At the start of WWII, the Portuguese government headed by Oliveira Salazar announced that Portugal would remain neutral during the conflict. Whilst it did indeed remain neutral, there were extraordinary pressures from both sides of the conflict – notably over the strategically located Açores islands with its military base in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and over the wolfram trade. A highly desirable raw material for the arms industry, wolframite was extracted from the Panasqueira mines in northern Portugal.
This neutrality and the vantage position by the Atlantic contributed in making the Portuguese capital one the last escape routes out of Europe and a symbol of hope for many refugees, as Hitler’s occupation swept across the continent. Thousands flooded to the city trying to obtain the necessary documents to escape to the United States or Palestine.
And so Lisbon becomes a haven for spies, where the British, Gestapo, Italian, Yugoslavian secret services and the French resistance all mixed socially whilst trying to out-manoeuvre each other privately.
In the capital’s city centre, the Avenida da Liberdade features various hotels and bars where much of the intrigue and plotting played out.
The Hotel Avis (now the Sheraton) was home to the British MI5 & MI6, whilst the Hotel Tivoli accommodated German spies – its lobby “spy” bar remains almost the same today as it did then! Meanwhile, the Hotel Avenida Palace connected to the Rossio train station by a secret passageway provided a perfect refuge for spies to mingle with hotel guests awaiting visas there.
In comparison to the poverty and restrictions experienced during the ’40s in the rest of Portugal, this area of Lisbon must have caused some major “culture shock” for the locals observing the comings and goings of a certain refugee elite: reading international magazines, women wearing short skirts and smoking openly (Peggy Guggenheim, Maria Callas and Eva Perón amongst them) and late-night parties almost every day!
There was an international news blackout (the BBC world service was forbidden and Portuguese papers were edited by PIDE the Portuguese secret police), so international newspapers or magazines were brought in by new arrivals and then shared by opposing parties, subtly left forgotten at the end of tea in a hotel, so that the other could pick it up…
At this time the Portuguese Riviera of Costa do Sol (Cascais and Estoril) also turned into a playground for the many exiled heads of European royal houses.
Recently abdicated Edward VIII and his wife Wallis Simpson (the Dukes of Windsor) were hosted by Portuguese banker Ricardo Espirito Santo at his villa in Estoril for a while. But then duke who was well known to be pro-Nazi, became the centre of a kidnap plot by the Germans who wanted to use him as a puppet king once they occupied Britain too. British prime minister Winston Churchill swiftly ordered the dukes to leave Portugal and Edward to take on the position of Governor of the Bahamas.
Ian Fleming the writer, was then another British agent-based in Portugal. But the most famous spy of them all, was perhaps triple agent Popov. Also known as the Tricycle (his British codename) he helped remove Edward and Wallis Simpson to the Bahamas. Of Yugoslav descent Dusan Popov led a promiscuous lifestyle and courted many women during his missions – he later became the inspiration behind Fleming’s Casino Royale (based on the casino do Estoril, one of the largest in Europe) and the James Bond thrillers.
At the end of WWII the Catholic Church in Portugal erected the Cristo Rei statue on the south side of the river Tagus as a thanks to God for sparing the country from the horrors of the war.
One of the great ways to enjoy this magnificent structure as well as the city’s many other cultural gems is to take a river trip. We did this aboard the “Vicente”, a small craft named after Lisbon’s patron saint, based at Doca de Santo Amaro in Lisbon.
Seeing the city of light which Lisbon is famous for, and with friendly skipper Diogo (who speaks several languages) talking us through the various riverside monuments, allowed us to see it from the perspective that ancient seafaring visitors might have done – with the stunning Praça do Comercio and the Torre de Belem particularly standing out. Moving onto modern times, recent additions to Lisbon’s riverside include British Architect Amanda Levets’s undulating MAAT museum and the futuristic Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown.
Zigzagging on the river and under the 25th April Bridge sipping a glass of rose wine produced in the Lisbon region and nibbling on local cheeses and grapes, was a truly memorable way to experience the colours, sights and taste of Lisbon!