Vintage trams of Lisbon

After All: All aboard the vintage tram of life

Image credit: Christine Bohling

Charmed by the iconic trams of Lisbon, Vitali reflects on his life as one protracted tram journey.

Guess what the biggest highlight was of my recent short visit to Lisbon?

No, not Alfama, the city’s oldest district, with its winding, naturally ventilated alleyways, cobbled streets, and secret squares. Nor the magnificent Castelo de Sao Jorge, with its thick Moorish walls and lush gardens. Nor even the mouth-watering Pasteis de Nata, the famous freshly baked and cinnamon-dusted custard tarts – yum! No. It was the vintage city trams – those moving wrinkles on Lisbon’s ageless face, the ‘wrinkles’ that, surprisingly, make it both livelier and younger.

Here they were: strewn all over the city like some randomly distributed slices of a giant birthday cake on wheels (the visit to Lisbon coincided with my birthday); trundling past castles and monuments; squeezing themselves into narrow streets like daggers into the sheaths and leaving just a couple of inches’ gap between themselves and the tile-covered façades of the old houses; puffing up and down each of the seven hills on which the city is built, to suddenly expose its passengers to a plethora of truly breathtaking views. After a couple of round trips on the number 28 tram, I came to call Lisbon the City of Unexpected Views.

I must admit to a possible bias here, for I have always had a soft spot for trams. In Kharkiv, the Ukrainian city where I grew up, trams, known as ‘markas’ or ‘remboules’ in the local Russian-Ukrainian ‘patois’, were part and parcel of everyday life, and one of the most memorable sounds of my childhood was that of a tram screechingly turning the corner.

Every Saturday afternoon, my mother and I would board an old ‘Marka A’ tram (or ‘Annushka’, as we used to call it lovingly) to visit my granny, who lived at the other end of town. The antediluvian vehicle pitched and rocked, like a boat in a stormy sea, and the passengers rocked in unison, as if praying. Not tall enough to grab the leathery handles suspended from the carriage’s ceiling, I knelt on the bottom-polished wooden seat with my face glued to the window.

At the age of 16, I had my first (failed) date at a tram stop. It was snowing heavily, and she didn’t turn up. The trams were rattling past trying to reassure me with their bells. Having lost all hope, I boarded one myself eventually. It was freezing inside, and clouds of vapour were coming out of the passengers’ mouths, as if they had small internal combustion engines hidden under their coats.
While on a tram as a child, I was always looking for a lucky ticket. The trick was simple: you had to add up the two first digits of the ticket’s number and then the two last ones. If they both amounted to the same sum, the ticket was lucky and you were supposed to... eat it!

Even now, I can at times feel the dry papery taste in my mouth – the taste of evasive luck itself.

Vintage trams of Lisbon

Image credit: Christine Bohling

Without much exaggeration, I can say that my whole life amounts to a protracted – at times bumpy, at times smooth – ride on multiple trams, like Kharkiv’s wood-panelled ‘Markas A’ to Moscow’s ‘Bukashka’, ‘a small beetle’ (that was what they called ‘Marka B’ trams there), Melbourne’s vintage W2 fleet, which included a restaurant tram and a theatre tram, to the same W2s of Seattle, San Francisco and New Orleans. Also the distinctive red-and-white trams of Vienna and Prague, Blackpool’s bulky double-deckers, the green snake-like bendy cars of Croydon’s Tramlink, to the controversial Spanish-built Urbos 100 trams of Edinburgh, which I once used as a metaphor for Scotland’s independence referendum of 2014.

As for the Lisbon trams, they have become the city’s main icon, staring at you from countless posters, tourist brochures, boxes of chocolates and even wine-​bottle labels (‘tram-wines’?). No wonder, for trams in Lisbon were pioneered as far back as 1870 in the shape of cars pulled by mules along the rails. The cars, imported from the USA, were called ‘Americanos’.

It is not widely known that the world’s first experimental electric tramway was designed and built by Ukrainian engineer Fyodor Pirotsky (1845-1898) near St Petersburg, then the capital of Russia, in 1875. That ground-breaking and entirely peaceful Ukrainian-Russian invention (how sadly ironic this phrase sounds now!) first reached Lisbon in 1901, and by the mid-1920s, the city had 17 electric tram lines, of which just five remain these days, with the rest having been gradually replaced by buses, funiculars, metro and... a large fleet of tuk-tuks – Thai-​style three-wheeled motorised vehicles, which have proved surprisingly suitable for the narrow winding streets of the old town.

I would always prefer clickety-clacks (trams) to tuk-tuks, or any other type of public transport, no matter how exotic. Trams are solid, stable, and affordable.

I was saddened to learn that at the very start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February, trams in my native city of Kharkiv had to temporarily come to a stop due to the continuous bombardment.

Yet, already in May of the same year, when the shelling somewhat subsided, four tram lines were reopened. And on the 25 July 2022, Reuters news agency released a report under the headline ‘In Kharkiv suburb, return to Soviet-era trams is a step towards normalcy’. It stated that (I quote) “in Saltivka, a working-class suburb of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, the trams are running again”, and carried on to explain that “On February 27, three days after Russia invaded, the trams’ electrical power station was destroyed by heavy shelling as was their depot shortly after. Of Saltivka’s roughly 160 trams, part of the Kharkiv city fleet, 60 were destroyed and another 60 damaged, according to district tram officials.”

As you see, Kharkiv trams’ revival was deemed important and newsworthy enough to be disseminated globally by one of the world’s largest news agencies. And rightly so, for the resumption of the trams’ traffic was not just “a step towards normalcy”, but a sure sign of Kharkivites freely moving around their city, alive and undefeated.

P.S. According to information from Kharkiv at the moment of writing, the city has seven tram routes in operation despite the continuing sporadic shelling.

Vitali Vitaliev’s latest book, ‘Atlas of Geographical Curiosities’, is published by Jonglez Publishing.

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