Exploring Belém-Lisbon (Sep 2014)
On the second day of our honeymoon in Lisbon we took the tram no.15 from Praça da Figueira to Belém area. Unfortunately it wasn’t one of those old-fashioned rickety trams but a new one which was very crowded. Still, I enjoyed the long ride along the river Tagus from the center of Lisbon to Belém which is famous for several historic landmarks namely the Tower of Belém and the Jerónimos Monastery. It was cloudy but during the day the sun emerged from under the clouds and we got sun-burnt! I had planned to take a sun cream on this trip but I simply forgot so we bought one later in the center to prevent future sunburns.
We got off the tram at the grandiose Jerónimos Monastery but we first visited almost equally impressive Monument to the Discoveries. This enormous monument at the waterfront was built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator who sponsored many expeditions. It was under his patronage that Portugal founded its first colonies and the Age of Discoveries began. The monument represents a caravel (ship) and it celebrates not only Henry the Navigator but many Portuguese heroes associated with the Age of Discovery such as explorers, cartographers, artists, missionaries, kings etc. We walked around it and then entered and decided to take a lift up the viewpoint. We had discount because of our Lisbon card which gave us free public transport and many free entrances. From the top of the monument we saw the Tower of Belém which looked small in comparison (the Monument to the Discoveries is 52 m high), the monastery, Belém cultural center, a football stadium and the beautiful red bridge (Ponte 25 de Abril ) that resembles the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, USA and the Christ statue which is a smaller twin of the Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. When we got down we walked across the huge pavement compass rose and world map; a gift from the Republic of South Africa. Since it was already getting hot I needed a refreshment in the form of ice-cream (I had mulberry flavour) so that I could walk to the romantic Tower of Belém.
After only two days in Portugal I started to notice that some Portuguese words resemble some English and French words and that most tourists we saw/overheard where either from Brasil (Portugal’s former colony) or France. There was a queue on the wooden draw bridge to get in the tower but we didn’t wait for too long in the end. The Tower of Belém was built in 16th century as a fortress to safeguard the mouth of the Tagus river and I would add to impress the newcomers who sailed to Lisbon. It was built in the characteristic Portuguese Manueline style ( a mixture of late Gothic and Moorish and other styles) named so after the King Manuel I. The tower is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its significant role in Portuguese maritime discoveries.
I was in awe of this fortress that to me looked so romantic that I could just imagine a princess looking out to the sea waiting for her beloved to return to her loving arms. We explored the tower thoroughly from the austere storerooms and dungeons and canons to beautifully carved watchtowers and battlements. I’m amazed at the skill of the old craftsmen who could make such beautiful decorations out of the hard stone to make it look like it’s lace. We climbed the narrow steps to the terrace on the top ( it was like climbing in the lighthouse) to take in the view of the river and Belém area. For the first time ever I saw a small traffic light (arrows) which indicated who could go up and who could go down on the narrow stairway to the top which is a brilliant idea. However, people being people not everyone obeyed the rules and there were still a couple of squeeze situations. I learned in the tower that the first image of rhinoceros in Europe is a small statue of a rhinoceros on this tower because the Portuguese brought a rhinoceros back from Africa. They didn’t bring back a live animal of course but a taxidermic one who apparently sank with the ship which had brought it.
the first representation of rhinoceros in Europe!
Straight ahead of the tower is a military museum and some kind of a war memorial. As usual my husband wanted to get in the empty sentry box so that I could take his photo and as usual he was yelled at /warned by the soldiers who stood near in the watch. I don’t know why he does it. I guess I should be lucky that he didn’t get some sort of a fine already.
So, we got back to the magnificent Jerónimos Monastery which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Firstly, we did the Archaeological museum which is situated in the west wing of the monastery and then we saw the church and the stunning refectory and the cloister. In the museum we gawked at the Egyptian’s mummies and Roman statues and lots of gold because everything was written just in Portuguese language. In the church we saw the tomb of Vasco da Gama who was the first European to reach India by sea. There were also tombs of several Portuguese royals. The church was quite impressive but the really spectacular part for me were the refectory and the cloister. I felt like I was suddenly transported to a Harry Potter movie. Can you believe that humble monks and priests lived surrounded by such splendor for centuries? The intricacies of the masonry design is unbelievable! The monastery was largely financed by profits made from the spice trade (pepper) in the early 16th century.
All this beauty made me very hungry and what better place to satisfy my sweet cravings than one of the oldest cake shops in Lisbon, the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem ? Of course, we had to try Pastéis de Belém-a typical Portuguese egg tart pastry. There was a queue outside as long as half the street but as I’m curious and slightly impatient I went to the front of the queue to take a peek inside and then I realized that this queue was for the people who ordered take away while you could normally enter the cake shop and eat at the table. And that’s what we did 🙂
I found us a table and ordered the sweet pastéis de Belém (also known as pastéis de nata) which were first made by the monks of the Jeronimos monastery. At the time of extinction of many religious orders and the closing of the monasteries they sold the recipe for this sweet goodness to the nearby sugar refinery whose owners later opened this cake shop. It’s still a family run business and all the cakes are made at the premises. I loved Pastéis de Belém and you can sprinkle some sugar or cinnamon on it. We had them later also at our hotel’s breakfast but they weren’t as big or as good as they were at this cake shop. Since we spent too much time munching on our pastries we missed visiting the National Coach Museum which closed just minutes before our arrival at its doors.
We went back to the center by bus and rested a bit at our hotel. Later in the evening we went out for a dinner. Every evening we found a different small restaurant where we had great meal. I was surprised by the cheapness of eating out in Lisbon. All of our meals were delicious and all the wine we had was also reasonably priced and of good quality. I won’t write restaurants or hotels reviews here because I had already written them on TripAdvisor long before I started this blog. After our dinner we strolled again to the magnificent square Praça do Comércio where we saw a sign advertising a light show at the square at 11 pm. So, we waited around for it and weren’t disappointed when it started. There were several lasers and different lights that projected images onto the left wing of the former royal palace at the square. The images showed different landmarks of Lisbon which were accompanied by music. The best part for me was when the building seemed to be crumbling right in front of your eyes or when you saw a big plane and later a shark coming out of the building. This show was an excellent ending of our second day in Lisbon.
Ps. Stay tuned for more Lisbon posts! I hope you’ve already read my first
Ps2. My blog is already two months old and I’m so happy to see it grow gaining followers and more views and comments and likes every day!:) Big thanks to all of you who have read my posts! 🙂
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