“ Fortress dating back to the early 16th Century „
Belem Tower, Lisbon
I remember many years ago arriving in Lisbon by ship having crossed the Atlantic and the first thing that I saw was this tower which to my child like eyes looked a bit like a princess's tower or iced birthday cake.
More recently we spent the day in Lisbon and this tower was our first stopping pace and I clearly remembered it from my first sighting all those years before.
The area of Belem is along the river bank and harbour area of Lisbon, hence me remembering so well this sight from around forty years earlier. The Belem Tower is a very ornate tower built in the Manueline style of Architecture - so called after Manuel II as this was the style of design during his reign. The tower was built between 1514 and 1520 as a fortification to protect the entrance of Lisbon harbour at the mouth of the the River Tagus . It was built on a basalt island on one side of the river and faced the fortress of São Sebastião da Caparica on the other bank so ensuring the entrance was protected.
Although it was built as a military fortification and looks very similar in shape to towers in mediaeval castles it is a most beautiful building and to me looks like something you might find in India with all its decorative carved stone work.
The tower is not large and sits in the water on its island and despite being so small it does really stand out. It is marble coloured and ornately carved rather similar to the carved architecture seen in India so may have been inspired by Indian influences.
The cost to visit this s 5 Euros for adults, seniors are half price and children under 14 are free otherwise they are 60% less than adults. If you go on a Sunday or Portuguese holiday then entry if free but you may be with hoards of others. You can walk around the tower and go up inside if you don't mind climbing stairs. These are spiral and narrow so if it is busy then you might have to wait a while to get up or down.
There are five storeys and once on the first you can see through any of the sixteen windows which had canons pointing outwards from. If you like a bit of horrible history then you can visit the pits or cells where prisoners were thrown back in the day!
Depending on how busy it is will determine how far up you want to go as it does become tiresome having long waits to use the narrow stairs. We made it to the Governor's Hall but got fed up with the wait so took the stairs down again and spent more time outside.
I love gargoyles and unusual things so was quite thrilled to see a rhinoceros as one of the gargoyles and made me wonder where they had got that idea from all those years before.
I would say if you are in Lisbon make an effort to visit this tower as it is very special.
For a long time I have been very eager to visit Belem Tower. This sixteenth century tower in Lisbon is known as one of the world's most beautiful examples of military architecture and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Standing at 100 foot high, it is a beautiful four storey structure that contains breathtaking external detail. Seeming almost to float on the water around it, the intricate stonework is reflected in the water, giving it a magical and unique feel.
Belem is an area of Lisbon which embodies the seafaring history of Portugal. It was from Belem that the great Portuguese explorers such as Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco de Gama set off on their voyages of discovery. Although the area is a little way out of the ancient city centre, it is a place full of history and life.
~~Getting to Belem~~
From the city centre it is advisable to take either a bus or a tram to the Belem area, as it can be a rather long, hot walk. For a ride full of character, tram number 15 will rattle you alongside the river and under the 25th April suspension bridge in about 10 minutes. Alternatively, several buses take the same route and are a slightly more comfortable and air conditioned ride. Tickets cost 2.50E per person each way.
Our guide book told us that Belem Tower (or Tore de Belem) used to sit in the middle of the Tagus River until the Great Lisbon Earthquake in 1755. This earthquake supposedly changed the course of the river so that the tower now sits close to the river bank.
The tower was built in the early 16th century from Lioz Limestone, commissioned by King John II as a fortress to guard the entrance to the harbour as well as creating a ceremonial gateway into Lisbon. The architect of the tower was Francisco de Arruda who had had previously worked on Portuguese fortifications in Morocco and this accounts for the intricate Moorish style that can be seen in the watchtowers and some other features.
~~Visiting the Tower~~
From a distance the tower was everything that I had expected. Standing out white and pure against a background of azure sea and the intensely blue Portuguese sky, the ornate stonework gave it the impression of something from a fairy tale. It was very easy to imagine Rapunzel letting down her hair from the very top window.
The tower is reached by crossing a walkway that stretches from the shore, across the water to the entrance of the tower. Once inside, there is only one staircase that leads both up and down, and there are several signs advising visitors to be tolerant of this fact and to wait patiently until there is room to use the staircase.
The staircase itself is very typical of towers of this era; narrow, winding and very steep. It is possible to step off the staircase at each of the four floors, but if you do encounter a visitor coming in the opposite direction, both parties have to tread very carefully.
At each floor the beautiful Manueline architecture takes the visitors breath away. The Manueline style is unique to Portugal and often incorporates nautical themes; decoration is lavish and delicate and is very gothic in its feel. On each floor you can look out of arcaded windows and walk along tiny narrow corridors into Venetian-style loggias. As you ascend the tower, the views become increasingly stunning, looking along the river back to Lisbon centre or out to sea.
Information plaques along the way point out features of interest. One of the most interesting for me was the first carving of a rhinoceros made in Europe. The rhino that was brought over from India as an exotic gift for the King, but died when the boat sank. The body was retrieved and stuffed, and as a tribute a small rhinoceros head was carved into the outside of the tower. A small sign encourages you to look through a tiny ornate hole from one of the tiny bastion terraces to view this rhinoceros, and I felt very pleased that I had stopped to notice this small but fascinating historical detail.
Once the top of the tower is reached you can see the full view in all of its glory in the open air. Looking out to sea, you can imagine the joy of the sailor in the sixteenth and seventeenth century as they sailed toward home, and saw the gleaming white tower welcoming them home and letting them know that their long voyage was over.
A visit to the tower costs 4E per adult and it is well worth this price to climb such a momentous piece of Portuguese history. It does not take a long time to visit the tower; half an hour seemed ample, but it gave me a real insight into the seafaring history of the Portuguese which is so important to each of them and such a source of pride.