Tram 28 – Exploring Alfama – Part I

We relied heavily on the Lisbon tram system, especially tram 28 which ran very close to our Airbnb, to navigate our way around this beautiful and very hilly city.  Unlike San Francisco, the trams in Lisbon are affordable if you purchase a Viva Viagem transit card from an agent at a Metro station.  With a Viva Viagem card your fare on the trams and funiculars is 1.40€, but without it the price rockets up to 3.00€ per ride.  As you exit the arrivals terminal at Lisbon airport look to the right and you will see the sign for the Metro. Just down the escalator there is a ticket office where you can purchase your transit card and be set for your time in Lisbon.IMG_0845All the tram lines in Lisbon travel through wonderful areas, but tram 28 has become famous because it is the longest line in the city and runs near many of the tourist highlights in romantic Alfama, namely Castelo de Sao Jorge and the miradouros (overlooks) Portas do Sol and Santa Luzia.  Before heading back into the city center, it climbs into the Chiado district and ends in Campo de Ourique by the historic Dos Prazeres Cemetery.  Nearly every stop along this splendid route offers a worthy point of interest.  Being this popular, it is often difficult to get a seat on tram 28, especially if you choose to board it where it begins at plaza Martim Moniz in the center of Lisbon.  After 10AM the line of folks waiting here can be daunting and you might have to wait for several trams to fill and go before you have a chance to board.  But if you must stand, head for the back of the car – the rear of the tram offers the best views. If you can, we suggest boarding at one of the miradouros where usually many people exit the tram.  Tram 12 has a stop behind tram 28’s starting point on Martm Moniz. It will also take you to the miradouros by a slightly different route.  There is not a “correct way” to explore the diverse things along the tram 28 route.  Each stop offers multiple destinations to explore. Just pick out what you are interested in and have fun.  Walk a little then café, then repeat as many times as necessary! That’s how we do it. 

Leaving Martim Moniz, tram 28 travels up the steep, narrow and serpentine streets behind Castelo de Sao Jorge to the Graça neighborhood, often delayed by delivery trucks and double-parked cars. Normally the tram will wait patiently as this is an everyday occurrence, but occasionally the tram driver will sound his horn until the offender moves their vehicle, if he feels they are taking to long.  Reaching the top of the hill, keep an eye out for a large wall mural, Revolutionary Woman, created by the American artist Shepard Fairey, who is most renowned for his famous Barack Obama poster.

A little further along, Plaza Graça, with its everyday shops, bakeries and small outdoor cafes, offers a chance to explore a non-touristy spot for a very local experience.  From here it is a short, level walk to Jardim da Graça, Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen and Igreja e Convento da Graça. The convent has an interesting collection of azulejos tiles depicting 16th, 17th and 18th century missionary journeys across Portugal’s colonies that ended tragically with the martyrdom of the priests involved.  This area is a wonderful spot that is slightly off the beaten track.  The miradouro offers a great view across Lisbon that includes Castelo de Sao Jorge and the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge. The panorama is reminiscent of San Francisco.  The small café here fills toward sunset.

The next stop downhill brings you to Igreja de São Vicente de Fora and its convent. Started in 1147, just after the liberation of Lisbon from the Moors, the cathedral was finished in 1629.  It is one of the most important church complexes in Portugal. The attached museum displays a collection of religious artifacts, paintings, sculptures and Baroque azulejo tiles. If you plan a visit for a Saturday or Tuesday, just uphill through the Grand Arch connected to the convent you will find Lisbon’s best flea market, Feira da Ladra or as it was long known “the Thieves Market” spread out around Campo de Santa Clara. Our neighbor in Alfama described it as a place where you used to be able to “buy back the things that were stolen out of your car during the week.”  Today the market is very gentrified with vendors of antiques, books, CDs, toys, ceramics, clothing and handmade artisanal crafts sharing the street.  On Saturdays during the summer there is also a farmer’s market in Park Jardim Botto Machado that features organically grown food.  And of course, there are cafes around the fringes of the market. Nearby the Pantheon is visible through the shade trees and further along as you work your way towards the Tagus River, the Museu Militar de Lisboa displays a surprisingly interesting collection of military memorabilia in a wonderful mansion.

Back aboard the tram, it now continues downhill into Alfama along the narrowest part of the route, for a short distance.  The street is so narrow here you can reach out and touch the walls of the buildings as you pass through.  And if you are on the sidewalk at the time, suck it in and pin yourself against the side of the buildings.  As soon as the street widens out again you will be by Café Do Eléctrico run by a nice woman named Sandra.  This is very much a local’s place, where folks get their morning espresso before hopping on the tram and heading to work.  The coffee, food and prices here are all good, and compensate for its lack of décor.  Situated a couple of steps below street level, it’s a great place to experience the sensation that you are about to be run over by an approaching tram as it fills the doorway before suddenly turning sharply.

