Portugal March 18th – April 2nd 2006

Richard Hingley and Mike Simpson




As with previous reports this is a diary done (more or less) at the time with some later updates.  The main aim on this trip was to travel over the remaining Portuguese narrow (meter) gauge lines as reports suggest they are likely to be further cut back.  My original intention was that we would go by train (Eurostar plus TGV then sleeper) but this proved hopelessly difficult to book.  After several days of trying no one website would book it all and in fact even booking so parts of the journey on line proved impossible – the sleeper being the worst case even though it is fixed price and should be easy!  We gave up and flew with TAP which took 20 minutes to book including deciding which option – the railways have a lot to learn about this kind of service.


Sat March 18th


Up early for the first bus to the station in Hythe, further bus to Ashford as railway closed then train to Gatwick (all new units now of course).  Gatwick turned out to be ultra crowded as a computer failure was holding everything up.  Although we were checked in early by the time we were actually on the plane it had officially taken off and we were by no means the last.  We did have time for a proper breakfast in Weatherspoons though.  Flight was fine and we had no trouble getting the Aerobus into Lisbon and finding the hotel Italia.  Hotel is fine although the room is a bit small.  Into city by metro (hotel is fairly near two lines) and some evening shots of the suspension bridge then quick bash on the modern tram (route 15) as the 25 that uses the old ones was bustituted.  Very nice fish dinner in a restaurant near the vertical lift (all lifts and funiculars are called eleveadores here).



Steady shot in full effect (not bad for a pocket camera)

Sun March 19th


First thing is to get the 5-day public transport passes – Oyster type things that work on all the trams, busses, metro and cliff lifts.  Easy enough once you find a metro station with a manned ticket office.  Then bashed the vertical lift and one of the conventional ones (street running though so looks more like a tram).  Then on tram 28 (recommended as the most scenic of the four surviving routes) for its whole run (very nice) and a ride up another of the three conventional cliff lifts.  Wandered round the quaint streets for some time just randomly photting and had a quick look at both the waterfront stations, St Apaloma has at least two Sentinel-type shunters and some terminating long distance trains, Cais de Sodre is EMU only.  Back to the hotel by metro then a very cheap Chinese nearby.  



Convent (still ruined from the earthquake) at the top of the vertical lift




Street running furniculars (less modernised than the trams)



(Locally built) Sentinal-type shunter

Mon March 20th


First a circumnavigation on the castle tram (route 15 that is almost the same as part of route 28) then a wander round the castle itself – get off the tram at the view point which is not too obvious as you cannot see the castle from close too.  The castle is well worth the €2.5 admission fee but has been over restored and has some very poorly done concrete ‘stonework’.  The views are fantastic though.  Later on did tram 25 – not as scenic as 28 but still good.  Went to the station but were told no photos without permits – should have asked where to get them as this kept happening and the guy spoke perfect English.



View from Castle


Tuesday March 21st


Ferry to Barriero – now a shadow of its former self as the Faro trains no longer come here and only a DEMU suburban service remains – as there are no name board at the ferry end we wondered if we were in the wrong place.  The works did not have much visible from this end – a newly overhauled Sentinel being the only highlight.  Bashing the next train south revealed a whole line of the class 1800 ‘Hoovers’ plus various other locos dumped in a yard near Barriero A station.  Continuing to Setubal revealed that the new line over the suspension bridge does carry local trains (double deck EMUs branded ‘Fertagus’) but these seem to be at least partly separate from the CP trains with their own ticket machines and no obvious through tickets and are not on local CP maps.  Took the DEMU back to Barriero A and photted the scrapline from outside (sadly even the blue celebrity ‘Hoover’ is in there).  Walking back to Barriero round the works revealed a fairly ancient GE dumped but just phottable from outside plus a very long abandoned steam crane.  Back to the junction with the new line at Pinhal Nova and took the Fertagus back to the metro interchange at Entrecampos - this is certainly far more convenient than the old ferry arrangement.  We were asked not to video FROM the train that seems excessive given the fantastic evening view as we crossed the suspension bridge which I imagine you can walk over anyway (we had done it by then though).



Barriero A scrap line


Wednesday March 22nd


Last day in Lisbon – did the remaining funicular, a ride on the suburban rail system and tram 18, then tried to go to the electricity museum but it was shut.  We did spot the Carris (operator of most of the public transport) museum, not in our guide book, and this is very good once you find out how to pay – the ticket desk is far from obvious (of the two at the entrance you want the one selling the historic tram tours), the museum is part of the tram depot to the point where they take you from the small exhibits to the vehicles by tram on the internal system.  Unlike the service trams that now have a distinct front and only run on lines with turning balloons this one retained its full controls at both ends (the others have shunt controls only at the back).  We also noticed that at least one of the fleet used for sightseeing has its original truck and lattice gates (all the service fleet have been modernised with folding doors and new running gear allowing higher speeds).



