Primp My Lift (Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon, Portugal)

It’s always interesting to come across an unusual public transport mode, properly integrated into the rest of the public transport offer. When you come across an example that adds to the appeal of the locale in which you can find it, that’s even better.

So this week, let me take you to a piece of public transport that admirably fulfills both criteria; the Elevador de Santa Justa in Portgual’s capital city Lisbon.

Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

There are four elevadores taking the strain out of walking up the steep hillsides over which Lisbon is built. It is the hilliest city I think I’ve ever walked around, even more so than San Francisco, and it takes a fair bit of hill to impress me because I spent many years living in Hastings, which has a ridiculous number of steep hills as well. It’s one of those places where doing a hill start isn’t so much a particular part of the driving test as something that happens naturally within a few hundred metres of the test centre and then countless times during the remainder of the test. And occasionally in reverse gear. But back to Portugal…

Of Lisbon’s four elevadores, three are street-running funicular cable cars (I think possibly funiculars counterbalance each other, while cable cars grip onto a moving cable under the street, and I’m sure I also read that two of the Lisbon ones use one technology while the third uses the other, but I can’t find the reference at the moment). Street running cable cars are unusual enough, but the fourth elevador, and today’s topic, is that even rarer beast, an outdoor lift (or elevator, depending what sort of English you speak). And it’s absolutely gorgeous.

The Elevador de Santa Justa opened on 10th July 1902 and was designed by Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard. It contains two lift cabins, each with a capacity of 35 passengers; 20 seated and 15 standing.

Ponsard was a student of Gustav Eiffel (yes, that one) who just a few years earlier had designed some tower or other in Paris (yes, that one). That’s presumably what gives the outline of the Elevador de Santa Justa a familiar-ish feel, especially near the top where there is a gallery cantilevered out from the tower below. Whereas Eiffel’s tower is for the most part pure engineering, though, Ponsard gave his Elevador a riot of neo-gothic stylings, all made out of cast iron.

When I visited the Elevador, it was undergoing maintenance works. On the one hand it was nice to see it being well looked after, but on the other the fact that it was partially wrapped in sheeting made photography a bit difficult.

Each storey of the tower has a different design of metal work. It’s basically a pick and mix of Ponsard’s favourite gothic patterns and it’s really rather lovely.

Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

At the upper lift lobby, the gothic tracery continues:

Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
Upper lift lobby, Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon. The spiral stairs lead up to the viewing gallery. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

If you’re curious as to what it looks like without the sheeting, here it is:

Elevador de Santa Justa. Photo by Capitu (ou Marcela) [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Elevador de Santa Justa. Photo by Capitu (ou Marcela) [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

And if what you’re curious about is what the inside of the lift shafts look like, I’ve got that covered too. Well, someone has to:

Lift shaft, Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
Lift shaft, Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

The upper level of the elevador is connected to the hillside by a short bridge, again replete with gothic details. My partner wasn’t vastly keen on this bit, as she’s not big on heights, and I refrained from mentioning that the mesh screens on the upper sides of the bridge aren’t original and the bridge was initially open-sided.

There used to be three elevadors of the outdoor lift-type in Lisbon, but the Santa Justa elevador is now the only survivor (brief details of the lost two can be found on this page).

It’s properly integrated into Lisbon’s public transport network, and is operated by the city’s surface transport organisation Carris. Despite the vintage all-wood interior of the lift cabin, complete with polished brass control dial and crank handle, there’s a bang up-to-date smartcard validator on board which you have to tap in order to avoid a penalty fare. It is, in short, an absolute public transport geekfest.

Interior of lift cabin, Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
Interior of lift cabin, Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon. Smartcard validator is on the far left. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

You can use the elevador if you hold one of Lisbon’s multimodal travelcards (€6.50 for the day), and it makes the trip much better value than paying the elevador-only return (up and down) fare of €5.00. That said, tourists on the €5.00 fare get access to the viewing platform immediately above the upper lift hall, while you get sternly turned away from the spiral stairs leading up to it if you hold only a travelcard.

Along with the three street-running elevadores, the Elevador de Santa Justa was declared a Portuguese National Monument in 2002, on its 100th birthday (details of the famous foursome can be found here).

I always think you can judge how civilised a city is by how easy it is to use its public transport. Lisbon is an absolute doddle. We dived into the first Metro station we came across, where the ticket machines offered an English language option, and quick as a flash we had our €0.50 smartcard with the €6.00 one-day travelcard loaded onto it. For comparison, if you were a tourist visiting London, you would need to spend £3 to get an Oyster visitor’s smartcard and the price cap for a day’s travel in zones 1-6 is £11.80, though that would include heavy rail services which Lisbon’s excludes. The paper one day off-peak travelcard, which you can buy from ticket machines on the day, is £17.20.

Beyond the four elevadores, there is much to love about Lisbon if you like public transport. Its buses are comprehensive and easy to use, with on-board next stop announcements and displays. It has several tram lines, most of which feature hilarious vintage tiny trams. I must admit that although these are yet more geeky fun, I’m always slightly conflicted about whether cities should really be putting the tourist attractiveness of public transport ahead of ease and accessibility. Meanwhile, the combined railway/bus/metro station at Oriente is absolutely phenomenal (it was the subject of this earlier entry). And its Metro offers, so far as I am aware, the only opportunity to experience what life must be like if you lived inside a kaleidoscope. I’ll show you that next week.

Further reading

Carris’s Elevador de Santa Justa technical details webpage, here

…and anything linked to in the text above

How to find the Elevador de Santa Justa

Click here for the map

2 thoughts on “Primp My Lift (Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon, Portugal)

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