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Belem (Lisbon, Portugal)

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      29.12.2008 09:46
      Very helpful



      An Insight into the Golden Past of Portugal

      Belem is an area that lies at the western end of Greater Lisbon and it is not to be confused with the city in Northern Brazil although they bare the same. In Portuguese the name Belem means Bethlehem and sometimes the area used to be known as Santa Maria de Belem. Along with the Alfama, Belem is another favourite area of Lisbon I like to spend time in. Apart from it's very laid back atmosphere the area is filled with monuments, museums, cafes and tailored parks where children, old people and visitors stroll side by side while dogs run riot and frisbees fly high into the dappled blue sky. It is here where you experience the feelings of a golden time when caravelas sailed from the mouth of the River Tagus to the New World and returned ladened with jewels, spices and silks.

      There is an attractive cafe scene in Belem but I suggest before you get involved with that scene you have a good look at the architecture, monuments and parks in the area. Here are some suggestions:

      The Moisteiro dos Jeronimos

      The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos or Hieronymite Monastery in Belem is by far one of the most interesting buildings in Lisbon. The monastery and Torre de Belem watchtower are unique memorial's to Portugal's Golden Age which followed after the Voyages of Discovery. Lisbon was badly hit by the 1755 earthquake but these magnificent buildings managed to survive and didn't topple into dust.

      This is one fabulous building and for some reason reminds me of the Parliament Building in Budapest probably because of the Gothic aspects to both buildings even though they were built at different times. The long side of the monastery now overlooks lawns and gardens, but the complex originally stood by the water's edge near Restelo harbour, from where the Portuguese explorers set sail. Before the monastery was built, a small chapel existed on the site and it was in this chapel that Vasco da Gama prayed before leaving for India in July 1497 and where the King of Portugal welcomed him back in September 1499. With a discovery of a sea route to India, the King commissioned the building of a monastery on the site of the chapel and the foundation stone was laid in 1500. It was not finished at the time of the King's death in 1521. Work stopped in 1572 and the project was never completed, a fate shared by many other grand schemes. Consequently, the building cannot be attributed to any one architect but it is known that Joao de Castilho was most influential in its design.

      One of the most striking features of the monastery is the south doorway. Like a huge monstrance it rises to a great height of over 32 metres and it is the most ornate entrance of the Manueline period. Here you will see intricately decorated gables, pinnacles and sculptured figures, some depicting the life of St. Hieronymus. Castilho, a Spaniard was the famous Manueline architect at the time although he changed his style later on to the Plateresco style. This style is lavishly decorative to give an appearance of silver.

      The main entrance lies almost hidden away under the west porch. The west doorway is the work of the Frenchman Nicolas de Chanterene who was also responsible for work on the marble altar in the monastery that has now been incorporated into the Palacio da Pena in Sintra. Here, the Renaissance style takes over from the Gothic style and illustrates a scene where King Manuel 1 and his wife Maria of Castille are kneeling in the company of St. Hieronymus and John the Baptist, beneath the scenes from Bethlehem. Close up the carvings are immaculate and the mind boggles, when you think of the time and patience taken to complete such magnificent work. I love the texture of the stonework which I think is limestone. Obviously some of the stone is discoloured through pollution but that is to be expected with any of these great buildings.

      The interior is quite deceptive because it is a lot wider than you think it is. It is very ornate with gothic naves and side aisles stretching from the west doorway to the choir in the east. The roof is supported by octagonal columns and covered with delicate Renaissance embellishments. However, the choir on the other hand is quite plain which I find very strange. I think I might have mentioned before in my writing I am very fond of graveyard and burial memorabilia and was a little disappointed to find very little in the interior of the monastery. However, there does stand a marble pantheon, where the sarcophagi of Manuel 1, his son, Jaoa III and their wives rest on stone elephants. This is a sharp contrast indeed to the ornamented nave. In the southern section, an empty grave awaits the last King of the Avis dynasty, Sebastiao, who went walkabout in Morocco. The famous, and a great poet, in my opinion. Luis de Camoes, who died of the plague and was buried in a mass grave, is commemmorated by an empty sarccophagus. The tomb of another Portuguese hero, Vasco da Gama, can also be found here under the gallery.

      Although I love the building in all its glory I have to say that the cloisters are some of the finest Manueline architecture I have ever seen in Portugal. The beautiful arch forms are enchanting. The arches are reflected in a pool and to me it resembles a palace courtyard built for a rich and extravagant Prince and his courtiers more than a walkway for devout monks.

      Opening Times: May - Sept (Tues - Sun) - 10am - 6pm
      Oct - April (Tues - Sun) 10am - 5pm
      Cost - Church is free, Cloisters 3 Euros

      The Museu da Marinha

      Two museums have been opened in the monastery and both are worth taking a stroll through. The Museu da Marinha (Maritime Museum) is my favourite and although I am not one to stand for hours scrutinising every little detail like my Mother-in-law does, I find this museum fascinating and always spend longer here - probably because it covers every aspect of the sea. Originally the museum was housed in the Naval School of Lisbon but after a terrible fire when some of the exhibits were destroyed it was moved north of Lisbon. In 1962 the exhibits were moved again to this location and a modern pavillion and walkway has been added so that larger exhibits can be displayed.

