Hop on the train from Lisbon’s Central station Cais do Sodré to the up-market beach town of Cascais, and it won’t be long before the tracks trail along the waterfront where the river turns into the sea. Swoop past the surf beaches of Oeiras and Carcavelos, where you’ll find one of Europe’s leading business schools, and you will arrive at Estoril, the final stop before Cascais. You’ll know it from the Cinderella-esque turreted palaces, the mansion houses adorned with gables set behind tall walls that conjure an air of the fantastical.
These make even Lisbon’s properties with their pastel pink hues seem mundane. Sleepy, it may well seem…sleepy, exclusive, discreet. A stroll around its quiet park, and it’s hard to believe that here lies hallowed stomping ground for royalty, spies and the sort of artistic fodder that gave author Ian Fleming the inspiration to bring to life one of the world’s best-loved characters, James Bond.
It was 1941 and Estoril was one of the most glamorous places in all of Europe, a neutral heaven in the mess of division and desperation created by the Second World War. And it was here where high-ranking officials, royalty, undercover agents and a carousel of beautiful women would meet. The battle lines here were drawn over roulette tables rather than real-life trenches and sworn enemies would cross paths in patterned hallways. It was the perfect playground for double agents, and it was here that Fleming weaved together the fabric for Bond, based on the Yugoslavian spy Duško Popov, who was nicknamed ‘Tricycle’ because he operated as an intelligence agent for not two but three different countries, and was regularly seen with numerous women on his arm.
So the story goes, Fleming and Popov would drink martinis together at the bar of the Hotel Atlântico, now the InterContinental Estoril, while passing secrets, ahead of sessions in Estoril’s striking Casino. It was here, over a particularly loaded game with his navel intelligence boss, Admiral Godfrey, that Fleming found the inspiration for Casino Royale.
In the years that followed the war, Estoril remained one of the hotspots of Europe, with South American commodity billionaire Patiño throwing record-breaking parties in his country-estate just outside Estoril.
And now? You can still play in the Casino, although modernized by a Chinese group and glinting beyond measure (not in a good way); and you can still drink martinis-shaken-not-stirred, although the original bar at the Hotel Atlântico is gone.
What underpinned those heightened times remains the same, the same shining silver-blue sea, the perfect point- break to surf and evening sunsets stroll along the waterfront. The parties? Not quite.
What does remain is that air of exclusivity, an architecture that speaks of Dukes and duchesses rather than high-rise developers and a sense of mystery at what lies behind those high walls. These days, the competition for the best plots is heating up like a loaded game of Black Jack. While prices have risen 37% in recent years, property here remains amongst the highest valued in Lisbon, driven by private bankers and consultants who snap up the chance to raise their family right by the beach, in a fairy-tale sea-side village not 30 minutes from Lisbon’s business district.
At the recent launch, Lisbon’s well-to-extremely-well-to-do shucked oysters, sipped oversized gin and tonics and snacked on foie gras and quails’ eggs on toast while John Coltrane lilted through the marbled arches from the Sax trio serenading the sunset in the hand-painted living room. It was a snapshot of times gone by, and perhaps, times yet to come…. What is certain is that new properties such as these bring a new lease of life to the Old-World glamour of the neighbourhood, and sleepy-chic Estoril may just be headed for another heyday.