From this stop you can wander downhill through the maze of crazy alleys that make up Alfama. Spared the devastation from the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the rest of Lisbon, Alfama hasn’t changed much since the times of the Moors. Head to Santo Estêvão Belvedere church, and its lesser known miradouro that you will have all to yourself; it’s a nice spot for a picnic. From here you’ll have a choice of stairways or alleys to follow deeper into the charm of Alfama. Folks still hang laundry from their windows and shout down to their neighbors below. And elderly women sell shots of Ginja, a cherry liqueur, from their doorsteps as a way to supplement their pensions. There are numerous small restaurants spread about that fill the air with the wonderful aroma of Portuguese cooking. 

Around the corner from Café Do Eléctrico, stairs will lead you up to Igreja do Menino Deus, the Church of the Child God, which was built in 1711 by king Dom João V to commemorate the birth of a male heir. In striking contrast to Lisbon’s large cathedrals, this is a very small intimate church. It’s only open on Tuesdays.  From the church you can also walk up to Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen or through a mural-covered alley to Castelo de Sao Jorge.

After Café Do Eléctrico, tram 28 turns sharply and climbs before leveling off and making two stops at miradouros Portas Do Sol and Santa Luzia.  You can also walk to Castelo de Sao Jorge from both stops. Many people get off the tram at these popular miradouros, so it’s a good place to board tram 28 to continue your journey across Lisbon.

While both miradouros have awesome views of Alfama and the Tagus River, only Portas Do Sol offers outside cafes.  Just sitting here sipping wine and listening to the street musicians is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, soaking up the experience of Lisbon. What’s really nice is that the cafes never pressure you to vacate your table; it’s yours for however long you want to sit.  Amazingly there is no price gouging either, as there easily could be at such a popular location. This seems to be true all over Lisbon. Miradouro Santa Luzia features azulejo tile murals depicting the liberation of Lisbon and a lovely vine covered arbor with azulejo tiled benches.  When you are done soaking up the sun, follow the alley next to the huge stone wall built during the time of the Visigoths, in the sixth century, down to the plaza around Igreja de São Miguel for a different bit of Alfama.

Across the tram tracks from the miradorouros is Museu da Fundação Ricardo Espírito Santo e Silva, a decorative arts museum. The museum showcases what was once the private collection of Ricardo Espirito Santo, unique pieces created in Portugal and its colonies, in an elegant eighteenth-century nobleman’s home.

Or psyche yourself up for the hike to Castelo de Sao Jorge, a medieval Moorish castle that crowns the highest point in Lisbon and offers sweeping 360-degree panoramic views from various points along its fortress walls.  Besides scrambling along the ramparts and posing with the flock of peacocks that roams freely, there is a small museum that displays archeological items found during various excavations at the site.  The miradouro at the castle is stunning and unfortunately is only accessible with a 10€ entrance ticket to the whole site.  Viewing the setting sun from here is enchanting so time your visit accordingly.  There is a nice restaurant and a wine kiosk to help set the mood as you while away the afternoon.  Walking back to the tram line, you’ll pass ruins of a Roman amphitheater at Museu de Lisboa – Teatro Romano that you can visit.

A gentle, downhill walk from the miradouros will bring you to Sé de Lisboa, the Catherdral of Lisbon. The oldest church in the city, construction was started on the foundations of a mosque in 1147.  Surviving earthquake damage over the centuries, it features a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles.  Next to the choir loft the Treasury museum displays a wealth of religious items that includes vestments richly embroidered with gold, ornate silver objects set with jewels and relics of various saints. Two ornately carved Gothic tombs from the 1300s can be seen in the ambulatory of the church.  The tomb of knight Lopo Fernandes Pacheco features an intricately carved beard, decorated sword and his dog by his feet.  The other tomb, that of his wife Maria de Vilalobos, features her in a finely detailed headdress reading the Book of Hours as one would before going to sleep each evening.  Excavations in the courtyard of the cloister show Roman, Visigoth and Moorish ruins.  The street Cruzes da Se next to the cathedral offers a nice level route back into the heart of Alfama.

