Hotel Palacio - the birthplace of James Bond
After leaping from a speeding motorcycle onto a moving train and wrestling an armed terrorist half to death while ducking under overhead tunnels, Skyfall’s Daniel Craig looks calm and rather natty that evening as he chats up a dark-haired beauty at the bar.
The muzzle of a gun touching the back of his head comes with a question: “Who are you?” He bats the gun aside like it’s a fl y and delivers the movie’s trademark line: “The name is Popov. Dusan Popov.”
“No, no no-cut!” The name ‘Popov’ was never going to carry the same reverential currency as “Bond, James Bond.” Yet, had novelist Ian Fleming stuck to the facts while writing the greatest series of spy thrillers the world has ever read, that’s exactly who Sean Connery and six other leading men would have been portraying in 50 years of Bondmania. Dusan M. Popov, code name “The Tricycle.”
It all began in 1941 at The Palacio Hotel in Estoril, a quiet but spectacular oceanside resort town, 16 miles north of Lisbon, Portugal. Together – The Palacio, The Atlántico, The Parque Hotel and the Casino formed a square around a palm-treed park.
In front was the train station and beyond that the Atlantic Ocean with white breakers churning inland toward a grainy brown beach. Portugal had remained staunchly neutral during the Second World War and Estoril, long a haven for disposed kings and displaced dictators became what Casablanca was in the movie by the same name – a rabbit warren of spies and shylocks trading in secret information.
Hotels of the spies
The Nazis spies and their Axis allies had established their headquarters at the Hotel do Parque, filling it to capacity with goose-stepping of- fi cers and Gestapo operatives in broad-brimmed hats. The overfl ow of the Third Reich stayed at The Atlántico, closest to the sea. The Palacio, the largest and most stylish of the hotels became home to British and American spy agencies, M15 and the OSS (Offi ce of Strategic Services), the forerunner of the CIA.
Ian Lancaster Fleming, a highranking British Naval Intelligence Offi cer was sent to Estoril by M15 to manage a very talented and effective double agent from Yugoslavia. Dusan Popov loathed the Nazis as much as he loved the Brits. He took money, lots of it from the Germans for providing Abwehr, their intelligence division with information pre-approved by M15. He would accept nothing from the Brits but the joy of working for a country he much admired and the pleasure of Fleming’s company.
Contrary to the declarations on their registration forms at The Palacio, Fleming was no more a journalist than Popov was a businessman or a lawyer or on a third visit, a private citizen.
However in 1941, whenever the advogado Popov checked into The Palacio, Fleming the jornalista was not far behind. Often they would go to the casino, fast friends in the milieu of microfi lm and tiny transmitters, hidden cameras and maps drawn on flash paper. Popov was an expert in concocting invisible ink, which he mixed in a Champagne glass.
Some believe, wrongly, that Dusan Popov earned the code name ‘Tricycle’ because he was a triple threat, working for the Brits, the Germans and the Americans. The Americans could only wish they had such an asset. Fleming and his British colleagues nick-named him “The Tricycle” because he always showed up for an evening wrapped around several beautiful women. But it was the maids at The Palacio who endorsed Popov’s code name with stories of the Slav’s appetite for three in a bed … at once.
The Champagne News Service
The fake writer and the phony lawyer met almost every evening at the large and elegant lounge in The Palacio. But then all the spooks, Allied and Axis came to The Spies Bar, then and now the best drinking establishment in Estoril.
“They called it the Champagne News Service,” said Jose Diogo, The Palacio’s gracious concierge. On those nights when Germans mumbled in their beer and right next to them, Fleming and Popov slugged back the house wine – nobody’s team was winning. But when Abwehr agents insisted the barkeep break out the best Champagne, everybody knew the Bismarck had sunk another ship or Tobruk was under siege.
Likewise when Fleming and Popov shared a bottle of Moet & Chandon at the bar, the Germans at the tables squirmed in resignation. Days later, world news services would confi rm that the Allies had crossed the Rhine or breached the Siegfried Line. When Germans at the bar spoke brashly in loud voices, the Americans knew they were talking trash. Whenever a Brit confi ded sensitive information to a hotel employee, he expected it to be passed on.
