Wednesday, February 27, 2013

In which I geek out about trams

If any single object could be a symbol of Lisbon, it would be one of their yellow trams.

I love trains and trams in all their forms, and the Lisbon trams are especially wonderful.  They come in two varieties:  the regular trams and the "elevadores," which are funiculars and take passengers up three of the steepest hills.  One morning, Ian and I went out and rode them all, starting with the Elevadore da Bica, which was at the end of our street.

Approaching the Elevadore da Bica's housing.

In the station

Behind the controls

They're balanced by counterweights, so one is always descending while its counterpart ascends and they pass each other midway up the hill. To be a funicula operator must be a pretty sweet gig.  You drive the car to the top (or bottom) of the hill, then shoo everybody out, sit down with your novel or crossword puzzle for fifteen minutes, repeat.  And they get a very smart blue wool overcoat.

Besides the Elevadore da Bica, there are the Elevadore do Lavra--the oldest and steepest of the three, and the Elevadore da Gloria--the most popular. All were within walking distance of our apartment.  And while we're on the subject of elevadores, I should mention the Elevadore de Santa Juste, which tends to be classified with the funniculars, only it's an actual elevator, designed by an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel and is considered a form of public transportation, which tells you something about the topography of Lisbon, that they need a 148 ft elevator to get from one block to the next.

Elevadore do Lavra approaches

Elevadore da Gloria

Elevadore de Santa Juste

Tram 28 and tram 12 are the ones that attract the most attention, as they're the traditional ones that you see in all the pictures, and their routes run through picturesque areas of Lisbon.  Tram 28 passes through our neighborhood, and one afternoon, I went out alone and walked along the 28's tracks until their end in Estrela--a hilly, beautiful walk.  Then I caught the tram back home.

It was rush hour and these trams are small.  I got a seat, but soon there was standing room only.  I realized that the savvy people stand in the back near the exit.  I also noticed that the door didn't seem to open automatically and I couldn't figure out how the passengers signaled to the driver that they wanted to get off.  I was helplessly squeezed into my seat as we traveled up hill and down--the brakes grind in a thrilling manner when stopping on downward slopes.  When we did get to my neighborhood, the tram stopped and I managed to worm my way to the exit.

Another day, I followed the tram 28 tracks in the opposite direction to the Alfama.  A vaguely official looking woman got on.  She had a clip board and an ID badge and she approached each Portuguese passenger and asked a series of earnest questions.  She didn't talk to me and I wondered how she knew, without faltering, who was local and who wasn't.

I was intensely curious about what this woman was saying to everybody:  "The brakes on this tram have been deemed unsafe and you must all exit immediately."  "There's an escaped murderer in the vicinity. Have you seen him?"  Alas, my curiosity remains unsatisfied and the woman got off the tram with one of the passengers, talking and gesturing into the distance.

I didn't get any good tram pictures.  My camera is pretty crappy, they're a moving target, and it's awkward to stop on the sidewalk and take a picture when there are always people walking behind you. Here's a picture from pinterest where you can see how narrow the streets are on the tram routes.  This is at the Estrela end, headed toward the Alfama.  (That's the basilica in the background.)  The streets are even more narrow in the Alfama.  I swear the trams must brush against the laundry that's always hanging in the streets.

Tram 12 is another good line to ride for the scenery, although it overlaps some of the 28's route.  Whatever you do, don't book tickets on the red sightseeing trams.  They follow the same route as the 28, only I saw a sign advertising a ticket for eighteen euros!  It costs 1.50 euros to ride the regular trams if you have a viva viagem card.  It's 3.60 euros if you buy an individual ticket.

The day that we went to Belem (on tram 15) we passed a tram museum that was not mentioned in any of my guidebooks.  I knew nobody else in my family would be interested in a tram museum, but Jon gallantly accompanied me the next morning.  It was a Monday and the only other visitors were a school field trip of six year olds.  They were getting a very wordy guided tour, while Jon and I wandered freely through the first part of the museum, which contains myriad tram artifacts and extensive information about the history of public transportation in Lisbon.

Here is a statue of a tram operator.  I have no idea what is happening with the nude woman behind him. Operating a tram is sexy!  They do get nice overcoats, after all.

Once you're finished with the first part, you wait by a locked door, and eventually you are conducted to the second part of the museum in an antique tram.

The second part of the museum is a shed full of examples of Lisbon's early buses and trams.

Double decker buses

An early horse-drawn tram

Carris is the name of the public transportation company. I like their logo.

We took tram 15 back home.  I loved the tram museum, but I was feeling unwell.  I'd slept poorly due to a horrible ache in my hip and by the time we got home I had chills and that skin-hurting feeling that comes with viruses.  It killed me to spend the rest of our second-last day in bed, but that is what I did, where I fell so soundly asleep that I was only dimly aware of the Portuguese electricity board men who had to come into my bedroom to check the meter.


  1. Bummer you got a bug on your vacation. The trams are fascinating. Thanks for this post.

  2. Those are so cool! I would have loved them, too.