Sunday, 26 April 2015

Taking the Tram in Porto

My friend and I were originally planning to go to Marrakesh for our short week away this month, but flights to Morocco were very expensive and flights to Porto were cheap, and neither of us had ever been to Porto and we both quite liked the idea, which is how we ended up arriving last Sunday night with nothing but an Airbnb booking and an unread guidebook to lead us on our way.

Luckily, it turns out that Porto is a very easy place to appreciate without much forward planning, because its pleasures are mostly to do with a somewhat crumbling but elegant aesthetic, lots of old-fashioned charm and discreet people who largely make you feel welcome and leave you in peace.

Our plan for today was to take the tram out of the town centre to Foz, where Porto's beaches are to be found. We had been waiting at the stop for ten minutes or so when a very kind old man, undeterred by our evident lack of Portuguese language skills, came over to explain that there was a strike on and the next tram wasn't for another hour. (Luckily the word for "strike" in Portuguese is "greve", so we could understand that bit!)

We decided to walk out to the beaches anyway, as it wasn't that far and actually a really nice walk, and we spent a happy few hours watching the Atlantic waves crashing on the rocks and eating lunch at a beachfront café. As we were making our way back into town, we caught sight of one of the elusive trams rattling its way along the tracks, and we rushed over to the stop to catch it on its return journey.

We bought the tickets in Portuguese, using about 25% of our entire vocabulary (i.e. about 5 words). After that, we spent the first few minutes of the journey taking photographs, because the trams in Porto, at least on this particular line, are of the old-fashioned variety, made out of varnished wood with bench seating and controlled by large metallic levers, with the only element of modern technology being the swipe machine for validating your travel pass.

A few times along the way, a car or lorry would be blocking the tram tracks, and the driver would tap a little foot-operated bell to make the driver aware of our presence, and each time the car owner would appear reasonably quickly to move the vehicle out of the way with very little fuss being made on either side. At one point, some cheeky teenagers ran alongside the tram and jumped up to hang on to the outside and hitch a free ride, but they had to keep changing sides to avoid being squashed as the tram squeezed through a narrow passageway. To cross a junction, the driver had to get out and press a button on the traffic lights, and at the end of the line she changed the connection to the overhead wires from one end of the tramcar to the other using a mechanical pulley-type device.

In so many ways, that short tram ride seemed to sum up everything we liked about Porto. The way that things which are functional are still in use even although they are old. The kindness of strangers, who were never intrusive but almost unfailingly helpful. And the adventure of travel, when you never quite know what is going to happen, but it usually turns out well in the end.


  1. "Grève", really? Funny! I had no idea the word was the same.

    I love tramway. Yes, they are slow, packed and sometime inconvenient but they are romantic and old-fashioned!

  2. That all sounds so sweet! I found there were tons of French-speakers there when I visited a few years ago. I liked it a lot, even though I was hideously hung over about half the time I was there, oops.