In the late 19th century, rail travel was the only means for travelling quickly around Europe, since there were no aeroplanes and few cars.
The Portuguese monarch who travelled most by train was Dom Carlos (1889-1908). Whether to his estate in Vila Viçosa, to his holiday home in Cascais, to take the waters in Pedras Salgadas, on official state visits or private journeys, he went by train. His private secretary wrote a diary in which he related some of the difficulties D. Carlos encountered.
On his 1895 trip to Spain, France, Germany and England, not only did the locomotive burst its boiler on the way to Madrid, but the royal attendants forgot to fill the tanks with washing water.
On their late arrival in Madrid, the royal party was well dressed but unwashed. This immense journey should have included a visit to Rome, but D. Carlos could not offend either the Pope of the King of Italy, each of whom demanded the first visit by any visiting Catholic monarch. Consequently, few Catholic monarchs visited Rome.
Returning to Portugal from England in 1902, the King was travelling in the Spanish royal coach. The track out of Madrid was so rough that the oil from the oil-lamps jumped out of the reservoirs all over the carpets and the king himself.
Visits were also made by rail to Portugal by other European monarchs. In 1900, D. Carlos unwillingly received the unpopular Leopold II King of the Belgians at Cascais. Carlos could not stand him. He told his secretary to show him the Boca do Inferno just outside Cascais, and then take him to the station. “But mind you do not miss the train…”
Republican plots and rioting led the King and Queen to retire to Vila Viçosa on the feast of Epiphany in January 1908. D. Carlos signed a decree on January 31 to banish those republicans involved in the plot of January 28.
The Queen insisted on returning to Lisbon, and on the train journey, D Carlos, full of foreboding, said nothing. Arriving at Praça do Comércio in the late afternoon of February 1, the King and the Crown Prince were assassinated as the royal family drove towards the palace in an open landau.
On his journeys to the north, D. Carlos often used the Sud-Express, the daily link between Lisbon-Madrid-Paris-London. It was a luxury train, and in 1900 it appeared that high society had left Lisbon deserted as they travelled by Sud-Express to the Paris Exhibition.
In the 1930s, as Estoril came into vogue, the Portuguese terminus was no longer Lisbon but Estoril, where luxury hotels, the golf course, the esplanade and the casino all attracted the international high society. The casino was an especial magnet for the alfacinhas (Lisboetas) and Estoril itself became a hotbed of espionage during WW2.
From the 1960s onwards, the Sud-Express was no longer the luxury holiday travel for the rich. It became the means of emigration for thousands of young Portuguese to France and elsewhere in Europe.
As the colonial wars began in 1961, it also became a means for young men to escape conscription. Even so, many had to cross the frontier “a salto”, or on foot.
When emigrants had become legal, the Sud-Express was their means of returning for summer and Christmas holidays. Some illegal exiles also used the train hoping to get through unrecognised among the crowd.
In 1962, the 23-year-old Helena Pato decided to join her husband in Paris. He had fled after being denounced to the PIDE (Polícia Internacional e da Defesa do Estado). She remembers to this day the fear of being recognised and arrested by the PIDE.
At the frontier station of Vilar Formoso, the Portuguese frontier police asked for their passports. “They looked especially closely at one boy who was the right age to be called up, and at the authorisation given by my husband that I could travel abroad. They took all the papers, and we sat frozen with fear. No-one moved or spoke until the Spanish guards returned our papers to us.” She lived in Paris half emigrant, half exile and came to know the flavour of hunger.
Now a retired Professor of Mathematics, she then worked as a char, seamstress and child carer.
Even as late as 1972, 20-year-old Maria de Lurdes going to join her husband in Paris had to cross the border “a salto”. The guide told her that if she did not stop crying, he would refuse to take her further. She later persuaded her husband to buy a car, since the memory of travelling the Sud-Express was so hateful to her.
Most of those who travelled north remember the packed food that they took. All Portuguese, they shared similar food. Roast chicken and rissoles of cod together with bread, fruit, cheese and smoked ham for this long journey, as well as flagons of red wine. Some even took live chickens. Most travelled without a sleeper, and slept where they could, many on the floor. They were crushed together like sardines in a tin.
After the 1970s, Sud-Express changed its character yet again. Now young people used Inter-Rail passes to travel around Europe, on holidays or moving to study in another country.
In the space of a hundred years, the Sud-Express had been the preferred means of travel of monarchs, of high society, of emigrants and exiles, of young men escaping an unpopular war, and lastly of young people making their first journeys into the unknown.
By Lynne Booker