Portugal began an exciting new chapter in history with its New World Discoveries and nowhere captures the country’s seafaring history better than Lisbon’s most historical and monument-packed area, Belém.
Belém is a shrine to Portugal’s rich maritime history and is crammed full of important historical buildings, national monuments and symbols of Portuguese grandeur. Rua de Belém, a strip of beautiful old buildings, makes for a gorgeous walk, and the Torre de Belém, The Monastery of Jeronimos and the Monument to the Discoveries pack a serious punch.
I’d just read Moby Dick, and the long, fantastical passages about the salty tang of a sea breeze bringing humans to life certainly began to resonate with me as I made my way towards the outermost edge of Europe.
When Portuguese explorers and plucky sailors left their beloved sunbaked land behind on their voyages of discovery, Belém was the final sight that many of them saw before heading out into the ocean for months or even years at a time. Even the great Christopher Columbus stopped by here on his return from discovering the New World. It was here that I first caught a glimpse of the Portugal of old. As a country which has felt the pain of the recession keenly, it was captivating to view the country as it once was – a leading European power, dripping with wealth and vigor, complete with overflowing coffers, opulent architecture, exotic colonies, and brave sailors setting off to explore unknown and mystical lands.
The Portuguese established a sea route to India, colonised vast swathes of Africa, Brazil, Macau and East-Timor, creating a hugely successful empire. But years of strife after the abolition of the royal family, a harsh military dictatorship and serious economic decline saw Portugal become one of the poorest countries in Europe. Now a free democracy well on the road to recovery, and with prices that won’t make your bank balance groan, there couldn’t be a better time to visit Belém and gain a better understanding of Portugal’s tumultuous journey from colonial superpower, to repressed dictatorship, to a cheap, sunny and interesting destination.
Green spaces, horse-drawn carriages, an extraordinarily tasty local delicacy (more on that below) and unique architecture spreading out next to the sea all make Belém a fantastic corner of Lisbon to visit.
We’re all familiar with Columbus and his voyage to the New World, but fewer have heard of Vasco da Gama, whose ships embarked from Belem to discover the way to India. Vasco da Gama was one of just a long line of seafaring sailors to herald Portugal. As its relationship with the sea deepened, Belém Tower was built.
Belém Tower (Torre de Belém) has greeted homesick Portugal’s sailors since the early 1500s. This rather stout little spire, constructed along the edge of the Tagus River, served as a fortress to guard the harbour and became the starting point for many voyages, as well as a symbol of protection and good luck for the sailors. Now a monument to a bygone age, this lonely structure has outlasted the mariners and is listed as a World Heritage site.
The little beach in front of the tower is unfortunately, pretty dirty and covered in unsightly litter, but on the plus side, even in the middle of July the tower was almost devoid of visitors, and there’s no dealing with hordes of sweaty crowds all fighting to get a good picture that are a regular feature of most European cities in the summer.
Entry inside the tower is €5.00.
The Monastery of Jeronimos
This monastery, an ostentatious but stunning Manuelino style building, was originally meant for pilgrims visiting Belém, before being turned into a church for seafaring adventurers during Portugal’s age of discovery. Its construction was funded by a tax on spices, come to be known as the ‘pepper tax.’ Hewn into the stonework are ornate renderings of the sea and this little place’s inseparable connection to it. I stood around drinking the sight of it in until I realised my boyfriend had finally given up on me and walked off.
Admission: €7.00. Free on Sundays and holidays before 2pm.
The Monument to the Discoveries
The Monument to the Discoveries dominates the edge of the Tagus River and is a fairly recent addition to Belem, erected in the sixties to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator, who drove Portugal’s golden age of exploration. The monument itself is incredibly striking, and like everything else in this corner of Lisbon, was built to show off its affinity to the sea – it’s meant to look like a ship’s prow, and it really gave me a feel for Portugal’s seafaring past. Belém is filled with these watery symbols – you really cannot escape them. Staggered along the prow are dozens of figures from Portuguese history, led by an enormous likeness of Henry bearing a stone ship, set against the unbeatable backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge’s lesser known sibling, the 25 de Abril Bridge. Inside is an elevator which will whizz you to the top of this gigantic structure for the best view over Belém.
I didn’t go up to the viewing platform, but enjoyed a good amount of time marveling at the sheer size of the colossal statues of the long-dead but forever honoured voyagers.
Casa Pasteis de Belém
But my favourite part of Belém, which anyone with a sweet tooth absolutely must visit, is Portugal’s most famous pastry cafe, Casa Pasteis de Belém. (Rua de Belém 88) You can’t miss it, it’s the cafe with hordes of people trailing out onto the street, impatient to get their hands on the incredibly moreish flaky egg tarts cooked inside, known as pastel de nata. First concocted by the Catholic nuns in the nearby monastery over 200 years ago, these little beauties are about as close to heaven as you’ll ever taste.
Fans of these delicious treats have been flocking to this corner of Belém since 1837 when the cafe first flung open its doors to flog the widely coveted treats. For me, they are the taste of Lisbon. Crisp, flaky pastry encircles the sweet, eggy melt-in-the mouth, gooey centre. Make sure to sprinkle some cinnamon and powdered sugar on top before tucking in and wash down with a small glass of the local liqueur of choice, the cherry-based Ginja. Sitting down at the cute little blue and white cafe is the perfect end to a day getting lost in Portugal’s past – but be warned, you’ll face stiff competition for a seat.
They also contributed to one of my worst ever travel experiences, but that’s another story…
Belém is a twenty minute tram-ride from Lisbon’s centre. Catch one of the iconic Number.15 old electric trams if time isn’t of the essence, or if you’re in a hurry, the modern trams also run to and from Belém. You can also catch the bus, although I found it to be very overcrowded and sticky.