LISBON — Don't believe all you hear about the trains of Europe. Oh, some are miraculous, those swifter-than-sound crack trains of France, the funiculars that climb the Swiss Alps, the Royal Scotsman that wafts you effortlessly from London to Edinburgh, the incredibly luxurious Orient Express.
But some European railroads have been allowed to deteriorate. One must even be wary of some of the better trains, such as the Roma Express from Calais to Rome. It dispenses with dining service in the winter and only puts on diners for the summer tourist season; you could travel for 24 hours on that train with nothing to eat unless you pack a picnic basket.
Still, if you believe flying is for the birds (as we do), you try to travel by rail whenever possible, seeking out trains with at least the sound of speed and comfort in their titles. (Doesn't always work. One of the slowest and most laborious trains, eternally late, runs from Nogales to Mexico City via Mazatlan and Guadalajara; it's called the Bullet.)
Usually, the word express in any language seems to indicate the class of rail travel and, consequently, we chose the Lisbon Express from the Portuguese capital to Madrid. The name conjures the vision of a long sleek train, bowing stewards, starched white tablecloths in the diner, all pulled by a mighty diesel engine.
That, it is not.
There's a Lisbon Express all right, two of them, one leaving Lisbon at 7:30 a.m., arriving in Madrid at 4:30 p.m., and its owl equivalent that leaves Lisbon at 11 p.m., arriving at 9 a.m.
They depart from Lisbon's Apolonia Station, an ancient edifice that conveys images of departing soldiers, weeping women, cane-swinging dandies and Hemingway and his friends on their way to see the running of the bulls.
To train lovers, the waiting room has that marvelously musty smell of old leather luggage, wet tweeds, steam trunks and heavily oiled mahogany benches.
There are those who book tickets well in advance from travel agencies, but neither of us is ever that well organized. We buy our tickets as we go. There was an enormous line in front of the janela (ticket window). A sign above it announced that the lunch hour (almoco) was from 11:30 to 1.
At 11:25 a.m. we were almost at the window--only one woman, a large, tweedy Briton, was in front of us. She and the ticket seller engaged in a long and involved dialogue. He spoke little English, she no Portuguese.
She had questions about the schedules, the toilet facilities, even, at one point, the age of the conductor. The confused ticket seller kept rolling his eyes in despair, but once she had left without buying a ticket, he slammed down the window on which there was painted a hand with a finger pointing at the word: FECHARU (Closed).
Novak let out a wail you could hear in Madrid. The ticket seller jerked open the window to see what was amiss, and, reluctantly, sold us first-class tickets on the Lisbon Express for about $20 each.
With wives and luggage we arrived early--before 7 a.m.--and even then the station was an anthill of activity. Trains were arriving and departing, long, elaborate trains. Travelers pushed their way aboard with mountains of luggage and baskets of food.
We kept looking at each arriving train to see which was ours. Finally, the Lisbon Express was announced and we dashed onto the platform to discover not a long, sleek limited, silver symphony of cars pulled by a massive locomotive, but a pitiful looking pair of cars, the rear of which contained a self-propelled diesel engine.
No diner. No lounge car. No Pullmans. Just these two forlorn cars looking for all the world like a train that got lost from the New York subway--the Yonkers Local without the graffiti.
We said to each other that this couldn't be it, but a card in the window said this was indeed the Lisbon Express. One first-class car, one second-class (containing the engine.) Hesitantly, we climbed aboard, dreams of an Iberian equivalent of the Orient Express evaporating.
But we couldn't have been more surprised. The car was very comfortable, with ample leg room and a luggage compartment. There was a tiny bar at one end and an even tinier kitchen. It was a one-man operation, the bartender was also the chef.
The train sped through the beautiful back country of Portugal, with farmhouses outdoing each other with their ornate chimneys on which storks roosted and later through the cork forests of western Spain and miles of dusty olive orchards extending from horizon to horizon, broken by a green flash of bright almond trees.
We were served drinks at the table at our seats, followed by a sumptuous meal. None of that frozen airline grub. We had pate and sardines and clear soup and thin filets and queijo com goiabada (cheese with guava paste), all washed down with Portugal's splendidly tart vinho verde . (Cost: about $13 for four.)
Outside the windows passed the changing shades of green that reminded us a bit of Ireland. Tucked away in the hills were formidable ancient castles, many of them seemingly in good condition.
Crossing the Spanish border at Valencia de Alcantera involved a thorough inspection, possibly because of terrorist activity. Inadvertently, one of our bags had been misplaced and we did not declare it, which caused quite a fuss. Officers hauled us and the bag off the train while two large German shepherds sniffed the bag and us. When the dogs had completed their examination and apparently passed us, we were allowed back on the train.
Approaching Madrid on its high, arid plain, the countryside grew busier with commercial plants and traffic, and then we arrived at Madrid's huge Atocha Station near the center of the great city--none of that tedious ride in from an airport.
We took a last look at the little Lisbon Express. "Small--but oh, my!"