A time machine on rails

Simon Calder catches a tram in Lisbon, for a journey of six miles

Skipping a century is a neat trick if you can manage it, and Lisbon has done it with aplomb. The moment you realise this is when tram 28 screeches and grumbles its way, as discordantly as a failed fado singer, past the Ciber Chiado. A 19th-century form of transport - which most of Europe discarded long ago - brushes against the future, in the form of Lisbon's first Internet cafe.

In the Portuguese capital, there are few traces of the years 1900-97. What you see is largely what you got at the end of the last century. The city is manically trying to modernise in preparation for Expo '98, but so slow has progress been that local wags refer to the event as Expo 2000.

Something that, with luck, the planners will overlook in their rush to the future is tram 28, unquestionably the finest piece of public transport in Europe - both for her inherent style, and for the extraordinary six- mile course she carves through a bracingly beautiful city.

When Britain was good at trams, the English Electric Company helped dispense transportational largesse around the world. Lisbon was one beneficiary that appreciated the sheer depth of quality: handsome timber trim, stained by time and traffic, is wrapped around a sturdy steel frame and an earnestly effective engine. When this heroic machine clanks wheezily to a halt and you step aboard, you feel you are trespassing on the territory of the 1800s. But the only penalty you pay is the fare of 150 escudos (50 pence), which entitles you to ride as far as you like on the streetcar named Grace - her destination, advertised in faded white capitals, is the square of Graca.

Some say she resembles a San Francisco cable car, particularly when tackling some of the improbably steep gradients along the route. But this is no tourist trap; the 28 is just another component of a rickety old transport network whose concern is the carriage of citizens. There are a few hangers- on, too: scruffy youths who dangle from the polished brass handrails to avoid payment, and spend the journey making faces at the people they consider to be ostentatiously wealthy farepayers.

From the outside, this entertaining mobile tableau resembles a grande dame proceeding through her declining estates and years with as much grace as she can manage, given that half Lisbon's hoi polloi is dangling from her skirts. You can almost see her cheeks puff scarlet as this ship of stateliness moves off.

She processes eastwards, along the lilting Calzada da Estrela. Straightaway you realise you will have to make a return trip, because each side of this street excitedly demands your attention. Surely this scene of encroaching dereliction cannot be a 20th-century European capital? The district of Estrela peaked about two centuries ago; since then decay has been slow but inexorable. Buildings seem to stoop exhaustedly by the road, leaning dangerously on one another. But the lifeblood of the city pulses as strongly here as anywhere: you meet the Angolans and the Goans and the Mozambicans, making a spirited go of life at the heart of Portugal's diminutive empire. This startling canvas is speckled with dashes from the British school of imperialism: telephone cabins and pillar boxes that could have been ripped from a Home Counties town, painted ultramarine and installed as tributes to solid civic design.

Off to the right, a rival transportational dinosaur creaks to a halt. The Ascensore da Bica is a stunted sibling of tram 28 with an uneventful life: first, a clamber up one of the more excessive slopes in a city that flaunts its three dimensions, adopting a permanent uphill lean while gripping a cable in the manner of his San Franciscan cousins; then a slow slouch back down, all the time yearning for the racier life of route 28.

Eastwards, onwards and upwards: gradually the city cleans up its act as tram 28's jangly old pigeon-frightening bell announces your arrival in the Bairro Alto, literally the High Quarter. If you were to return after dark, you would find knots of people crouching to peer anxiously through low, grubby windows. They are queuing for fado, whose basic form can most easily be described as getting Leonard Cohen to compose a requiem, then asking an elderly aunt to sing it.

It is hard to judge how many of the prospective punters are seeking to appreciate and sustain an important part of their national culture, and how many are just tourists. No matter: there are few heartier feasts than generous portions of bacalau (reconstituted dried cod, usually in strident sauces), vinho tinto (red wine) and melodramatic melodies.

At this point tram 28 is presented with a problem of altitude. She finds herself several hundred feet higher than she needs to be, and has to perform an ungainly slalom down to sea level. So every few minutes, the customers at the Ciber Chiado have their musings interrupted by low, metallic groans as steel wheels grate noisily against the iron road. Even if you have no urgent e-mails to send, stop for a coffee at the Chiado, one of Lisbon's most atmospheric cafes. The ground floor, which in summer spills out almost to the tracks, is guaranteed terminal-free; the computers are upstairs.

The descent was necessary for the race through the Baixa, the 19th-century heart of the city. It is not, at present, a remotely pretty site; building for Expo has turned it into a shambles of scaffolding enswirled by dust.

