Lisbon, Portugal: The real-life spy who inspired Ian Fleming's James Bond character

"The name's Popov. Dusko Popov." Sure, it doesn't have the same ring as 007's famous catch cry. But, according to Ines Morais, author Ian Fleming based his famous Bond character on a real-life Serbian playboy spy he had met in wartime Lisbon.

"Popov was a double agent, working for both the British and the German [intelligence agency] Abwehr," Morais says. "He often had a beautiful woman on each arm, and was awarded an OBE by the British after the war."

Fleming was stationed in Lisbon for the British secret service and met Popov at Hotel Aviz, one of the city's many rendezvous sites for spies and their informers. Few foreign visitors realise Portugal's neutrality during World War II turned Lisbon into a hotbed of espionage, which is why Morais launched her popular City of Spies walking tour in 2018.

Like Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy and Franco's Spain, Portugal was then ruled by its own right wing dictator, Antonio Salazar (who would survive until 1974's Carnation Revolution). But Salazar resisted the pressure to join the Axis powers and kept Portugal neutral.

The Nazis were based at the Hotel Avenida Palace, Morais explains. It's still there next to Rossio railway station, though the secret tunnel that allowed spies to move between hotel and platform has since been closed. The British preferred Hotel Aviz (since demolished and replaced by a modern namesake), or the Tivoli Avenida Liberdade.

Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich began flowing into Lisbon even before war was declared in 1939, making up a third of those who arrived. An estimated 30,000 refugees owed their escape to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux. The "Portuguese Oskar Schindler", as he's been called, disobeyed Salazar's orders and issued temporary visas as fast as he could write them.

"Many refugees hung out here at Rossio Square," Morais explains, describing what is still one of Lisbon's most beautiful open spaces as we sip a mid-walk coffee at historic Cafe Nicola.

"While they were waiting to be processed, the women would spend their days at places like Cafe Nicola," she continues. "Their presence made a big impact on local Portuguese women. They were seen reading newspapers, smoking cigarettes, sipping a glass of wine – Portuguese women weren't allowed to do that; they were going to their hairdressers and asking for the same haircuts they'd seen on the refugees."

During the war, Lisbon also became a haunt of Hollywood. Morais says the European premiere of Gone with the Wind was held at the still-existing Eden Theatre because London was deemed too dangerous. But back to Dusko Popov.

Advertisement

It's a 35-minute train ride from Lisbon's Cais do Sodre station to Estoril, Portugal's elegant coastal retreat for royal exiles. During the war it was the partying place of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as well as the kings of Spain and Greece, along with the Jewish heiress and arts patron Peggy Guggenheim, who, as a US citizen, could have been back in New York.

Apart from civilised safety, Estoril's main drawcard was its casino, then a rarity in free Europe. According to Morais, Fleming observed Popov playing the roulette table and flirting with the elegantly dressed women as he swapped intelligence with informants. What Fleming witnessed he later used in his first Bond novel, Casino Royale.

Popov wasn't the only Allied double agent in Lisbon at the time. Morais says the Spanish-born Juan Pujol Garcia is one of the great enigmas of espionage. Better known by his British code name, "Garbo", after the legendary actress who liked to be left alone, Garcia was an inspired fantasist desperate to become a spy. When both the British and Americans turned down his requests for employment, he went freelance, posing as a fanatically pro-Nazi Spanish government official.

Recruited by the Nazis, he and his wife were ordered to move to wartime Britain. Instead, he stayed in Lisbon sending "top secret intelligence" back to Berlin that he had mainly borrowed from British tourist guides and train timetables he found in Lisbon libraries. Once the British realised the value of the false intel he was sending the Nazis, Garcia was moved to London and recruited into MI5.

Entire books have been written about Garbo: the only spy in World War II to have been awarded the Iron Cross by Hitler and, after Hitler's defeat, the MBE from King George VI. Experts agree his most valuable contribution to the war was being able to convince the Nazi High Command that the D-Day landings would take place in early June, 1944 – but nearer Pas-de-Calais than the beaches of Normandy.

Garcia kept up the intrigue after the war. Convinced a Nazi hit squad was on his trail, he fled to Angola and faked his own death. Actually he died peacefully in Venezuela in 1988, after running a successful bookshop there.

At my request, we finish our walking tour at somewhere I can sit down and take notes. Morais chooses "the British Bar", established in 1919, so we can sit outside in the autumn sun. Over her coffee and my Portuguese lager, she explains that we're in the heart of Cais do Sodre district. Today it's prime near-waterfront real estate. But back in the day it was a rough, working class haunt frequented by ne'er do wells.

"The German spies chose the best prostitutes who worked in Cais do Sodre and taught them English. Lisbon's prostitutes were good at getting information out of sailors, lighthouse keepers and telephone operators."

Bond, if not Popov, would have felt at home.

TRIP NOTES

Steve Meacham travelled at his own expense.

MORE

traveller.com.au/portugal

visitlisboa.com

FLY

Several airlines fly from Australia to Lisbon, including Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways. See etihad.com; emirates.com; qatarairways.com

TOUR

From Lisbon With Love: A James Bond tour costs €7 a person. See withlocals.com

DRINK

The British Bar is open Monday to Saturday from noon till 4am. See lojascomhistoria.pt/shops/british-bar

Comments