Celia Pedroso on her love-hate relationship with the stalwart ferries connecting Lisbon with Almada, the south bank.

I confess: I have mixed feelings about cacilheiros—the small ferry boats that cross the river Tejo (Tagus), connecting Lisbon with Almada.

It’s a short trip, around 10 minutes, but these boats, most of them still the same one from the 1980s, invoke many memories and emotions. They have transported me to places of study, work, or leisure. They make me miss appointments, they scare me beyond words, but they also bring me to glorious vistas of Lisbon and its river.

Growing up on the south bank (Almada, the city opposite Lisbon) has made me a loyal customer of the orange-and-white ferry from an early age. For a while, I betrayed them by using the train under the bridge (which opened in 1999 and stole many passengers from the ferry) or moving to the big city. But, as in any love-hate relationship, I keep coming back to the extraordinary ride that I’m lucky to take, though I also get angry about the current state of the boats.

As a child, going to Lisbon with my mother and brother or meeting our cousins for a long lanche (the mid-afternoon snack between lunch and dinner) was exciting, and only possible with the ferry. Those are some of my happiest childhood memories.

However, as a teenager, while studying, I endured the wrath of the elements: strong winds, stormy weather, and giant waves up to the first floor of the ferry making everyone scream, pray, or both. I remember looking at the dirty river—the Tagus was very polluted. My worst fear was ending up in that sewage water.

The crew and passengers feared the fog and the many warning sirens that most. On one of those foggy days, tragedy struck. A container ship hit another vessel and sank, killing four of the crew members. The ship Tollan remained, upside down, close to the scenic Cais das Colunas in the monumental Terreiro do Paço square in Lisbon, for almost four years—and became a weird attraction for visitors. I would see its hull daily as the ferry route was very close. So close that one day a ferry hit it, and people had to be rescued. Luckily I missed that, but I was in another one that got stuck in a cable from the wrecked ship, and we were there for hours until the tide freed us. I started to hate these daily boat trips: Commuting was not that much fun, after all.

As an adult, it was thanks to these white-and-orange ferries that I was able to work for newspapers.  The alternative, to go by bus or car across the bridge, was expensive and would take longer. My first job was close to Terreiro do Paço—a terminal no longer in use for the Cacilhas boats—but the last service was early in the evening, so I would often have to run to the other terminal in Cais do Sodré. I would curse the ferry company, as did the many other people working in Baixa who had to do the same sprint to get home.

The terminals were cold, dark, and old (they still are, in Cacilhas) and the draughts would spread cigarette smoke and the smell of sweat. In off-peak hours, the wait could be long, and I would despair. In particular after a long shift at the newspaper, I would seek some shelter in one of the station bars. They were mediocre snack bars, with boring cakes and savories. One of them in particular always smelled like the toilet. Starving and tired, I would sometimes take the chance on that one, and regret it for the rest of the week.

However, there was a personality that made the commuter’s life much happier—a dog called Patolinhas that would cross the river every day from Cacilhas to Lisbon in the morning, and return with the flow in the evening, as if it were his job. A newspaper published an article about Patolinhas, and, in the days before social media,  he became a celebrity—the talk of the ferry for some time. The crew on the Cacilhas side had adopted him, and he was a stray dog on a mission: to cross the river every day. Dogs are smart, I thought. And I kept following his paws.

But then I changed newspapers, and started working at an afternoon paper in Bairro Alto, where I had to be in at 8 a.m. sharp or I would be told off by the deputy editor-in-chief, who would screaming at me, “The start time is at 8.00, not 8.10”. I started taking the big ferries departing from Cais do Sodré, which would also transport cars and were more stable in stormy weather. A few months after I started to enjoy this crossing—which took a little bit longer as the ferries would dock slowly and had to let the cars out—early one morning, on  August 25, 1988, there was another tragedy.  

Chiado, one of Lisbon’s historic neighborhoods, known for its old shops, department stores, cafés, and restaurants, caught fire. Pieces of paper and fabric from the shops and departments stores were landing in the ferry, the river, and the south bank. The smoke was seen and felt miles away, and all the passengers were in shock, staying outside where the cars and the smokers were to watch the event develop. Although we lived in Almada, on the south bank, this was our city too. Where we ate, shopped, and spent our lives. There were tears and worry. Some ferry passengers worked in one of the department stores on fire. On that hot August day, Lisbon lost many of its historic shops, buildings, and cafés, including my childhood favorite, Ferrari, established in 1846 and where we would linger over pastries, sandwiches, and milkshakes. It was a long day at the newspaper. Everyone was devastated, and for a moment we were afraid that the fire would go up the hill to Bairro Alto. On the journey home, the silence was unbearable. So was looking out the window. 

Fast-forward to 2019. The passenger-only ferries now run between Cais do Sodré and Cacilhas, while the large ones that transport cars run from Belém to Trafaria, a convenient location in the summer for Costa da Caparica beach. I’m back on my original route. The small cacilheiros, with names such as Madragoa and Porto Brandão, are still the same ones from my student days. They are smelly, greasy, and, even more than a good wash, in need of retirement. Because the fleet is so old, there are often cancellations and slow service, and I and my fellow commuters arrive late to appointments. Transtejo, the company who runs the ferries, announced in February 2019 that, at long last, the fleet would be renovated.

We can’t wait for the new ones. I hope they bring back the bar that existed for a while, which was perfect for a morning bica (espresso) with a little cake on board the ferry.

Meanwhile, if you’re willing to try these old cacilheiros, make sure to be on one around sunset, when the view is superb. In spite of all its problems, there’s nothing like the perspective of the city seen from Cacilhas. There are many options for dinner in the lively pedestrian street Cândido dos Reis, but the best view is from the waterfront restaurant Ponto Final.

Tickets cost 1,30 euros for a single trip, or use a Viva viagem card.