Internal tram in museum

Thursday March 23rd


To Covilha by train – eventually!  The CP website, ticket machine and time tables do not agree about what journeys are possible – the time tables only cover through journeys on specific routes while the computer will connect anything with anything, sometimes coming up with ludicrous routes in the process and the ticket machines frequently cannot find journeys even if they are on the timetable!  This particular journey covered all three of these problems such that even trying to book it in segments failed and when we went to the only open ticket office they said there was only one train (there are at least three!)  By this time we had missed the one we wanted anyway and had to settle for the lunchtime slow departure after changing the tickets for singles when returns were issued for I have no idea what reason – the guy in the office spoke good English and we did not ask for them.  To fill in the couple of hours this left us we bashed two of the metro lines to their ends and nearly missed the train in consequence before getting on the wrong one as there was a fast train going the same way as the local we were booked on  Luckily an English-speaking passenger sorted this out and we changed at the next stop (this shows how slow the locals are though, they were 4min apart at Lisbon Oriente but nearly 30 by the first stop).  Poured with rain all day and so took a taxi to the hotel – the rather silly way the Internet booking wrote the name including the chain it belongs to caused some head scratching from several taxi drivers but they got us there in the end.  Ultra-boring chain (Tryp) hotel Donna Maria but nothing wrong with it.  A late evening walk into town revealed a nice centre hiding among the modern developments and the Portuguese style steak in one of the other hotels was very nice.



Tiles where we changed trains (I forget the name of the station)


Friday March 24th


The line through to Guarda only has three trains each way (the same modernised DMUs as on the way to Covilha beyond the end of the electrification at Castilo Branco).  The first one was a bit early at about 8:25 and the next not until lunch time, this was a pain to catch as we were loitering outside the dining room wanting breakfast when they opened at 7:30 and the taxi took much longer than the promised 5 minutes.  The taxi’s clock said we had missed it but in fact we dived on the station without tickets and just got on, this did give the conductor a problem as his machine only works from the halts so we got a ticket from the first stop (language rather prevented us explaining what happened).  This line is very scenic and we saw it at its best with mainly sun but dark clouds and frequent rainbows, sadly the DMU has sealed heavily tinted windows so photos were a disappointment   The line seems doomed however – there were never more than 3 other passengers and much of the time only one and the bus is far quicker. This train more or less connects with an EMU to Coimbra but the gap left time for rebooking and a quick look round the station (the interesting bits of the town are some way off according to the guide book).




The run to Coimbra was not as scenic but still nice and we saw quite a variety of motive power on the way including the 1500s (class 20 equivalents) and some very old Alcos in the yellow civil engineers colours.  Hotel Almedia was just up the main road from the station and comfortable and much better on the inside than its rather dated looking front would suggest.  The town is rather odd in that a modern and tatty (quite Chinese-looking) outer centre is clustered round a very nice and ancient inner.  There are also trolley busses here for those so inclined.





The station again asked us not to take photos (the semaphore signals being the main attraction) but if you could be bothered you could stand in the street to do them in any case.  Walking along the river revealed an obviously used street-running section so this was investigated and turned out to go to the other station (terminus of the Serpins branch).  We duly decided to go up the branch and joined a very well filled train of three of the modernised DMUs.  Coming back the train was nearly empty and the most friendly English-speaking crew pointed out the many areas damaged in the forest fires a couple of years ago that even set fire to the sleepers in some places.




Saturday March 25th


The street running section is the only connection for the branch into the main network but it also has a couple of passenger trains first thing in the morning.  The later (06:29) one was duly photted in the street – luckily this was the last day of GMT and there was just enough light (digital cameras do make this sort of thing so much easier!).  This was an old-style DMU that are stainless steel with ribbed sides as are the EMUs but without the rather hideous plastic front added to most of the EMUs




There is a rather odd modern funicular here that is rubber tired and looks rather like a moving telephone box.  It is also unusual in that it is single track with a counterweight rather than the usual balanced car arrangement.




Following a wander round the town again we followed the main line spur (fast trains stop at a through station a way out of town) along the river until we met the main line at a river bridge in a nature reserve that proved too overgrown for photography and settled on an adjacent canal bridge for a couple of hours of passing train shots while writing postcards, not one of the world’s great phot spots as the main item in the foreground is a sewer pipe but better than nothing.




