Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Mediterranean 2017 - part five

‘Though I had been in Lisbon for a week, I hadn’t yet got used to its carefree illumination. In the countries I had come from, the cities at night were as black as coal mines, and a lantern in the darkness was more to be feared than the plague in the Middle Ages.’ (The Night in Lisbon  Erich Maria Remarque 1961). Remarque was author of All Quiet on the Western Front.


Minus American cigarettes, my father and his fellow passengers were allowed into Portugal: 'When our passports had been examined, we were taken out into a quaint old-fashioned courtyard where we found three big cars waiting to take us into Lisbon … we proceeded by narrow streets hardly more than a few feet wide ... held up by carts, drawn by mules and oxen, carrying loads of cork; we saw women with water pitchers on their shoulders walking barefoot to draw water from a communal tap in the wall of the street ... policemen in magnificent uniforms, wearing swords …'

“It was very strange (to be) in one of the only neutral countries in Europe. We saw one or two German travel agencies and I was told that German commercial airlines were still keeping up a fairly regular service.”

The Germans (as did the British) ran a busy propaganda operation in Lisbon. At the German Institute, you could see displays on Nazi achievements and picturesque (bar Allied bombing) tourist destinations. 

Nowadays, windows reconfigured, the location offers Nespresso, not Mein Kampf. 

Dad's car would have taken him past a stunning, 1931 cinema, the Teatro Eden, with its evocations of early film. (Thanks to fellow passenger Ron from Toronto for a better general view of the building than I took.)

The actress looks like a Greek goddess of movies.

The Portugal Dad stayed in was the stuff of film noir. Indeed, neutral Lisbon was the next stop for Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund after she said goodbye to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine (who remembers the surnames?) in Casablanca

Dad’s little convoy continued into town: “When we reached the centre of Lisbon, we found the streets wider and a more modern atmosphere. We soon arrived at our hotel …”

“ ... the Hotel Aviz was ... rather old-fashioned and overbearing in its furnishings, but they had a very fine suite ready … After cleaning up, we went down to the lounge … where we found an excellent tea awaiting us.” 

The Aviz was demolished in 1962. I survey, by comparison, a nondescript Sheraton where, in my father’s time, Calouste Gulbenkian ...

... an oil magnate reputed to be the world’s richest man, had a permanent suite. The Duke of Windsor dined at the Aviz and Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind) stayed.

Tea done, Dad sent a (not inexpensive) international telegram to Mum in Washington and went out for a stroll. Allied officers in civilian clothes shared crowded streets, not just with Portuguese, but Germans and Italians, also out of uniform. On the Tagus, where Dad’s plane had landed a few hours before, German warships arrived on courtesy visits. The Germans would depart and, in due course, the Royal Navy would pay a visit. 

For dinner, there was lots of choice in a city with relatively abundant food supplies. And my father, privileged in a world at war, clearly enjoyed his stays in Lisbon: “They served us an excellent meal with a white wine, and … the coffee was extraordinarily good. I was struck by the number of waiters … It was obvious after the manpower shortage elsewhere in the world.”

One possibility for a meal was the Café Leão d’Ouro (The Golden Lion), a famous restaurant dating to 1842. Here, monitored by agents of the Portuguese secret police, dined Allied and Axis officers, spies of many nations (James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, spent time in Lisbon), businessmen making wartime deals, chancers ... and refugees.

Portugal, despite its fascist politics, had become unwilling host to thousands of refugees - Jewish and political - from the Nazis. If they didn’t come by car or on foot across the Pyrenees ...

... most arrived at Lisbon’s main Rossio train station, used then for international trains. 

Where I see a few tourists boarding a local train would have been crowded with desperate escapees from the German advance into Western Europe.

From the station, this was their first good view of the city with the Castelo de São Jorge - Castle of St. George - overlooking the centre. 

Lisbon was “the one remaining port on the Continent from which you can get a boat or a plane to New York.” (William Shirer   Berlin Diary, 1934-1941 [entry for Oct. 15, 1940])

The prize most refugees sought was an American visa, a process which could take weeks, months and often end in failure. Others hoped a South American country would accept them. Whatever, they mainly had to travel by neutral ship and finding passage was difficult and costly.

The routine of refugees, especially those with money, centred on the Rossio, a square more formally called the Praça Dom Pedro IV. 

Around the square were hotels, cafes, travel agencies and useful contacts. 

Now, as then, the Rossio is wonderful for people watching.

Behind the bench, number 113 on the Rossio was entrance to the Hotel FrankfortThis was where Jewish American heiress Peggy Guggenheim (Guggenheim Collection in Venice), author Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon and other refugees stayed.

Now derelict, I wonder what happened to the hotel's 'art-nouveau elevator emphasising (sic) the mahogany solidity of the foyer', so described in a 1971 guidebook.

Just across the square from the hotel was the Café Chave d'Ouro - Golden Key

This was one of Lisbon’s most popular cafés, designed in a deco style; Guggenheim and Koestler (and quite possibly my father) would have spent time here making contacts, swapping news and rumours. Here also might have been Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (The Little Prince, Night Flight), who had escaped France and was making his way to the States.

The first half hour or so of Casablanca offers a Hollywood version of a febrile café atmosphere somewhat similar to the reality of an anxious Lisbon on the sidelines of history’s greatest war. 

The Café Chave d'Ouro closed in 1959, possibly on Salazar’s orders as it had become popular with regime opponents.

However, surviving, indeed thriving, on the Rossio is the Café Suiça, now the Pastelaria Suiça - Swiss Pastry Café - another refugee haunt.

After dinner, Dad perhaps (I don’t have all his diary transcripts) went to the Teatro da Trindade, well known for its shows. 

Famed American dancer Josephine Baker performed here. Her dancing is better known than that she risked her life as an agent for the Allies. And Lisbon was ideal for the exchange of secrets. 

Or possibly Dad sought culture of a different kind at the Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II on the Rossio

In 1943 British actor Leslie Howard, staying, as I mentioned, at the Aviz, spoke here on the modern interpretation of Shakespeare. On the flight back to England, his plane was shot down by the Germans. There were no survivors. This was the same route Dad would take after leaving Lisbon.

But, in this strange city, the war briefly could seem remote. And, at evening’s end, perhaps Dad had a nightcap in the Hotel Aviz’s well stocked bar.


Although Lisbon was “one of the few remaining comfortable cities left in Europe” (The Road Back to Paris A.J. Lieberling 1944), the war was, of course, inescapable. Dad might revel in a city unbombed and a few good meals, but his job involved the lives and deaths of many; refugees might cram elegant cafes (tho’ more likely tawdry bars), but they were still refugees. And the Portuguese dictatorship made money from everyone, democrat or Nazi.

For six years, Lisbon, capital of a now forgotten totalitarian state, was an international meeting place, then, with the war over, became a decided backwater. However, in the next post, I’ll return to Lisbon and its odd, little-known ‘world’s fair’ in the summer of Dunkirk, France vanquished and Hitler triumphant.