There is a moment of drama, an intake of breath and then a hushed ‘wow’ comes from the passengers on the train journey to Lisbon. It happens when the train leaves Almada on the south side of the River Tagus, enters a long dark tunnel and minutes later bursts into the bright sunlight. And there you are, 70 meters above the sparkling blue estuary upon the magnificent bridge, Ponte 25 de Abril, with the beautiful Lisbon cityscape beckoning from two kilometres across the water.
The bridge which is not unlike the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, was inaugurated in 1966 but the train deck was only added in 1999.
The first railway in Portugal was built some 143 years previously in 1856 and was 35 kilometres long. It ran between Lisbon and Carregado north east of the capital and was the first stage of a line that would eventually reach the southern bank of the River Douro at Porto in 1864.This was to become Portugal’s premier route. It would not be until 1877 when the Ponte de D. Maria Pia, which is upriver of the iconic Ponte Luís I, would bring the train to Porto proper. Incidentally, both bridges were designed by Gustav Eiffel.
Meanwhile rail access to the south of the country had begun but it would not be until 1899 that it would finally reach Faro but not by the route we currently use.
From North to South passengers and goods from Lisbon would cross the Tagus by ferry to Barreiro and then by rail to Vendas Novas on to Casa Branca south west of Évora and on to Beja. From Beja, the line would go to Almodôvar and then west to Funcheira where it would head south to Tunes and finally reach Faro.
There were commercial and geographical reasons for this route: it would enable smaller branch lines to reach the centre of the country to places like Portalegre and Elvas that would subsequently join the Spanish rail network and it would extend economic reach into the agricultural heartlands of the Alentejo.
Geographically, there was no short cut to Faro from Almodôvar because the Serra do Caldeirão was in the way and as anyone who has driven the N2 from São Brás de Alportel north will testify its hostile twists and turns would make railway building a very expensive prospect. The line reached Faro in 1889, Vila Real de Santo António in the east in 1906 and finally Lagos in the west in 1922.
The line from Funcheira to Setúbal a little south of Lisbon, the Linha do Sado that we use today was not completed until 1925. The entire project began in 1861.
The branch line that runs from Faro east towards the Spanish border was an important stretch as it served the fishery towns of Olhão, Tavira and the former blue-fin tuna fishing base at Praia de Barril. The narrow gauge line that once served the former fishing community is now used to run visitors to the beach, the Cemitério das Âncoras or ‘Anchor Cemetery’ and also to the restaurants and cafés there. The junction is at Pedras del Rei. The railway ends at Vila Real de Santo António on the Rio Guadiana where there is now a bridge access to Ayamonte in Spain, but prior to 1991 it relied on a ferry service ¬– that still exists, and never fails to delight – to carry goods to and from the Spanish market.
Stations to explore
There are 2,650 kilometres of railway in Portugal, approximately 234 train stations and a greater number of apeadeiros or ‘halts’. While most of the stations are pleasant and functional there are a great number that are masterpieces of design and decoration. One of the most intriguing in southern Portugal is on the Linha do Sul that runs from Faro to Lisboa and it is at Funcheira. This station was built on an important junction that serviced Moura, Beja, Castro Verde and Aljustrel to the east and the Atlantic coastal towns to the west. The designs on the building reflect the goods and produce that passed through; agriculture and cork production from central Alentejo, while the Algarve is represented on the wall tiles of the building. But it is the roof that is remarkable; brown ceramic tiles are fashioned in the shape of scallop shells, thousands of them that represents the ocean to the west.
In the Lisboa the train station at Rossio, once the central station, is an example of Neo Manueline design, reminiscent of the Torre de Belém on the river, with two huge horse shoe shaped portals to the front. The cast iron work on the platforms and ramps within is spectacular.
But perhaps the best known train station in the entire country is Estação de São Bento in Porto. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and the entrance halls explain why. Inaugurated in 1916 the walls are covered in panels of azulejo tiles in monochrome executed in blue on white depicting scenes from Portuguese history, The Battle of Valedevez (1140) and Henry the Navigator’s conquest of the Moors in Ceuta. Higher up at roof level the tiles are polychromatic(multicoloured) azulejos depicting forms of transport used by people in various parts of the country. The artist was Jorge Colaço and he made use of 20,000 tiles in the realisation of the work which took 11 years to complete.
Other stations that use azulejo murals as decoration include Aveiro, Évora, Caldas da Rainha, to name a very few. One notable example worthy of special mention is a small station out on the historical Douro line at Pinhão.
Do it is style
The Linha do Douro is a very popular line for visitors who want to experience the vineyards of the region. The line hugs the bank of the Rio Douro for 160kms. In the summer months from June to October an historical train pulled by a steam locomotive takes passengers who have been transferred from Porto to a station at Régua and then on upriver for 30kms to Tua stopping at Pinhão along the way. This is both a sightseeing and a gastronomy tour complete with local entertainment.
On a higher scale there is another train that runs along this line. It is called The Presidential. The carriages were built in Paris 130 years ago and were used to transport the Kings and Queens of Portugal in splendour. After the reinstatement of the Republic in the early part of the 20th century, the train was renamed The Presidential and was used on state business. It fell into disrepair, but in 2017 it was restored and it now takes passengers on a lavish day trip to the Vesuvio wine estate. It doesn’t come cheap. Tickets for the nine-hour journey cost €750. Along the way the guests are treated to gourmet cuisine prepared by Michelin Star chefs. The train looks splendid in its vivid blue livery and the experience has won a number of prestigious awards.
Going the distance
Faro and Ho Chi Minh City, two cities worlds apart but linked by the longest uninterrupted train journey on Earth. Separated by 17,000kms the journey takes 14 days. For those willing to take on this epic journey the route is laid out as follows: Faro to Lisbon and then to Hendaye in the south of France via Spain on the Sud Express overnight train. Next, Hendaye to Paris, Paris to Cologne via Brussels, Cologne to Warsaw and from there to Moscow. Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia aboard the Trans Siberian Express. Beijing to Hanoi. Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. And you’re there!
Train travel is about to undergo a resurgence in popularity because of its low environmental impact and its ease of use. Unlike air travel there is no need to turn up at a train station three hours in advance of departure. The sleeper trains across Europe offer the opportunity to have a good night’s rest and arrival at your destination refreshed. Another advantage is that most train stations are in the centres of towns and cities, unlike airports, and the pace is slower, less frantic, no major luggage restrictions and the views are better.
Take a trip on a Portuguese train, it could be the start of beautiful friendship. As the author Paulo Coelho wrote, “Sometimes the wrong train can take you to the right place”.
Words: Brian Redmond