We walked on to the junction station and got a train to Montmor which is supposed to be 1km from an impressive castle, in fact it is nearer 5km and it is not too obvious which way it lies from the station. Although we guessed the right direction an intervening river and canal make finding the way a bit awkward and the road signs send you to the wrong end of the town for the castle  The castle itself is very impressive and in contrast to that at Lisbon has been very nicely conserved rather than restored and is free.  The church in the middle looks nothing from the outside but is very pretty on the inside.




Sunday March 26th


Short train ride to Aviero today – booked yesterday so we could use the fast train and this time the ticket machine agreed with the net (but not the printed timetable that only shows the locals).  Quite a nice town with landscaped canals – very quiet on a Sunday, with a flea market selling the most awful old tat (plus a few very expensive antiques)  Hotel Alfonso V is rather weird – 3* but seems to have been built in anticipation of guests that never came, room is fine but the corridors are incredibly dark and the dining room means walking through a whole string of empty lounges.  Most restaurants were shut but we found one in the guide that did a very nice char-grilled squid.





Monday March 27th


Our only reason for going to Aviero is that it is the start of the Voga narrow gauge line that is the truncated remains of a much longer system that now forms a loop off the main line via Sernada, rejoining at Espinho just south of Porto.  The original system was Y-shaped and the remainder is the two short arms but the services still run separately and do not connect  This means that the only way to do the whole line is to spend at 3 hours southbound or 4 northbound (guess which way we were going!) at Sernada that turned out to be where the old railcars come to die – the Alsthom ones originally built for the Porto suburban system work the trains (and are mostly covered in graffiti) but there are a load of the Allen and the ex-Yugoslavian ones dumped as well.  The ticket machine at Aviero refused to acknowledge the existence of the line beyond Sernada too.  Apart from the station bar (which seemed to be the centre of village life) and a very impressive viaduct there is nothing at Sernada and no other passengers came this far although some of the suburban bits as far as Agueda where most trains reverse were fairly busy.  The one return train from each terminus (all the others stop short) to Sernada seems to run merely for operational reasons – the trains are cleaned and fuelled here with much shunting apparently just to fill the time!  Annoyingly there is a substantial town just down the Espinho line from here but no way of reaching it.





The return working to Aviero did have a couple of passengers (old ladies with buckets of cut flowers) but our one to Espinho had no one until we were some way down the line and the inbound working had been empty too.  At Espinho the terminus is next to the main line but some way from the main station (keep walking the way the narrow gauge train was going).  The return working was full enough to justify the four-car unit provided, however as we got off it seemed someone was taking a petition round and we wondered if this was against closure.  The main line station was in the throes of being rebuilt to suit the new EMU services radiating from Porto and will be even further from the Voga one once it is finished.

The rather nice new EMU whisked us to Porto very quickly and we were soon in the Residential dos Alidos. This was chosen for its proximity to the station but is rather antiquated (1950s period charm is fine but not when it includes erratic hot water, dodgy electrics and blocked drains!).  That said it is cheap at €40 for a double with breakfast. The whole square outside is being remodelled (new metro station and tramway extension) which will be nice when it is done but work is going on 24 hours a day making rather a racket – I pity anyone with a room at the front.


Our view!


Tuesday March 28th


We used the midday train up the Douro for the narrow gauge to Vila Real, the early train being too early for breakfast.  This gave time to phot one of the 1500s at the depot at Gaia just up the Aviero line (the staff did not seem to mind), then a long walk along the river to the seaward motorway bridge – which it is possible to walk over once you find the way up to it (drop down to the feeder road from the entrance bridge to the two hotels, then there are steps up behind a bus stop) the guide had mentioned a ferry but it did not seem to be running.



This left not a long time to get back to the station and we missed the tram but we made it with time for a coffee in the end as my memory of the train time was wrong.



Lobby at Porto Sao Bento station


Sadly all the main line trains are DEMUs now and it looks like the line will be electrified in the end with signs of realignment in progress.  Both the Amerante line and the Vila Real one have new red railcars and these are very nice with massive windows and a forward view.  No time to do more than phot the stuffed kettle at Vila Real but the weather was fantastic and the scenery up this line is the best yet and is shown to full advantage by the new railcar.





There is still a group of abandoned kettles round the Regua turntable (been there thirty years now!) although there are less than in photos I have seen and they have been joined by some railcars.  There is also a stuffed kettle and a restored one plus an early diesel and some garishly painted four-wheel coaches for the tourist trains (unlikely to be running this early in the year). There was just time to phot this lot before the connection rolled in.




