It is one of the oldest cities in the world and the oldest one in Western Europe. Like ancient Rome and Athens and numerous other European cities it was built on seven hills. It was a Moorish bastion from the 8th century till 1147 when it fell in the hands of the Crusaders and D. Afonso Henriques the Great (the founder and first King of Portugal). It is often nicknamed as the Rainha do Mar (the Queen of the Sea) as many great explorers and discoverers, sailors and mariners started off to new lands from here. This is also the birth place of Fado – the Soul of Portugal. And it is the beautiful lily of Europe ….. Just Fleur-de-Lis Boa.
I am myself in love with Lisbon, not because it’s a cosmopolitan city but because it combines the Old and New Worlds at one place. Historic times interweave and remind of the glory of the country in all its four districts. I am saying four districts because it really can be imaginarily divided into 4 main parts which I will try to walk you through in the following four posts. And which are they?
B E L É M
The Portuguese Bethlehem (or Belém) is the most monumental and historical, notable and glorious area of the city. It was built during the time of the flourishing of Lisbon when treasury from the New World poured into Portugal due to the Age of Discovery. Praia do Restelo was an advantageous starting point for lots of great discoverers who set sail to discover new lands and continents. Here I could mention the names of Vasco Da Gama and his voyage to explore the sea route to India, Fernando Magellan and his proof of the circumnavigation of the Earth, Bartholomeu Dias who rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The first overseas expedition lead by Prince Henry the Navigator to Ceuta (Morocco) started from here as well. And last but not least Christopher Columbus stopped here on his return from the New World. And all these maritime and discovery feats are commemorated in the old and more modern buildings and monuments in the district of Belém and the latter is a symbol of the “Golden Age” of the Age of Discovery.
What shall we start with? Of course, the most amazing landmark is the fabulous four-storey Torre de Belém (the Belém Tower). It was built in the 16th century. Its architect Francisco Arruda managed to combine the Portuguese late Gothic decoration style (called Manueline) together with Venetian and Arab decorative elements on the exterior facades as well as on the balconies. The typical Manueline organic elements like plants and animals are represented in various forms as a decoration, rhinoceros being the African animals that were sculptured and portrayed on such a building for the first time. As to the usage of the square tower, it was built as a military fortification and defensive system due to its strategic location on the bank of the Tagus River. Nowadays it is a must-visit tourist spot with beautiful views to the River, the 25 de Abril Bridge and the district of Belém. Apart from this, it is a monument to Portugal’s Age of Discovery, often serving as a symbol of the country.
Another example of the Manueline architecture and decoration style is the nearby Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (the Jerónimos Monestery) and the adjacent Church. The monastery was built in 1502 on the site of the former Hermitage of Restelo. The hermitage was erected by Prince Henry the Navigator and this place was where Vasco da Gama and his men prayed during their last night in Portugal before their voyage to India. The Monastery of the Order of St. Jerome and its monks (the Hieronymites), who guided sailors and mariners as well as prayed for the Portuguese kings’ souls, kept the remains of the great discoverer. Nowadays the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is the final resting place of Vasco da Gama as well as other significant figures from the Portuguese history (such as King Manuel and King Sebastião, and poets Luís de Camões, Fernando Pessoa and Alexandre Herculano) were entombed here.
The power and wealth of Portugal presented through the Monastery could be seen, if you just cross Praça do Império and climbed up to the top of Padrão dos Descobrimentos. Praça do Império (or the Empire Square) was built in last century in order to commemorate the glory of the Portuguese Empire and is the largest square in the Iberian Peninsula. The famous Fonte Luminosa bears its name due to the light effects produced by water and light as well as its illumination in the night. Padrão dos Descobrimentos (the Monument to the Discoveries) was built in 1960 for the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. The memorial is also dedicated to all instigators of voyages of discovery, sailors and mariners.
Speaking about voyages, Portugal is famous for being an aviation pioneer as well. Aviator Artur de Sacadura Freire Cabral was the first to conduct a flight across the Atlantic Ocean (from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro) in 1922. Nowadays the monument to the great aviator is to be found between the Belém Tower and the Monument to the Discoveries.
And if all these landmarks in the district of Belém are not sufficient to you, you might take a tour to the surrounding museums which are really great in number. Here are only some of them: National Coach Museum, National Archeological Museum, Electricity Museum, Maritime Museum, etc..
If you are already done with most of the emblematic tourist sites in Belém, you surely deserve a rest. Make a short stop at Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém and indulge in the typical Portuguese egg tart pastry called Pastéis de nata. They are custard cream deserts that originated from the Catholic monks at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in the 18th century and later they were disseminated by Portuguese immigrants to lusosphere countries and regions where Portuguese is predominantly spoken. And how exactly did these pastries appear? Principally, the monks used a huge quantity of egg-whites for starching clothes. The leftover egg yolks were not thrown away but used for various pastries that were prepared as per an old and secret recipe. At the time of the Liberal Revolution of 1820 there was a threat for many monasteries to be closed and that was the reason why the monks began selling the pastéis de nata to the nearby small confectionary shop in order to make their living and get some money for the monastery. After some 14 years (i.e. in 1834) the monastery was closed and the monks were forced to sell out the secret recipe to the sugar cane refinery and the adjacent small pastry shop. Thus its owners opened Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém in 1837 and since then pastéis de nata have been prepared and sold according to the old recipe of the monks (with some additional cinnamon and powdered sugar). A very interesting fact is that the same custard cream desert is offered under two different names in Lisbon and Portugal. If you buy the egg tart pastry from the confectionary factory, it’ll be sold under the trade mark of Pastéis de Belém. And if you buy it from anywhere else in Lisbon or Portugal, it will be simply called Pastéis de nata.
Now let us move to the Heart of Lisbon where you will dive into the modern world and night life mixed with numerous historic and cultural sites. Off we goooo 🙂 Click-click