I like travelling by train. I have made memorable trips from Cairns to Gympie; Vancouver to Calgary; Roma to Potenza; Fort William to Mallaig; Mumbai to Pune; Paris to Milano. Now I can add another to this list.
Last week I was in Portugal. And, though my very kind hosts showed me some extraordinary things there, including the hilltop villages of Monsanto and Sortelha and the amazing Capuchin “Cork Convent” in Sintra, I want to talk about a train trip we made, from Covilhã to Lisboa.
Rosemary booked the tickets on the internet, with the help of her Portuguese colleagues. Apparently it was quite an adventure; she had to give the passport numbers for both of us and the names and ages of all her children. (Later we found that one could buy a ticket at the station without any fuss.) The reservation had put us on the non-scenic side and not by a window, but fortunately the train was not crowded and we were able to move.
The train starts its journey in Covilhã; the line to the north has been closed. It passes through the fertile valley of the Zêzere river, with vineyards and orchards everywhere. (The first stop, Fundão, produces “the best cherries in the world”; we ate them in the breaks at the workshop in Covilhã, and I would not quarrel with the description.) Then it climbs a rugged range, where a tunnel takes it to the other side, another wide flat valley. This one is quite different, with dry grass and little in the way of crops apart from olive trees. It somewhat resembled parts of inland Queensland, an impression reinforced by the occasional imposing eucalyptus tree. We saw many storks standing in the fields or nesting on the tops of tall pine trees or chimneys.
A passage through even more rugged mountains brought us to the river Tejo, flowing through a dramatic gorge. Two barrages ensured that there was plenty of water in the river, reflecting the sides of the gorge. The train seemed sometimes to be almost vertically above the water. On the other side, olive and eucalyptus trees clung to the precipitous hillsides. (I imagine that harvesting the olives is quite challenging.) Storks flew over the water or stood on sandy spits in the river; kites and hawks hovered above; and a heron stood patiently fishing in the water.
This was the best of the journey. The sides of the gorge flattened out and we were in much tamer country. A brief excursion to the other side of the river took us to Abrantes. We had fallen a few minutes behind the timetable, but the railway is single-track and we had missed the chance of getting to the next crossing point before a train in the other direction, so we had an extended stay in the platform there. Then we crossed back to get to the junction station of Entroncamento. After this we saw little of the river until the outskirts of Lisboa, where the Tejo widens out and the Vasco da Gama bridge comes into view just before our destination at Lisboa Oriente, three and three-quarter hours after starting out.
And all this for only eighteen and a half euros each!