Not long ago, I was shocked — shocked! — to discover that a movie-loving young friend had never seen Casablanca.
“I’m just not into black and white,” she told me. I’m hoping she’s simply a late bloomer. Because no one should miss out on the pleasure of watching what the New York Times called, "a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap," and that film critic Leonard Maltin called, “the best Hollywood movie of all time.” If you haven’t seen this romantic thriller set in World War II Morocco, you don't know what you're missing!
Pop quiz for those who have seen the film: Where was everybody in Casablanca trying to get to? That’s right, Lisbon. I had only the haziest idea why, and so when I heard that Magda G. had started the Casablanca Tour of Lisbon, I decided to go find out more.
Magda explained that due to Portugal’s neutrality during World War II, Lisbon became the only port in continental Europe still running clipper ships to New York. By 1940 refugees, political fugitives, and exiled royalty from all over Europe were converging on Lisbon in hopes of getting passage to the New World. Meanwhile representatives of the warring powers arrived to set up propaganda offices, and the city was soon bristling with spies, intrigue, and skullduggery.
We strolled around the plaza known officially as Praça de Don Pedro IV but referred to by locals as Rossio, or Main Square, and dubbed by the British “Seasick Square” for the dizzying effect of the undulating pattern of the paving stones. Magda pointed out several charming sidewalk cafés, which were unknown in Lisbon until Parisian refugees began asking if they could drag their tables out into the sun.
“Before Facebook,” Magda said, “the cafés were our information exchange. Everyone was trying to get a visa, but it was difficult — and very expensive. Everyone hung out here, hoping for news about who could be bribed. Sexy German women claiming to be Swiss were always seducing Allied officers in hopes of getting information from them.” As you can imagine, this did nothing to lessen the city’s popularity.
While the rest of Europe was ravaged by war, Lisbon prospered. The wealth of refugees, former heads of state, and government intriguers on lavish expense accounts flooded the economy with cash, jewels (crown and otherwise), gold bars stamped with swastikas, and other portable assets. Portugal’s dictator António Salazar didn’t want to lose his profitable new guests or get drawn into the war, so he insisted that the various factions co-exist in a peaceful manner — or at least not slit each other’s throats in public places.
Some of Lisbon’s newfound wealth was spent on culture, including bringing foreign films and international movie stars to Lisbon. Remember Leslie Howard, who played Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind? Howard’s true love was Shakespeare, and in 1943 he gave a lecture on the Bard at the Portuguese National Theater on Seasick Square. It was to prove the final performance of his life. The Nazis had discovered that Winston Churchill was in Morocco and believed he would be stopping over in Lisbon on his way back to England. Most unfortunately, Howard was traveling with his agent, a short, fat, bald guy who was always smoking cigars; the Nazis, mistaking him for Churchill, shot down their plane.
One of the last spots on the tour was the Hard Rock Café, a former movie theater where in 1942 a new Hollywood blockbuster called Casablanca was shown. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to sit in that darkened theater as the famous story began with the narrator’s words, “With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But, not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up…” A trail so many in that theater had taken, although not always through Casablanca.
This is just one sliver of Lisbon’s long and colorful history, most of which I know absolutely nothing about. But thanks to the Casablanca Tour, I’ve started making the acquaintance of this fascinating city. I’m hoping it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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