Bonita Belém (Beautiful Belém)…
Won and I have been interested in Belém since we first started to educate ourselves on Lisbon and the surrounding areas. We made a point of visiting Belém on our first trip to Portugal and took our very first visitors there in February of this year. It is the location of several important monuments, museums, and historic sites such as the Jerónimos Monastery and Igreja Santa Maria (Church of Saint Mary) where you can find the tombs of Vasco da Gama and Luís Vaz de Camões. It is also home to a famous Portuguese pastry, has lovely parks and green spaces and charming streets to explore. In short, it is a great place to visit!
Belém has had a long and fascinating evolution reaching back to the paleolithic era, but its claim to fame is primarily rooted in seafaring. This is due to its location on the Tejo (Tagus) estuary where 15th-century voyages departed to discover the sea routes to India, East Africa and Brazil.
In addition to the many places of interest to see and beautiful views of the river, it is also the home of the Palácio de Belém, formally known as the National Palace of Belém where the president of Portugal resides. Because of Belém’s many parks, tree-lined plazas and green open spaces, it makes visiting a relaxing, delightful and enjoyable experience.
Pronouncing the word “Belém” the way the Portuguese do, is not easy for a non-native speaker, but I’m going to give it a go. It is not pronounced “bell-em,” but more like “beh-laing” swallowing the “ng” sound.
Won and I were happy to make Belém the focus of this week’s blog so we could learn more about it, revisit some of the places we had been before, and explore others that were new to us.
One of the most iconic sites is the Torre de Belém (Belém Tower) named as one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. (Side note: Without realizing there was such a list, Won and I have already seen three out of the seven! Now that we know the list exists, we are going to make a point to see them all.) Under the direction of King D. Manuel I, and inaugurated in 1521, Belém Tower was originally built as a fortress to help protect Lisbon. The building includes Byzantine, Indian, Arabian, and Venetian influences and is made from lioz the same type of stone used to build the nearby Jerónimos Monastery as well as Mafra Palace where we were last week. The architectural style of the tower is primarily Manueline and incorporates decorative elements reflecting Portugal’s nautical history. We were able to see it when no one was there, but have not been inside. Click on the link above to see images of the interior spaces.
Interestingly, the fort was once in the center of the Tejo but since its construction, the flow of water has altered and it is now positioned on the edge of the banks of the estuary. Also of note, in 1514 Afonso de Albuquerque, the founder of the Portuguese Empire in the Orient, gave King Manuel I a rhinoceros. The gift caused great curiosity all over Europe and a rhinoceros decorates one of the external towers on the structure.
From Belém Tower, it is only a short walk to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries). Originally a temporary structure erected in 1940 for the Portuguese World Exhibition, it was rebuilt in 1960 using concrete and rosary stone from Leira, a city to the north. The sculptures on both sides are made from limestone quarried in Sintra.
The purpose of the monument is to recognize Portuguese expansion overseas, recalling a glorious past and symbolizing the greatness of the work of Infante D. Henrique (Prince Henry the Navigator), the driver of the discoveries.
The structure reflects a stylized caravel taking to the sea with Infante D. Henrique at the bow followed by 32 figures representing navigators, cartographers, warriors, colonizers, chroniclers and artists who are portrayed with the symbols that individualize them. The structure is 56m high (183′ high), 20m wide (65′ wide), and 46m long (151′ long). The Infante is 9m tall (29′ tall) with the rest of the sculptures at 7m tall (23′ tall).
In front of the monument is a massive compass rose and map of the world. It was a gift from the Union of South Africa and is made from beige, black and red limestone. Note the sword running the length of the building on the front facade. It represents the Sword of the Order of Aviz, the main financial sponsor of the voyages. (In the last picture in the grouping below, look closely; I’m standing next to the monument holding Sweet Pea and saying hello!)
Because we had Sweet Pea with us, I went up to the top first while Won stayed with her, then we switched places. It was a €6 entrance fee per adult. You have the option of climbing the eight stories to reach the panoramic viewing platform or take an elevator to the 6th floor and then walk up the last two levels (the elevator only reaches the 6th floor). The 360 degree view from the top is breathtaking!! You can see the Ponte 25 de Abril (April 25 Bridge) with the famous Santuário de Cristo Rei (Sanctuary of Christ the King) statue in the distance, the marina below, the monastery directly opposite the monument, the beautiful plaza in front of the monastery, the pink national palace to the right with the Portuguese flag in front, a football stadium behind the monastery, and the Belém Tower! Before exiting we made sure to stop in and look at the exhibition on the lower level. It was very informative.