Wednesday 29th March

Weather was utterly foul (constant rain) so a late start and a decision to bash the metro to stay dry – this has another Oyster-type ticketing system but the day cards are only available from the larger stations which is annoying and it turned out these cards are not rechargeable that seems a total waste.  It is also unclear how many zones they cover – we asked the English-speaking ticket office at Trinidade (site of the old narrow gauge station we assume) for day cards and that is what we got for €4 but the ticket validator at the extreme end of the longest Metro line (ex narrow gauge of which some traces remain) did not accept it but they were checked on the train in the same zone without comment from the staff.  If this is correctly valid then it is a bargain as the area covered is huge.  The Metro combines a modern tram system (it seems in part following the approximate route of the historic one), conversion of the narrow gauge to Povoa de Varzim and a central underground that emerges to run over the oldest bridge still in use in Porto (the very old railway bridge still stands but has been replaced).  The remainder of the narrow gauge has part closed, part been converted to broad gauge as part of the new suburban electric service.  The Metro is not quite finished and despite what the rough guide says does not quite go to the airport yet, we passed the unfinished junction on the way.  The weather was now more like a monsoon and the furthest we got in the town at Povoa was the café opposite the station.  This line gives a fine view of the ancient aqueduct that disappears in the distance it is so long.




Having done most of the Metro we turned to the (modern) funicular – actually more like a roller coaster with a monster change of gradient and not yet connected to any other transport although there will be a tram terminus here in due course.  Then, the rain finally easing off, to the trams – the day card is valid on everything and probably local CP trains too (we did not check this).  




There turned out to be three tram routes at present, meeting at the museum which was not quite as good as the Lisbon one in terms of history and small exhibits but better laid out.  The museum ticket is another non-rechargeable card that gives four hours use in two zones to allow riding of all the trams (which in the foul weather we had to ourselves).




Went for lampreys in a restaurant recommended by the guidebook – uninteresting, not unpleasant but not worth the cost.  Restaurant (Solar Moinho de Vinto)was a bit pants – food OK but service was silly – hovering inches away with the pad while we were still deciphering the menu, then nowhere to be found once we wanted the bill.  Also suppose to specialise in tripe but it was not on the menu.


Thursday 30th March


Better weather seemed in the offing so up the Douro again for the Amerante narrow gauge, again worked by one of the new railcars, but they have one of the very ancient ones in a shed near the junction that may also be serviceable.  This line is not as scenic as Vila Real but still very nice and the town has a very impressive church and a nice river with a scenic bridge (glorious sun again by now) as well as the cheapest meal we have had yet (less then 8 euros for 3 courses filling us to bursting).  There was time for a nice walk up the river – now in glorious sun again – before the ride back to the junction and a lovely run back to Porto.  




We then had a walk across the metro bridge and back by the inland modern road bridge, which offers some great photting possibilities although it was getting a bit dark.




Friday 31st March


The longest bash of the trip – the main target was the Tua line to Mirandela, this is the longest of the surviving meter gauge lines and also the farthest from Porto, making combining it with a ride over the whole of the standard gauge Douro line possible.  This meant an 09:15 start (no earlier train has a Tua connection) and a 23:15 return with a couple of hours in Mirandela for a late lunch. This is the most scenic line of all, especially near the junction at Tua, which is where the old loco-hauled stock comes to die (coaches originally built in the 1920s although much modernised).  There are two preserved Mallets here too, one in good condition under cover and the other apparently extracted from the Regua dump, there is also a pleasant small museum in the former booking office.  The line is worked by more of the new railcars, this time in a light green under all the graffiti.  The first part of this run is fantastic-constant bridges and tunnels as the line clings to the side of the Tua gorge, we were the only passengers on this section going up, but the train filled up higher up.  The top end of this line runs through more open country but the terminus is a disappointment – the Roman bridge is nice but the town is very run down and has been rather unsympathetically modernised.  One surprise is that part of the line's northward continuation has been re-opened as some sort of local enterprise (the sign called it a metro but that seems an exaggeration).  How far it goes was not clear, another of the railcars worked it but this had left before we realised what it was, somewhat excessively a new station has been built a hundred yards or so north of the existing one just for this service.  The return train was quite busy with several through passengers onto the main line in both directions.




