Lisbon: Cover your tracks

By Mark Fryer

It's just the ticket: Mark Fryer enjoys a splendid day out on Lisbon's trams.

A tram makes its way along a Lisbon street at sunset. Photo / Mark Fryer
A tram makes its way along a Lisbon street at sunset. Photo / Mark Fryer

The best you can say about a bus is that it gets you there.

Efficient? Sometimes. Charming? Sorry, not included in the ticket price. A tram, however, is a different matter.

A bus ride gets you from A to B. But a tram trip, that's a real event.

As trams go, they don't come much more charming than the little yellow-and-white numbers that squeeze through the tangled streets of Lisbon.

Portugal's capital has its share of more modern conveyances, like the very 21st-century streetcars that glide through the city's flatter stretches with a menacing lack of noise, but you don't have to be a trainspotter to prefer the older way of getting around town.

These are trams as imagined by the creators of Matchbox toys. Little four-wheelers, 20 seats, lashings of varnished wood, windows you can open and lean your arm on the sill, all proceeding with much ringing of bells and grinding of wheels on the tracks.

All that charm gets thrown in free. Even without it, going by tram would still be the most practical way of getting around a city that has two main directions - up and down.

A few of Lisbon's trams have been dressed in historic livery and put to work plying the circuito turistico, but a more enjoyable - and cheaper - way of exploring the city is to hop on one of the regular routes and see where it takes you.

Lisbon's most celebrated tram is the prosaically named No 28 - the city's main tram route and, my guidebook tells me breathlessly, rated by some tram-fans as one of the greatest tram in Europe, maybe even the world.

You'd look a long way to find more entertainment for the €1.10 ($2.20) price of a ticket.

The No 28 runs for 10km across town, from one of the city's many high points to another. Along the way it negotiates slopes where no tram should rightly go, handles corners that the bendiest of buses would have trouble with, and squeezes down streets so narrow that a mildly athletic passenger could lean out and touch the houses beside the track. Stay on for the whole trip, or use the No 28 to see Lisbon the lazy way - get a ride up, then do your sightseeing on the downhill walk back.

If you're downtown, try catching the No 28 on the eastbound leg of its circuit, hang on for a few tight bends and a steep climb and get off when you see the sign pointing to the Castelo de Sao Jorge (St George's castle, of course, but you might score a few points with the driver if you ask in Portuguese).

The castle can be seen from most places in Lisbon, squatting on one of the higher hilltops, and is all that a medieval castle should be - which is something of a fraud, given that it wasn't finished until the 1930s, but it's a fraud worth indulging.

It's true that a castle, if not quite the castle you see today, had been on this hilltop for several centuries by the time the Crusaders arrived in 1147 and expelled its Moorish occupants amid much pillaging, gratuitous cruelty and other supposedly un-Christian behaviour.

After that it served as a royal palace, before being transformed into a very historic pile of rubble by the earthquake that flattened large parts of Lisbon in 1755.

That's how things remained until the 1930s, when the dictator Salazar decreed that the ancient fortifications should rise again. Which explains why this is one of the best-scrubbed ancient castles you're likely to come across, and if it's not precisely authentic, well, it looks exactly the way a storybook castle ought to look, which isn't a bad deal.

Take a walk round the battlements, imagine the fun of pouring boiling oil on attacking infidels, take in the views over the city and the river Tagus, or just be nosy and spy on the houses below, with their backyard gardens running right up to the castle walls.

When you've had enough of playing king of the castle, head back down the hill and across the tram tracks for a wander through a part of town that really is as old as it looks.

Stop for a moment, maybe for a cool drink, at the Largo das Portas do Sol, a terrace where you can look out over the red tiled roofs of the houses below. With a bit of squinting to remove the satellite TV dishes from your field of vision, it's not a big stretch to imagine that this view hasn't changed for centuries.

This is the Alfama district, just below the castle walls, where the surviving Moors ended up after their Christian conquerors lost interest in looting and pillaging, and its narrow streets - which survived the 1755 quake - still have the feel of North Africa.

Forget about a map, or following directions. Just take the downhill option at every junction and you'll eventually emerge at the bottom of the hill.

If you insist on seeing the authorised attractions, this part of town has its share of ornate churches, historic buildings and museums, but a little random wandering can be every bit as rewarding.

This is pedestrian-only territory and any mechanised conveyance wider than a mountainbike would have a hard time squeezing down many of the Alfama's cobbled streets.

Look up at some splendidly ornate facades, some restored, some most emphatically not, at washing strung from one side of the street to the other, at tiny wrought iron balconies decorated with pot-plants.

Look down at the closet-sized taverns tucked into some of the basements. Just don't forget to look right down every few steps because the approach to canine hygiene is just as antiquated as the street plan.

Trams aren't the only means of making your way up Lisbon's inclines without breaking into a sweat. On the really steep bits there are funiculars. They're a little like Wellington's cablecar, set higher at one end than the other so passengers can sit upright despite the steep slope.

But to see the city's most eccentric method of achieving elevation without exertion, from the bottom of the Alfama head back to the downtown, known locally as the Baixa (Portuguese for "thank God, a flat bit at last").

This is where you'll find the Elevador de Santa Justa, an outdoor lift put there to save footsore pedestrians the effort of traipsing from the Baixa up the hill to the neighbouring district.

Built in 1902, the elevador was designed by an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel. He apparently lay awake nights working out how to cram as much decoration as possible into every square centimetre of its cast-iron structure.

None of your push-button, automatic door business here. Elevador passengers ride in wood-panelled cabins, presided over by a lift attendant whose hand on the control lever decides how smoothly you arrive at your destination.

These days, the elevador's practical use as a pedestrian convenience is distinctly limited, since the walkway connecting its upper level to the street is closed for repair. The sign proclaiming a late 2003 re-opening date is not a confidence-builder.

Never mind, you're a tourist here, not a weary local. You can still pay your €1.30, ride to the top, climb a couple of flights of spiral stairs - the view of the city between your feet is spectacular, but perhaps best avoided by anyone with vertigo - grab a table under an umbrella at the tiny cafe on the top level, have a drink or a snack and enjoy the views.

On one side, look out over the ruins of the Carmo church, built in the 14th century, semi-demolished in 1755 - that earthquake again - and still waiting for the tradesmen to arrive. In the meantime, its remaining Gothic arches make for a splendidly picturesque ruin.

On the other side is the central city, rising to the castle on its hill. Look back and think of all those steps you didn't have to climb.

Mark Fryer travelled independently to Portugal.

- NZ Herald

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