A few weeks ago, Michael and I visited the district of Belém, 6km from Lisbon – a popular tourist spot. It was pretty easy to get there by train.
From the train station, we walked toward the town and saw the very impressive Monastery of Jerónimos in the distance. Being lunch time, we decided on a seafood restaurant after checking its menu posted on the window. We enjoyed a scrumptious fish meal and then with full tummies strode toward the the monastery to see what we could see and learn.
We thought we’d do a Tuk Tuk tour, instead of a 3-4 hour walking tour, just to get an overall view of the place.
Our very knowledgeable Tuk Tuk driver and guide, Paolo, took us on a bumpy ride to the hill top to the Palácio da Ajuda’s .
Nothing was straightforeward about this palace’s history explained Paolo. King Joseph and his family happened to be in Belem when the 1755 earthquake and tsunami destroyed Lisbon.
Spooked by the destruction in the capital, the king suffered great anxiety about living in a house made of masonry. He had tents of wood and fabric erected on the Palace grounds to live in, which unfortunately burned down in 1792. In 1807, the royal family fled to Brazil when Napoleon’s troops invaded Portugal.
For me it’s intriguing to come to the place from where Vasco da Gama set sail on 8 July 1497, establishing a sea route to India and stopping off at the Cape of Good Hope. I well remember Vasco da Gama and those darned dates I had to memorize for history tests. He docked in a bay off the Atlantic coast near Cape Town, he named St. Helena Bay.
The riverfront Monument to the Discoveries was erected in commemoration of the 500th anniversary since the death of Prince Henry the Navigator (also I character with whom I’m familiar from school history days). The monument had orginally been constructed for the 1940 World Expo.
On each side, the Monument encompasses a representation of 33 Portuguese heroes with Prince Henry the Navigator leading the van. Also included in this illustrious company are revered Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões, Pedro Álvares Cabral, who discovered Brazil, Gil Eanes, the first to traverse beyond Cape Bojador and Bartolomeu Dias, the first to cross the Cape of Good Hope. The rest represented include important navigators, painters, mathematicians, cartographers and kings.
Belém Tower was commissioned by King John II as part of the Tagus estuary defence system and built between 1515 and 1520 in classical Manueline architecture. It was the last thing sailors saw as they sailed to foreign lands to return months later with gold and spices, bringing great wealth to their native land. Ranking as one of Portugal’s iconic structures, the tower is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our guide, Paola, pointed out other points of interest such as The National Coach Museum housing over 70 royal carriages. For those interested in things naval, there’s the Maritime Museum with a selection of exhibits about the ships and navagational instruments of the Age of Discovery. There are a number of other museums and art galleries to satisfy your interests. We came back to our starting point near the Monastery of Jeronimos.
Like the Belém Tower, the Church of Santa Maria and the Monastery symbolize the Portuguese Age of Discovery. The Monastery is named for the Catholic enclosed Order of Saint Jerome or Hieronymites, a common name for several congregations of hermit monks living according to the Rule of Saint Augustine.
In 1983, together with the Belém Tower, the Monastery was formally designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Anyone will tell you no visit to Belém is complete without sampling a pastel de Belém (the real McCoy) or two. And I must say, queuing for these warm, creamy, divine custard tarts was absolutely worth it. Paolo had given us the heads up about the cavernous interior that seats 400 people, and marvellous tile work of the Pastéis de Belém to check out.