Continuing downhill you’ll come to Igreja da Madalena which was started in 1164 and rebuilt several times over the centuries due to fires and natural disasters.  Diagonally across from the church is Queijaria Nacional, a gourmet cheese shop that features only Portuguese products.  If you are a cheese connoisseur this store is a must, and you’ll find it’s difficult to pull yourself away from the counter to continue your journey.

The next two stops bring us back to the city center near Praça do Comércio and the waterfront.  As you walk there be sure to check out the intriguing, decorative detailing on some of the buildings.

Here you can catch tram 15, usually a modern tram, to Belem to view the monuments along the river, or you can walk over to Elevador de Santa Justa, built in 1902, for a view of central Lisbon featuring Praça Dom Pedro IV with its wavy tile pattern and Castelo de Sao Jorge guarding the city.

Leaving the elevator from the viewing platform, you can walk across the ramp into the Chiado district.

We’ll continue on tram 28 through Chiado to the end of the line in Part Two.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

Charmed by Alfama

Our driver hurried to unload our bags to the sidewalk as the famous Tram 28 waited patiently behind us, its tracks blocked by our taxi.  That’s the way it’s done on Lisbon’s narrow streets. Never the sound of frustrated drivers impatiently honking their horns, just folks courteously understanding the limitations of their intriguing city, built before anyone dreamed of modern transportation.IMG_9659The winding alleys and stairways of Alfama still retain their ancient charm as they work their way steeply uphill from the bank of the Tagus River to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, the highest point in Lisbon. Spared the devastation of the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the bulk of Lisbon, the meandering lanes and plazas of medieval Alfama haven’t changed in a thousand years. Alfama is the second oldest neighborhood in Europe, after one in Cadiz, Spain. Archeological excavations next to the Castelo de Sao Jorge have revealed evidence of a Phoenician settlement that dated to 1200 BC, a Roman amphitheater, and walls built by the Visigoths before the Moors arrived.  Today the rumbling sound of wheeled suitcases on the cobble stone alleys echoes, almost continuously, off these walls weathered by time. Tourists make their way to newly renovated Airbnb’s, as we did, much to the concern of older residents of Alfama who worry about being gentrified out of their homes.“This part of Alfama is restricted to residents’ cars only. Your street is just two blocks down that lane,” our driver said as he pointed across the tracks. We sighed in relief, as the street to our right was very steep and we weren’t sufficiently caffeinated yet to attempt an ascent, without sherpas, of what seemed liked the foothills of the Himalayas.IMG_7194The winding alleys and stairways of Alfama still retain their ancient charm as they work their way steeply uphill from the bank of the Tagus River to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, the highest point in Lisbon. Spared the devastation of the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the bulk of Lisbon, the meandering lanes and plazas of medieval Alfama haven’t changed in a thousand years. Alfama is the second oldest neighborhood in Europe, after one in Cadiz, Spain.IMG_7680 Archeological excavations next to the Castelo de Sao Jorge have revealed evidence of a Phoenician settlement that dated to 1200 BC, a Roman amphitheater, and walls built by the Visigoths before the Moors arrived.  Today the rumbling sound of wheeled suitcases on the cobble stone alleys echoes, almost continuously, off these walls weathered by time. Tourists make their way to newly renovated Airbnb’s, as we did, much to the concern of older residents of Alfama who worry about being gentrified out of their homes. 

Our home for the month of February was a small, one-bedroom apartment, with a college dorm sized refrigerator above a Fado restaurant, just a few guitar chords away from Miradouro Santo Estêvão Belvedere that offered views of Alfama and the Tagus river below. IMG_6896 Like our neighbors, we hung our laundry from our windows to dry.  Most evenings the melancholic melodies of traditional Fado music drifted softly down Alfama’s alleys from several restaurants nearby.IMG_7935While walking downhill was initially a good thing, it eventually led to us walking uphill and in Alfama it’s impossible to avoid.  Older folks walking with canes was a common site, since the cobblestones are so uneven and treacherous to walk on.  Choosing a career as an orthopedist almost guarantees success in Lisbon!  Fortunately, around every corner there seemed to be a mercado that carried basic items and catered to residents who didn’t want to leave their block.  We preferred to walk to the Graça district to shop at Pingo Doce, a terrific small supermarket chain, which was half a mile away.  It’s good we walked so much, as there wasn’t a bakery or pasteleria we couldn’t resist trying. They were so affordable, with prices at least seventy-five percent less than back in the States. We had a favorite butcher’s shop and seafood store.  An amazing variety of seafood was available, but our tiny kitchen barely had any prep room. One night as we prepared fish, we were surprised learn that our stove would trip the circuit breaker and plunge us into darkness if the electric heater was also on.  “Oops!” was not the word that we uttered that night as we fumbled for the circuit box in the dark.IMG_3463[31065]The wine and cheese produced in Portugal are exceptional, and an extremely good value, with each region renowned for a specialty. A very good wine can be purchased in the 10€ range, and a delicous bottle of Vino Verde, a young green wine, can be bought for less than 5€. We made destinations of recommended cheese shops, Queijaria Naçional and Queijaria Cheese Shop, and made a day out of the shopping expedition.  For chocolate lovers, a visit to the tiny shop of Bettina & Niccolo Corallo for a sweet treat and coffee is a must. Lisbon scored very high on our cappuccino, beer and wine test. The former were in the 1.50€ range, and the latter a reasonable 3.50€ a glass.  This was much more affordable than Antigua, Guatemala.  We found meals and drinks to be fairly priced all over Lisbon, even at the miradouros, the scenic overlooks.  At the famous Pastéis de Belém, where tourists would have willingly paid three times as much, the sweet pastry was less than 1.25€.

