Like an untied shoelace the narrow gauge steel rail spread out in two directions from the center of Lisbon.
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Fresh off the plane we entered the Aeroporto metro station and bought a 5 Euro VIVA Viagem (rechargeable) card for a convenient ride into town. The first metro line was inaugurated in 1959 which has grown to today’s four lines. With the expansion of the metro the number of tram lines has declined from 27 to today’s five. Luckily tram 28E (E stands for “electrico”) was saved by the hilly topography of Lisbon and is today in itself a tourist attraction giving a glimpse of the city on a shoestring.
The 28 tram originates at Praça Martim Moniz named after the knight who according to folklore thrust himself in the door to the hilltop castle Sao Jorge allowing the Crusaders to breach the fortress and drive the Moors out in 1147. His approach may inspire anyone trying to board the “sardine can” (as the locals call it) at the stop bearing his name. In daytime the waiting line stretch well beyond the platform and tram after tram pass by every eight minutes filled to the gills. In the que a local history teacher waiting with his Brazilian girlfriend tells us to “watch out” onboard as he claims that as many as 30% of the riders are pickpockets. He continues to tell the story of an 80 year old woman who made her fortune by cutting open handbags with a box cutter and advise that if someone onboard shouts “I have been robbed” check your pockets. The call might just be a ruse to get riders attention and in the rubbernecking commotion Romanian gangs work their pickpocketing magic he says. This trick is of course not limited to Lisbon but deployed in crowds across the planet and can easily be avoided.
To avoid the crowds and fully appreciate the experience we waited at a stop outside our hotel in the Alfama district an early Sunday morning. Long before the tram came into view the sound preceded it down the hill on Calcada de Sao Vincinte. Then the yellow advertisement blazoned rail car came around a narrow bend just inches from the facades. As we board there are no daily commuters just a half dozen jovial middle aged (look who’s talking) French tourists and a few early church goers. There are still open seats and we pick two by the window to get the view as the power from the copper wires above sets us in motion. Soon we get used to the squeaks of the steel wheels and creaks of the wooden cabin as we head downhill in the narrow canyon of Escolas Gerais and then back up Sao Tome.
It is there the window seats pay off as the warming morning sun throws rays on the lacquered wood paneling of the “remodolado’s” interior. The sign behind the driver allows for twenty sitting passengers and eighteen standing but during daytime the total number may be over the double. However, now as the tram pass Porta do Sol and the breeze of the Atlantic streams through the open windows this ride is ours. We pass the white washed 12th century Santa Luzia Church with its walled fortifications overlooking the Ocean. As we continue downhill we look back at the steeples of the Lisbon Cathedral before reaching the downtown low point. In the commercial area of Baixa the tram goes along Rua do Commercio, off to the left a glimpse of the arch at the grand square Praça do Commercio. On the right along pedestrian Rua Agusta waiters are setting tables for breakfast.
Then the ride heads out of the commercial heart and into Bairro Alto (Old quarters) billed as hip and alternative, where nightlife and shopping meets. However around Praça Luís de Camões it is mostly upscale international brand stores and not much alternative.
As the French group jokes around the tram climbs up Rua do Loreto lined by dusty tile clad facades, gives way to Calcada do Combro and soon turn into Rua Poiais de Sao Bento. Here and there it stops with a jerk and a few gets on and off. Then on Calcada da Estrella broad steps leading to the imposing white pillars of the Parliament building signals another change in the city’s character. This is the seat of power. The tram continues by the Basilica da Estrela and turn around a few stops later at the Cemitério dos Prazeres. Intrigued by the lush greens of Jardim da Estela we get off just after the Basilica for a walk in the park.
In about twenty minutes we have traveled from the immigrant workers quarters of the Alfama to the residence of the Prime Minister a perfect introduction to “The City of Seven Hills”, time to get off and explore by foot.
Tram 28 is the cheapest hop on hop off ride in Lisbon without making and attempt to be one. The cheapest fare is available with the refillable public transport card VIVA Viagem. Onboard cash payments are about twice as much. However as crowds fill the trams waiting can be long and test anyone’s patience. In response the tourist red and green trams were introduced to the dismay of some locals. The public transport card VIVA Viagem is not valid and the fare can be as much as ten times the regular tram price but a seat is guaranteed.
Enjoy the ride
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