Another heave, and a fight with another angry gradient on the ascent to the Alfama. Perhaps a degree of divine traction intervenes to help the tram judder past the heavy doors of Lisbon Cathedral. As she skates across the shiny cobbles in a series of hairpins, eyes right for a fine succession of views across the terracotta roofs towards the Tagus. Your reward for planning the voyage to take place in late afternoon will be to bear witness to the impersonation of San Francisco Bay that the city lays on each day: flames seem to dance from the calm waters of the estuary, while over in the general direction of America the Ponte 25 Abril does a convincing impression of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Up at the front, where the driver sways jauntily with each twist, things are getting tricky. The Alfama is the old Arab quarter, a busy nest of humanity whose residents are so familiar with the 28 that they know exactly how much to breathe in while she ploughs her furrow through the highly unsuitable terrain as singlemindedly as any Newbury bypass builder. The 20th-century was evidently obliged to find its own bypass around the Alfama.

Forty minutes after that first clang, a rapid peal announces your arrival at the Largo da Graca. Normally, she would continue for another mile, but the Expo excavations stop her dead in tracks that expire beneath a mountain of sand. This turns out to be a bonus, because it obliges you to disembark at one of Lisbon's more miraculous miradors. Beside you, an impossibly bulky basilica built in the days when Portugal ruled some worthwhile waves. Behind you, tram 28 plods off home in a not-altogether- convincing journey to the future. Meanwhile the fine city is spread out beneath you as though in a hammock. Happily, Lisbon seems to have dozed right through the 20th century.

PORTUGUESE Connections

The Portuguese-speaking community is not a large one. Here is how - and when - to get to the shreds of Empire. Happily, if you have not yet booked your summer holiday, the best time to go to most of them is between now and the end of the school holidays.

ANGOLA

Whether to go:

The Foreign Office Travel Advice Unit says "No".

BRAZIL

When to go: Almost the whole country is south of the equator. To avoid intense heat and heavy rainfall, go between now and the end of August.

How to get there: the Brazilian airline Varig (0171-629 9408) flies from London Heathrow to Rio and Sao Paulo; British Airways (0345 222111) serves the same cities from Gatwick. Transbrasil (0171-976 0966) flies from Gatwick to Recife, Salvador and Sao Paulo. The lowest official return fare is around pounds 600, but lower fares are available through agents such as Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108), Passage to South America (0171- 602 9889), Steamond (0171-730 8646) or South American Experience (0171- 976 5511). Usually the lowest fares are for indirect flights on airlines like Air France, Alitalia and TAP Air Portugal, but British Airways is offering pounds 532 through JLA for travel in September.

How to get around: Frequent long-distance buses zip around. But given the long distances involved, the best way to travel by air around Brazil is on an airpass, sold by Varig and its two competitors, Transbrasil and Vasp. The price is $540 (about pounds 320) for five flights.

AZORES

When to go: Temperatures are highest, and rainfall and humidity are lowest, in July and August. April to June is also a promising time to visit.

How to get there: TAP Air Portugal (0171-828 0262) has daily flights from London via Lisbon to Ponta Delgada. The cheapest summer fare is pounds 398 midweek, pounds 414 weekend. The same fares apply to the airports of Horta and Terceira. You can fly into any of the three and out from any other.

How to get around: SATA operates flights between the islands; these are bookable through Air Portugal.

GUINEA-BISSAU AND CAPE VERDE

When to go: November to March

How to get there: Fly via Lisbon on TAP Air Portugal. Expect to pay around pounds 600.

How to get around: boats, shared taxis. Thomas Cook's Overseas Timetable is pessimistic about the reliability of services.

MOZAMBIQUE

When to go: Any time from now until September.

How to get there: Fly to Johannesburg, for as little as pounds 450 return through discount agents, then a train or connecting flight should do the trick.

How to get around: In most parts, by irregular bus and train services; in the north, by hitching rides with aid agencies.

MACAU

When to go: October or November to February or March

How to get there: either take the long way round via Lisbon and Bangkok to the new airport in Macau on TAP Air Portugal (total journey time around 24 hours), or find a discounted flight from Heathrow or Manchester to Hong Kong on British Airways, Cathay Pacific or Virgin Atlantic. Then take the Jetfoil or ferry across the South China Sea.

How to get around: Lots of small, cheap buses; few roads.

PORTUGAL

How to get there: The lowest fare to Lisbon is on AB Airlines (0345 464748) from Gatwick for pounds 126.80 return including tax. But these cheap seats are limited and the fare then goes up to pounds 206.80. British Airways (0345 222111) and TAP Air Portugal (0171-828 0262) fly from Heathrow to Lisbon, but fares are higher: BA around pounds 205 and TAP pounds 210.60 midweek or pounds 220.60 weekend,. From Manchester, Portugalia (0990 502048) flies via Oporto to Lisbon for pounds 200.70. Air Portugal ticket holders can claim a free ride on the Aero-Bus into the city centre: hang on to your boarding pass. To reach the Minho area, fly to Oporto. Lowest fares are: BA from Gatwick, pounds 160.80 (special offer - book before 23 July); TAP Air Portugal from Heathrow, pounds 210.60 midweek, pounds 220.60 weekend; and Portugalia from Manchester, pounds 200.70.

Who to ask: Portuguese National Tourist Office, 22/25a Sackville Street, London W1X 1DE (0171-494 1441).

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