The most powerful collector of secret information could well have been Antonio Pinto, the head concierge at the Parque. With the tidbits of gossip he gathered from waiters and chamber maids, bus boys and bartenders, he could have replaced “The Tricycle” as Britain’s’ biggest asset. But he did not. The Portuguese took their oath of neutrality seriously.
After the war, a CIA agent lamented that Pinto’s knowledge was worth the work of a dozen agents but “the man was a sphinx.” “Senor No” did not share his spy stories with anyone … except Ian Fleming, once the war was over.
Hotel staff saw it all – from the married German couple who did not sleep together and ran up $600 a day in phone calls, to the vases of fl owers that came back to the kitchen imbedded with tiny listening devices. When they tore down the Parque Hotel they found bugging devices on the roof and a maze of hidden wires in the walls. When they raised the Atlántico, signal lamps for communicating visually with submarines off the coast were found on the roof. The Swastika fl ag, the one the Germans draped out a window to insult the Brits and Americans walking by, was still intact.
M15 plant Ian Fleming, handler of double agent Popov and valued client of The Palacio sopped it all up like a sponge and later wrung it out onto the page. After the war Fleming returned to The Palacio, checked himself into Room #516 and didn’t check out until he had the fi rst draft of Casino Royale.
The book was based on the gaming house he frequented with “The Tricycle”, the one he could now see as he wrote from his balcony. Casino Royale was a smash hit in 1952 establishing a faithful following that would go on to purchase 100 million copies of 11 Bond novels and watch 25 Bond fi lms which earned $5 billion and featured several different leads.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was shot on location at The Palacio. This odd marriage of Fleming and Popov, born out of deception and deception, has enjoyed a 50-year honeymoon in Hollywood that shows no sign of ending.
How lucky can a writer get? The material, the settings, the contacts, the secret note pads – everything fell into Fleming’s lap the day he retired from M15. His sensational career could only have been more certain if a young Sean Connery had met him at The Palacio’s small elevator and said: “Turn those pages faster, Chum, I’m between fi lms at the moment.”
Suave, graceful, intriguing
The Palacio is a lot like Sean Connery’s Bond – suave and graceful, intriguing yet friendly, classy with a sense of style. Today the Palacio is back to the business of providing elegance and luxury for travelers who want to be dazzled and pampered. From the hush of its plush carpets to the twinkle of hall chandeliers and the glistening brass of the bar – The Palacio earns all fi ve of its stars each and every day. With a welcoming staff which is both gracious and fun to be around, The Palacio exudes a casualness and a comfort level most great hotels resist.
The Palacio became such a favourite of celebrities, a row of swimming pool suites are nostalgically named after them – Orson Welles, Gina Lollobrigida, The Aga Kahn, Rex Harrison et al. Even James Bond stayed here when On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was filmed at the hotel in 1969 and the Australian actor George Lazenby played Agent 007.
Concierge Jose Diogo, who had a part in the movie helped organize its 50th anniversary at The Palacio. Kings – Umberto of Italy and Don Juan of Spain – have graced The Palacio with their royal presence as well as Queen Noor of Jordan. The photo gallery along the hotel’s hallowed hallway boasts too many Counts to count.
The Palacio’s location is perfect for a tourist seeking an oceanside secluded oasis or a base to visit the bustling city of Lisbon next door. The sandstone beach is a brief walk across the road.
The Palacio is a spectacular hotel with a naturally beautiful golf course that has hosted the Portuguese Open and a world-class spa called The Banyan Tree where green tea is served up with heavenly Thai massages. A sumptuous breakfast comes with the room and The Grill serves as an intimate and refi ned foray into Portuguese fine dining. To treat yourself to refinement and quiet luxury, The Palacio is a dream destination.
Now, in the evening, a goodnight chocolate kiss is placed upon your pillow. In 1941 a guest from Berlin at the Parque Hotel would always end his heavily-coded conversation with “Goodnight Fritz.” And then to Fleming and Popov hunched on a balcony of The Palacio with receivers to their ears he would add: “Good night also, to my British friends, wherever you are.”