Belém, the old fishing-village with a panoramic location at the river Tagus. What now seems to be a little innocent river was five centuries ago the basis for the Portuguese explorations. Well-known historical figures such as Vasco da Gama supplied here their ships, outlined their routes and set sail to India and the Orient. Years later they returned with ships full with gold, silver and spices. It was a time of welfare, pride and prosperity for Portugal, and especially for Belém. Today you can still see this seafaring history in modern Belém. This Lisbon neighbourhood is full with monuments and museums that tell the Portuguese Age of Discoveries. I only spend an afternoon in Belém, but it gave me enough time to explore its three major monuments.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Let’s start with the building you first see when you roll into Belém by tram: Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. When I heard this name I could only think of one thing: the song Geronimo of the Sheppard. Even now as I’m writing this post, I still hear the song play in the back of my mind. Say ge-ronimo, say ge-romino… Right, back to the monastery. Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is definitely impressive and has an unique building style: the ‘Manueline style’. Never heard of it? It’s kind of local Portuguese style named after sixteenth century king Manuel I. This king was very proud of the Portuguese explorations and didn’t want the world to forget this. That’s why many buildings from that time have maritime symbols and references to the voyages, combined with a gothic – renaissance style. Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is the perfect example of this style. Take the facade for instance, it’s full with Portuguese historical figures from the Age of Discoveries.
Padrão dos Descubrimentos
If you walk from the monastery to the Tagus river, you will definitely come across the Monument of Discoveries, or as they say in beautiful Portuguese ‘Padrão dos Descubrimentos‘. The monument itself isn’t that old. It was built 55 years ago as part of the commemorations to celebrate the fifth centennial of the death of Henry the Navigator. As odd as this name is, Henry wasn’t actually that fond of travelling. He was more the thinker behind the adventures and routes. You will find Henry at the front of the line of people, followed by king Manuel, Vasco da Gama and a group of cartographers and sailors. And if you pay attention to the square the monument stands on, you’ll notice parts of it are shaped like a sea. The monument (the ship) is setting sail into the Orient.
Torre de Belém
From the Monument of Discoveries it’s not that far to the next historical structure. Just a ten-minute walk along the Tagus and you’ll arrive at Torre de Belém. This is an old defenisive fortification that protected Lisbon in the sixteenth century against foreign raiders. If you’ve paid attention at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos you will recognize the building style. Yes, it’s the Manueline style again. Images of fishes are displayed and the towers are shaped with twisted ropes. Originally the location of the tower used to be a little bit further into the Tagus river, but due to the earthquake of 1755 the tower was moved up to the shore.
And with the Tower of Belém my afternoon in Belém ended. Of course there is so much more to see in this area. Take for instance the Maritime Museum, the famous pastries of Pastéis de Belém or the striking statue Christo Rei. Plenty left to see next time.
Have you ever been to Belém?