Belem – Testament to Portugal’s Golden Age of Discovery
The quaint historic Belem Lisbon district is home to museums, parks, cafes and other intriguing sights of discovery. If the meandering streets of Belem in Lisbon are not enough to make one lose track of time, the attractions with rich histories will certainly entertain visitors, who may only be delighted to be lost in time.
A significant era in Portugal’s history was its golden age of discovery, during early 15th century when Manuel I had come into power. The golden age was entwined with the flourishing of Belem Lisbon district, whose location at the River Tagus was the sending off point for many discovery journeys of land beyond the oceans. As celebration of those fruitful voyages, grand monuments were constructed with unparalleled zeal. Fine examples of the Manueline zest and architectural style include the ‘Mosteiro dos Jeronimos’ (Jeronimos Monastery) and ‘Torre de Belem’ (Tower of Belem).
The Monastery, now serving as a church, is said to be the pinnacle of the Manueline architecture, during the age of discoveries. Its grand facade veils equally stunning interior such as the richly carved cloister, decorated refectory and tombs of significant people. The Torre de Belem’s origins as a fortress eventually evolved into a monumental gem, symbolising the country’s grand era of successful discoveries. If the decorated exterior of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, does not take away one’s breath, the stunning view from its adorned watchtower will make an unforgettable impression.
To the east of the Tower of Belem, about 1km up the riverfront, is the Monument to Discoveries, a befitting structure constructed in 1960. It commemorates the voyager heroes who shaped Portuguese Age of Discovery. The huge angular building was built in the shape of a caravel, with two sloping sides filled with detailed sculptures of the various discoverers and navigators who played significant roles in history.
Less than ½ km from the Belem train station is the ‘Palacio de Belem’, the Presidential palace built in the 16th century. The elegant pink building is home to a recently opened museum. Within the east wing of the President’s home is the ‘Museu Nacional dos Coches’, a museum with a rich collection of Europe’s exceptional horse coaches. An extensive collection that showcases coaches from Portugal and its neighbours, was gathered during a period of 300 years and vary from the simple to the stunningly extravagant carriages. From the palace grounds, a short walk to the north is the reclusive park and home to rare flora, ‘Jardim Agricola Tropical’ that has oriental garden and gateway.
There are many more interesting museums and churches in Belem Lisbon district, such as the ‘Museu de Marinha (Maritime Museum), ‘Museu de Arte Popular’ (Popular Art Museum) which houses a fine collection of Portuguese folk art and handicrafts, displaying the rich diversity of the country’s regions. Ancient churches include ‘Ermida de Sao Jeronimo’ atop a peaceful hill and ‘Igreja da Memoria’ with a Neo-Classical design.
Together with the impressive monuments of Belem Lisbon district, there is one inherent part of this district that attracts locals and visitors from all over – the most delectable Portuguese tarts, from the world renowned tart shop – Pasteis de Belem, whose origins go all way to the 1800s. Visitors to the Belem’s Lisbon area make it a point to pay homage to this famous café, which hardly sees an uncrowded moment. Throbbing crowds eagerly waiting to sink their teeth in the softest tarts, are the norm. This simple, yet delicious pleasure is simply icing on the cake, when one gets to enjoy other magnificent sights in the charming Belem area.