The Tram

You hear the tram first, dog-like, at the edges of your hearing: the squeal of wheels along rusty tracks, the flexing of the metal panels in the tram itself, then its charming bell. For such a slow-moving conveyance, it sneaks up on you still, as it winds its way up and down the hills and through the valley between Sintra and Praia das Maçãs. The tram appears suddenly as you round a corner or pull out onto the main road. As it passes, if you squint your eyes a bit, you can see the surprised looks of Victorian ladies as they first rode the tram from their grand houses on the serra to the beach, back around 1910.

The newly refurbished cars date from the 1930s—red, pale blue, British racing green, and yellow, open to the breeze in the summer and windows slatted against the rain in winter. For Christmas, they dress up with garlands and red ornaments. In the summer holidays, they’re packed with holiday-makers, fans whirring.

We’ve made the journey a couple of times, paying the €3 each way for the roughly 45-minute trip. The carriage tracks weave behind houses and, until you actually ride the tram, it’s not clear exactly where it cuts through Colares and Vinagre. Next time I’ll bring ear plugs to soften the sharp noises made by its brakes and as it rounds the corners. But it’s a ride you can’t miss, just to see the road signs for each town move past you, inches away. 

Even after I’ve spent hours running up between its uneven rails and over its cross-ties—and witnessing an accident when an unwitting tourist didn’t know to look for it—the tram still identifies (for me) our little corner of Portugal. (The tram won that car-carriage fight, by the way—those carriages were built so solidly, enough to make putty of a rental car.)

The schedule starts on time in the morning, around 9 am in Sintra, but becomes a loose estimation by the afternoon. But the tram’s not really made for those keeping to any more of an itinerary than a few idle hours by the sea.

We continue to reap the late summer’s harvest from our backyard as well as the market, with an overflowing basket of tomatoes, peppers, fresh herbs, and stone fruits. As the larger pimentos come in, they remind me of poblano chiles back in Colorado, and I adapt my stuffed pepper recipe to make use of the ingredients I find here—filling out the stuffing with batatas doces (sweet potatoes) and toasted pine nuts.

Stuffed Peppers

Pimentos Recheados

4 long, green peppers (like Hatch or poblano, thin walled)

2 sweet potatoes, cut into 1/2 inch dice, skin on

2 cloves garlic, unpeeled

1 teaspoon ancho chile powder

1/2 teaspoon chile de arbol powder, or piri piri

1 teaspoon lemon pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon olive oil (or broth)

1 cup quinoa (red or white or mixed), cooked to make 1 1/2 cup

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

1.4 of a preserved lemon, rinsed, pulped, and cut into a fine dice

1/2 cup tomato, cut into 1/2 inch dice

1/2 cup firm, mild cheese, like feta, or herbed sheep’s milk cheese, cut into 1/2 inch or smaller dice

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Salt and pepper to taste

Cilantro leaves to garnish

  1. Heat oven to 180C/360F.
  2. Toss sweet potatoes with spices and garlic cloves, and place in small roasting pan. Toss in olive oil or broth to moisten. Roast for about 20 minutes, until soft but still toothsome. Cool for 5 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, cook quinoa and prep peppers: Slice peppers lengthwise carefully, and deseed/destem them while keeping them intact.
  4. Place peppers open sides up in roasting pan.
  5. Remove garlic cloves from sweet potato mixture and set aside for a moment.
  6. Mix sweet potatoes with quinoa, pine nuts, preserved lemon, tomato, cheese, and cumin. Toss to mix. Moisten with a bit more olive oil if the mixture is too dry. Squeeze roasted garlic into mix, and toss again. Taste, and add salt and pepper if needed.
  7. Mound mixture into pepper halves, and fill space around them with more of the mixture to help support them.
  8. Roast uncovered at 180C/360F for 15 minutes, checking for desired doneness. You may want to roast them as long as 25 minutes.
  9. Serve on a plate with extra quinoa mix around each pepper. Garnish with cilantro. Serves four as a lunch or light supper.