      The collections are all in themed rooms which they are interesting in themselves as there are displays of paintings depicting explorations and historical achievements.
      There are fantastic exhibitions of ship models conveying most seafaring eras including the famous caravelas and the Voyage of the Dicoverers.One of my favourite exhibits is the seaplane which I have always had an interest in. The plane made a long trip to Rio de Janeiro from Belem. There are some fine examples of small fishing boats which are used in the Azores, another favourite haunt of mine. All very bright and colourful. Refreshments can be bought from the cafe and books and postcards are also on sale as well as a very good visitors guide book.

      The Museu Nacional de Arquelogia e Etnologia

      The other museum is the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia e Etnologia which has a permanent exhibition depicting Portuguese archaelogy including Roman and Greek artifacts as well as several changing temporary exhibitions. It depends what you are interested in but I usually walk through the archaelogy sections quite quicky mainly because they can be a little dry. Whereas I have a friend who lives in Portugal and she can spend a whole day looking at these kinds of exhibits.

      Padrao dos Descobrimentos

      Opposite the monastery and beside the River Tagus stands one of my favourite monuments - Padrao dos Descobrimentos or Monument to the Discoveries. Years ago I did many sketches of this monument and eventually used it as the cover of an advertising booklet which was part of the merchandising for conferences I organised in the 90's. I love the angle of the prow of the ship going out to sea laden on both sides with individul statues of famous Portuguese people, headed by Henry the Navigator. It was rebuilt in concrete in 1960 and was commissioned by Salazar to commemmorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. It is a magnificent sight standing over 50 metres high, looking out to the river, a reminder of Portugal's great seafaring history.

      Fabrica dos Pasteis de Belem

      Restaurants line Rua de Belem, which leads away from the monastery into the town centre. Now if you have been to Portugal before you will certainly have eaten a pastel de nata which is an egg custard tart made of the lightest, flakiest pastry ever. Believe me, nobody makes these little tarts like the Portuguese. There is a traditional cafe called Fabrica dos Pasteis de Belem and it is here where they make the egg custards but the Lisboans call them Pastel de Belem and they have been making them on these premises since 1837. This is a very popular destination for tourists and if you hope to try one of these delicacies then you may have to queue a long time.

      The Torre de Belem

      The Torre de Belem is one of the most photographed buildings in Lisbon and you will see it on most postcards. Every time I see it I am always surprised how small the building actually is. It is a few minutes walk upstream from the monastery and is a major landmark. This Manueline bastion was conceived as a lighthouse and fortress and lay offshore, but it is now linked to the land. King Miguel incarcarated his political opponents in the dungeon as recently as the 19th century. The Moorish turrets bear the cross of the Knights of Christ and the tiny towers at each corner are thought to have been influenced by Indian architecture. The view form the 35 metre terrace should not be missed. Leading up to the entrance of the Torre are pathways of a park and the atmosphere is very relaxed with families promenading and kids playing.

      Opening times are 10am - 5pm (October - April) and 10.30 - 6.30 (May - Sept). Closed on Mondays.

      Other attractions

      It depends really how long you are going to stay in Lisbon as a visitor. The attractions I have mentioned I feel are worth seeing but there are a few other sights worth a mention if you are staying longer than a day.

      The Jardim do Ultramar, is a small peaceful park with a number of exotic plants. If you just want to sit and relax and have a breather. Sometimes I think it is nice to just sit and moo (my expression). There are times when even I can't be bothered to rush around a city taking in everything in one day.

      The Palacio de Belem at the end of the Rua de Belem is the official residence of the Portuguese president and you can't really miss it because of its pink exterior and I believe this is one of the reasons the president gave up his accomodation in upper Lisbon because he loved the colour of the building and wanted to reside in Belem. On the east side of the palace was an old riding school which has now been transformed into a Coach Museum. The collection is a display of Royal Coaches through the ages from the 16th century through to the 19th century. Most of the coaches on display are gifts from foreign Royalty including Austrian princes and even a coach sent from Italy from the pope.

      A second room displays more modern vehicles including London and the famous black and green Portuguese cabs. As a youngster I loved these cabs - they were mostly old Mercs. Sadly these have gone into decline and the Portuguese cab driver has opted for a slicker, creamy coloured vehicle. There is also a display of modern vehicles which aren't as splendid as the Royal coaches but still interesting if you like cars.

      How to Find Belem

      Belem can be reached by train from the Cais do Sodre station in Lisbon (please be aware that express trains do not stop in Belem), by bus, taxi or the 15 or 17 tram.


      I love this area but then I love most things about Lisbon and Portugal in general. What I will say about Belem is that it isn't always on everybody's agenda and it is sometimes overlooked by a lot of visitors. Maybe because it isn't central, I don't know. Personally, I find this area alive and kicking. It has a lot of historical buildings and on the river front it has that eerie feeling of a time that once was great but has waned a little. At night it is at its most beautiful when the Torre de Belem and the Monument to the Dicovereries are lit up. Although it is a very historical area it isn't wrapped in mothballs - it is alive, used and loved. What more can you ask for?

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