The vintage yellow ‘shabby chic’ tram rattled its way towards me at a sedate pace, skimming its way past the ancient paint-peeling walls of Lisbon’s town houses. I took a step back, not knowing what to expect, an enduring childhood memory of Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk losing his lady love to a tram in an early episode of that sci-fi favourite surging briefly and inexplicably into my thoughts. The historic vehicle, known as the ‘no.28’, clattered to a halt seamlessly and safely in front of me, the friendly face of its front end (arched windows above a single nose-like spotlight on top of a broad toothy sidelight grin) reassuring me that my flash-back fears were foundless.
It has been said of Lisbon that a stroll through its beautiful streets is to take a walk through architectural history, and that captures its atmosphere exactly, except to say that here is a city where ancient times meet cutting edge design and style, shiny offices and boutiques sitting easily alongside ornate old buildings in neighbourly comfort. It is not only the capital of Portugal but also one of the oldest cities in the world, its existence having been recorded as early as the 5th century occupying an important place on European trade routes. In Lisbon for a day as part of my tour of cultural Mediterranean towns, I had been anxious to make the most of my visit; my research had convinced me that a tour on the no. 28 ‘Electrico’ was a must see and must do experience, and one of the most cost-efficient and effective ways of absorbing the ambience. Manufactured between 1936 right through to the late forties, these traditional and cheery looking transportation pods were the main means of public travel in Lisbon until well into the 1980s, and trams on the three remaining routes scuttle their way about the streets in a colourful and charming way like busy metallic beetles going about their daily business. Not the quietest form of transport but one of the most fun, no. 28 tram heaved its way up the steep cobbled streets, past monuments and churches, catching glimpses of Lisbon life in fleeting views of side streets as we went.
My target destination was the Alfama district, originally built on a rocky outcrop at what is now the top of the city, and one of the oldest quarters in Lisbon; with its blend of Moorish and Roman architecture, it has a distinctly exotic and almost Arabian air about it. The magnificent Castelo de Sao Jorge is the jewel in its crown – built in the 5th century and expanded considerably by Moorish masters in the 9th, it offers the most spectacular views across the City of Lisbon to the River Tagus below. A stroll through Alfama took me on towards the graceful residential district of Graca, and more stunning views from the Esplanada da Igreja da Graca close to the military barracks based in one of Lisbon’s oldest churches. Sunset is said to be best viewed from the terraces here, but for me, my next stop was the citron coloured stately mansion housing Lisbon’s Museo Nacional de Arte Antiga, the Museum of ancient art, for a whistle-stop tour of works by Raphael, Durer and Bosch, and a collection of priceless treasures brought back by explorer Vasco da Gama from his voyages round the world.
Alongside the museum, and standing in striking architectural contrast to its ornately decorated facade is ‘Le Chat’, a stylish restaurant cafe whose seamless glass walls provide a spectacular panoramic vista across Lisbon and the harbour below. It was here that I sank back into my comfortable yet minimalistic designer chair to enjoy an afternoon Panini, savouring my rich Portuguese coffee as I watched the chic people of Lisbon go by.