My smart thinking hubby took a 360 degree panoramic video from the top. Hopefully, it will help you understand where most of the places I will be highlighting below are located. [Literally holding my breath to see if the video will upload…wild cheering and celebrating!!! I just figured out how to upload a video file all on my own!! Woohoo!! Look out! I’m gettin’ fancy!]
Just in case that all went by too quickly, here are some static images I grabbed.
On the left in the image directly above I just caught the edge of the Centro Cultural de Belém (Belém Cultural Center) with the flags in front. It was built in in 1992 to host the European presidency. Currently, the complex contains concert halls, exhibition rooms, cafes, restaurants, and the Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon’s best contemporary art gallery. The picture below is of the entire complex. Exploring that will have to be another trip when we don’t have Sweet Pea with us.
To the right of the cultural center is the Jerónimos Monastery (below). The far left end of the monastery holds the Museu de Marinha (Naval Museum) which we saw in February. The planetarium is located right there too.
At the opposite end of the monastery is where you will find the cloisters and Igreja Santa Maria de Belém (the Church of Saint Mary). Access to the church is free, but there is a small fee to see the cloisters (€2.50). The monastery and church are beautiful examples of the Manueline style of architecture.
Here are pictures of the church…
Here are pictures of the cloisters…
The plaza directly in front of monastery is the Jardim da Praça do Império, one of Europe’s largest. It is filled with ornamental water gardens including a grand fountain as the centerpiece. This plaza is the first of three distinct green spaces that run side by side along the waterfront.
In the image above, the second of the three parks is to the right of Jardim da Praça do Império. It is the Jardim de Belém also known as the Jardim Vasco da Gama. A lovely family park with mature trees providing shade, a playground and lots of open space to run and play, it also includes a Thai pavilion! The pavilion was a gift to Portugal from the Thai government and was inaugurated by Her Royal Highness, the Princess Maha Sirindhorn in 2012. It represents friendship and recognition of 500 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The last of the three parks, is the Praça Afonso de Albuquerque which fronts the Palácio de Belém, where the president of Portugal, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa resides. The garden is approximately two hectares featuring a monument to Afonso de Albuquerque, Governor of Portuguese India from 1507 to 1515. The park is square with four fountains in each corner, which sadly were not running. Conveniently, the Museu Nacional dos Coches (National Coach Museum) is right next to the park and we highly recommend going. We went in February and were amazed at the range of coaches in the museum from royal to regular. Here are some images of the park, the palace, and the coach museum.
Just up the street the siren song of Portugal’s tastiest custard treat was calling to us! How could we come to Belém and not stop to get one from the famous Pastéis de Belém? Normally, the place is mobbed, but this week it was completely accessible. It was only a few minutes of waiting on marked spots spaced two meters apart outside the shop until I was called up to have my hands sprayed with sanitizer before placing my order. Here are pictures I took this week compared with pictures I took in February when my niece Kate and her boyfriend, Liam, were visiting. What a difference a global pandemic makes.
I can’t tell you how sumptuous these little delights are! You will just have to come and see for yourself.
Even the walk there was fun just to see all the colorful and beautiful buildings along the way.
And finally, the last place I want to tell you about is the LX Factory. Originally home to weaving and textile companies in 1846, the site has evolved over time to host a variety of other industries such as food processing and printing. Today, it is a fun and funky area with more than fifty shops, restaurants, and cafes. It is also a creative hub for events focused on fashion, art, architecture and music. Tucked under the Ponte 25 de Abril (the April 25 Bridge), LX Factory is a vibrant, unique and fun place to shop, eat, or just hang out.
Any time you visit Lisbon, you should plan to spend time in Belém. Clearly, there is something for everyone. We still have several museums to see and I just learned they have a great botanical garden that we managed to miss. Plus, there are loads of great restaurants we need to check out too. So much to see and do and taste.
We just heard from SEF (Portuguese immigration). Our interviews to secure our residency visas have been rescheduled for next week! (If you remember, the country entered into a state of emergency due to the pandemic the day we were supposed to get them. I covered that in my post called “Timing is Everything.”) We’ll be heading back to the north of the country to try again. As it turns out, our interviews will take place on June 19th – our 21st wedding anniversary. We’re going to make it a special trip so stay tuned for next week’s blog post!
Until then, stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch.
From Portugal with love,