Wonderfully, tourist trap pricing seemed to be unheard of.  (We experienced only one incident of price gouging while in Portugal,  in Porto at the highly over-rated Café Majestic.) For dining in our Alfama neighborhood we tried Beco a Serio, Taberna dos Clerigos (Tavern of the Clergy), and Alfama Cellar, which was our favorite. Lisbon was culinary heaven and extremely gentle to our food budge with comparable lunches and dinners costing 50 – 60 percent less than in the States.

Considering we’ve been on the road over 250 days we have been relatively healthy.  But for Donna, a persistent sinus infection led to an ear infection and the challenges navigating the Portuguese medical system.  New to Lisbon and not knowing where to go for treatment we asked our host for recommendations.  “It will take longer to get treated at public clinic, but there is one nearby in Graça, or a private hospital.”  Arriving at Unidade de Cuidados de Saúde Personalizados (Mónicas) to a full waiting room at the clinic, the receptionist told us it would be better to come tomorrow at 8:00 in the morning to get in queue, as the day’s schedule was full already.   By chance as we were walking home, we noticed a doctor’s plaque on a door, walked in and waited patiently for the receptionist to address us.  Luckily, the doctor could see Donna later that day.  The office visit cost 65€, with a free follow-up visit, and the prescriptions only 20€.  Unfortunately, the ear infection did not clear up after the first round of antibiotics and we were advised to go to the walk-in nurse practioner clinic Centro de Enfermagem da Graça, nearby on the plaza to have the blockage evacuated.  With still no relief, the doctor sent us to an ENT, an ear, nose and throat specialist, at CUF Descobertas Hospital, a private hospital in Braco De Prata.  Outpatients enter through the emergency room and are directed to take a ticket, like in a bakery, and watch for the number to appear on the large overhead monitors in the waiting area.  Initially, we were called to the bursar’s counter to give all our information and passport number, plus a 500€ credit card deposit to secure services.  Back to the waiting area to be called to the triage room to be assessed correctly and then sent to a different waiting room, deeper in the hospital, before being called by a nurse and led through many corridors and elevators to the ENT waiting area.  A short time later we met the ENT specialist who provided a thorough ear exam, diagnosis and treatment plan.  Total – a whopping 140€ for a visit to a specialist!  This could not happen in the States even with health insurance.  Finally, back to the bursar’s counter where our credit card was refunded the unused balance.  Note: keep all your medical invoices. Our travel insurance provider World Nomads reimbursed the hospital and doctors’ visits along with all prescriptions.  Processing the claim went flawlessly online and our refund was electronically deposited. 

Exploring the different areas of Lisbon was a breeze using the tram and subway system.  Tram 28, famous only because it is the longest line in the city and hits most of the top tourist sites along its route, had several stops close to our apartment.

Purchasing a Viva Viagem transit card allowed us to pay the same rate for a ride as Lisboans.  A single use ticket on the tram was 3.60€, with the Viva Viagem card it dropped to 1.40€.  It also reduced the fare on the funiculars and Elevador de Santa Justa.  You can purchase the Viva Viagem at most subway stations that have a staffed ticket office.  We also used Uber and the local taxis; both were very reasonably priced with a trip into the city from the airport costing under 10€.  IMG_7493Residents told us this past February was unseasonably mild.  We enjoyed eating outside in the warm Spring sun as did many other tourists.  The streets seemed very busy for the “off season,” not overly so, but we couldn’t imagine what it would be like during the summer crush. 

We will share our day explorations around Lisbon in several future blogs.

Till then, safe travels.  Craig & Donna