I am not a James Bond fan, but I now have a very special reason for watching two of the movies. Having found out that Estoril had been a refuge for secret agents as well as royal families during WWII, I decided, during a recent visit to my childhood hometown, to find out more.
Did you know that, during WWII, Portugal remained neutral, leading many people to take refuge in Lisbon especially as it was a point of departure to the United States? Goods were moved through Lisbon into Europe and, as a centre of communication, it became a haven for both allied and German agents and spies, many of which could be found staying in Estoril hotels, especially at the luxurious Hotel Palácio, situated next to the casino.
This majestic hotel built in 1930 was part of the dream of businessman Fausto de Figueiredo who, during his career, was also president of the Portuguese railways and of Cascais Council. For his work, he travelled all over Europe learning about tourism and, as a result, he decided to turn Estoril into a national and international tourist destination.
He was responsible for instigating the construction of the Estoril railway line, hotels, tennis courts, a golf course and the casino, turning what had previously been pine trees woodland into the sought-after cosmopolitan area it is today.
My visit to the Hotel Palácio turned out to be so much more interesting and special than I had anticipated because I had the great privilege of being shown round by 70-year-old Mr José Diogo Vieira (known as José Diogo), the hotel’s deputy head concierge who started working there in 1964 when he was just 14 years old.
José Diogo proudly told me about the famous people he has met over the years and how his job has been such a pleasure. Long past retirement, he was asked to continue working, as he has become such a well-known ‘personality’ of the hotel.
José Diogo showed me the Hotel’s Royal Gallery opened in 2011, a long corridor showcasing mementos and photographs in honour of the royals that have stayed at the hotel and he had anecdotes about many of them.
I asked him what he liked about his job. “I like to serve the guests and to do my job to the best of my abilities. It is important to love what you do and to be proud of the service you give, getting close to the guests, being friendly and polite at all times and never saying no!”
The guest’s satisfaction is his pride and joy, and many returning guests greet him like a friend. It is his job to solve any problems they may have. Apart from the satisfaction his job gives him and the opportunity of meeting so many famous and interesting people, there have been other rewards too. One very grateful hotel guest invited José to visit America, paying for his flight and for a two-week stay, after she fell over and José personally drove her to hospital in his little Austin Mini car to make sure she was alright.
José explained how, during and after WWII, Estoril became the home for royal families and other wealthy individuals, many of which lived in the Hotel Palácio and then made Estoril their second home to escape a war-damaged Europe. The area thus became known as the Coast of Kings due to the high number of royals living there and even today continues to attract royal families, presidents, sports champions, actors, artists and politicians.
One of the hotel’s infamous guests was James Bond author, Ian Fleming. As a writer, I understand the concept of ‘write about what you know’ and that is exactly what Ian Fleming did. He worked for Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division during the war, working with other intelligence units and being involved in planning several important war operations.
At the time, he stayed at the Hotel Palácio and it was his war service and his career as a journalist that provided background information for his James Bond novels. He was a regular visitor to the Casino Estoril which was the inspiration for his Casino Royale novel written in 1953.
José showed me the hotel’s Bar Estoril, which is aptly nicknamed the ‘Spies Bar’ due to the meetings that took place there in the war. Serbian triple agent Dusko Popov, who served as part of MI6, is considered to be the character on which James Bond is based as Ian Fleming was ‘shadowing him’ during their stay in Estoril.
Part of the Bond movie “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was also filmed in the hotel. José, who was 19 at the time, was recruited as an extra and is the bell boy who gave James Bond, aka George Lazenby, his hotel room key. He has enjoyed his ‘five minutes of fame’ ever since, often being asked for his autograph, which of course he gave to me too, on a couple of glossy magazines featuring the hotel and James Bond’s 50 years’ anniversary.
As a concierge, José’s responsibility is to be the liaison between the guests and the hotel, keeping guests happy. He no doubt has many stories he could tell but, of course, it is part of his job to retain confidentiality and to be discreet!
His job has given him the opportunity to be part of history and to participate in so many wonderful events that take place at the hotel. From elite parties and weddings, the unveiling of new Formula 1 cars in the gardens to the 50th anniversary dinner for the Celtic football squad of 1967 who stayed at the hotel during their European cup win against Italian team Internazionale, José has been involved in it all. He was even invited to and attended the ‘Lisbon Lions London’ fundraiser in May 2017 at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London commemorating Celtics legendary win.
The Hotel Palácio Estoril retains its original white façade and landscaped gardens and, although the luxurious timeless interior has been updated, it is still breathtaking for its elegant classic décor and marble floors. It continues to be a favourite for the famous and wealthy, and José Diogo is there to greet them all.
By receiving and assisting the now grown-up grandchildren of guests who stayed many years ago, he provides a wonderful continuity and even more so since his son Diogo Vieira now also works at the hotel.
Who would have thought that a concierge’s job could be so exciting?
So now you know!
By Isobel Costa
Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.