hits the rocks – and on to the new golf/shopping development of Casa di Guia.
Linking Cascais and Estorial is the long beach-hugging Paradao walkway, where locals and tourists alike enjoy evening strolls with stops at one of the many restaurants and bars as the waves break on the shore below.
But I found there was nothing more pleasant than a walk through the elegant, narrow streets of the town itself, with its cobbled, waved-patterned walkways reminiscent of the pavements of Brazil’s Copacabana Beach.
Tasteful shops selling artistic local products stand cheek by jowl with expensive designer outlets showing off clothes that grace the catwalks of Paris. Fortunately, tacky souvenir shops normally seen in Mediterranean resorts are conspicuous by their absence.
And if you’re a boating enthusiast it’s well worth a walk around Cascais Marina to see the yachts, big and small, that are moored there.
On the cliff top, at the centre of Cascais town, is the Citadel, which was built around the 16th century to protect Cascais Bay from invading ships. The decision by King Carlos of Portugal to make the Citadel his official summer residence in 1870 heralded the start of tourism proper for Cascais and today no visit to the town is complete without a walk around this mighty fortress, part of which has recently been turned into a five-star hotel.
And talking of hotels, ours, the Albatroz, occupied the premier position on the cliff top on the edge of town.
This exclusive, intimate, five-star luxury property offers a warm welcome from attentive friendly staff and a dining room that looks out across the beach and ocean in a setting it would be difficult to better. As you eat on the terrace the waves break on the shore below. When you want a change of scenery, head for the hills. The hills of Sintra that it is, and its remarkable palaces, one of the most breathtaking of which is the Pena Palace.