The end of the broad gauge line was as disappointing as the guide book suggested – an isolated former junction station at Pocinho with bus connections to the nearest towns and a cement terminal – the 15min the time table allowed here was plenty including a visit to the bar!  The return journey dragged a bit – the DEMU seats aren’t ideal for long journeys (should have gone 1st as it is not expensive) and later trains connect end-on with the electric suburban service but in this case with a half-hour delay for the connection.  The return train was very full by the time it reached the electrics at Caid and the unit even more so and the seats left me with a severe case of basher’s bum.




Saturday 1st of April


The departure board at Porto Sao Bento was advertising (in English) the railway museum at Lousado but this was silly (at home an April fool would be suspected) as when we went up there (via being told off for photting at the depot) it turned out to open Sunday – Friday afternoons!



Shot through the doors!


The train service is not too frequent so we had time to wander round there is nothing else here except a very pretty bridge (not even a bar so far as we could tell).



As we were half way there we continued on to Guimaraes over the converted narrow gauge of which a few remains including a bridge with track in place were noted.  Guimaraes was very nice and there was time to look round the old town and the castle before getting an early evening train back and doing first sunset, then more night shots of the metro bridge – getting the digital camera to do what I wanted took some fiddling but at least you can see if a shot did not work.



Sunday April 11th


We were booked on a fairly late flight (4:15) so time for a last wander about Porto before getting the Aerobus to the airport – bus was free, as driver seemed not to care about anyone paying.


Classic car rally passing through Porto


Unfortunately (especially as we were rather early) the French air traffic control was on strike so we were very delayed and had to fly a long way round avoiding French airspace.  This meant getting to Heathrow at about 8 (due 5:30) but we were not actually out of the airport until 9.  I then just missed the Heathrow Express – Mike stepped through the closing doors but no way could I follow.  Taking the underground to Charing Cross it turned out that the train was diverted to Victoria and taking the District round a signal failure (which luckily cleared in front of us) meant we were rather delayed getting there – had the train left at the time it was meant to be we would have missed it but as it was there was a (very full) late one we used, from the announcements half the former Southern as well as lots of the Underground was dug up.  Finally got home at 12:30 after the walk back from the station.




The main aim was 100% realised and Portugal is very cheap for Europe (worked out at less than £50 per day with no real attempt at economy and a substantial chunk of that was the flights).  The photo permit requirement on CP is annoying mainly in that no information on where and how you get one is readily available.  CP’s timetable and ticket booking facilities are in need of attention and the seats on the longer distance slow trains are poor (but the fares are very low so this is hardly surprising).  The Portuguese hotels were all acceptable although the one in Porto only just – trouble is the rating systems used are based on nominal facilities not quality and this makes choosing difficult.


The majority of the narrow gauge we did must be on borrowed time unless some form of heritage future can be worked out as with Porto’s trams, clearly the majority of the broad gauge will be fully modernised soon although a few more closures here look likely too.


The Lisbon trams were as good as anticipated and must be unique now that most other surviving systems have been fully modernised, the huge number of abandoned tracks we saw showed just how much has been lost.  The Lisbon metro was still being expanded and although not particularly pleasant especially in the older (opened 1959) sections worked very well and must be much better than the trams it replaced in terms of speed.  The transport is highly integrated in some ways but (unlike in Porto) the ticketing systems and system maps are not integrated even though there are some well thought out interchanges.  It is also annoying that the metro is not finished to the main station but the trams no longer go there so you have to use a rather inconvenient bus.


The Porto area transport is generally much better but the ticketing is still very hard to understand – the number of Portuguese talking to the staff at length in the ticket offices suggest even the locals don’t understand it.


The whole of Portugal suffers from a massive graffiti problem and the CP staff clearly work very hard to keep the majority of the stock cleaned, but many of the (mostly unmanned now) stations are in an awful state, as are the streets in many places.  The entire country appears to be built on a mountain and this makes for some fantastic scenery and some very interesting cities.  There seem to be abandoned buildings everywhere, which is probably a sign of improving prosperity as there are many new suburban developments being built.  Overall the historic sights are being remarkably well preserved, the main exception we encountered being Mirandela that has lost all character with just a few remains poking through.


The rough guide (over the years I have found these just a bit better than Lonely Planet) was acceptable, the odd mistakes are par for the course although the how to use CP bit is very out of date (no mention of the need to pre-book long distance fast trains for example).  It also suffers from those that wrote it clearly mainly travelling by car so public transport instructions are very poor in some cases (‘the busses drop you centrally’ translates as we saw the stop as we drove past and is of no use without some indication of where they come from / go to!).  That said guides are at least good for saying where not to go!


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