Belem!

We’ve been in Lisbon for almost a week and love it here – the hills, food, beer, and wine give it a Seattle-like feel, though with cobbled streets and Portugal’s famous tiled buildings. Fortunately we were here for the first Sunday of the month, when many museums are free. We spent all day sightseeing in the Belem district along the waterfront of the Tagus River.

First up was Belem Tower, a fortification built in the early 1500s to protect Lisbon from enemy ships sailing up the Tagus River. There was a long enough line that we waited for about an hour to enter, but no admission fee will do that! Prison cells in the basement were tiny enough that we could only stand in the middle of the rooms and would have been horribly cold and damp for anyone kept there. Though it was defensive, the tower was too delicately ornamented to look imposing, even with the main floor’s cannon battery. The view from the tallest level of the tower looks out across the river and the 25 de Abril Bridge – which looks like the Golden Gate’s twin, and the Cristo Rei statue – which looks like the Christ the Redeemer statue’s little brother. Closer to the tower is park space that had lots of soccer games and picnics taking place.

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Monument to the Discoveries, Belem Tower, Portuguese egg tarts from Pasteis de Belem.

Down the waterfront is the massive Monument to the Discoveries celebrating the role the Portuguese played in the Age of Exploration. Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, and Ferdinand Magellan are included, as are a host of other captains, missionaries, cartographers, and kings. The biggest names rang a bell, but the rest did not; our history classes only covered the most famous explorers and were a long time ago.

A block inland from the waterfront is the Jeronimos Monastery, my favorite stop of the day. Taking over a century to construct, it was funded by taxes on profits pouring in from Portuguese trade routes. The interior cloisters are every bit as ornate as I’d want; arches ringed the interior, each one uniquely carved to showcase the power of the Portuguese empire, nautical symbols, or floral motifs. Even crowds of people didn’t detract from the stunning calm the architecture creates – I’d move in tomorrow if they’d let me. The interior of the connected church was one of high vaulted ceilings held up by a spiderweb of stone. Like most European churches, it is impossible to be inside and not spend much of the time gaping upward.

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Jeronimos Monastery

Fortunately for us and our hungry stomachs, one of the most well-known pastry shops in Portugal is just a few steps away from the Monastery. Portuguese egg tarts are said to have originated at the Pasteis de Belem shop, and the bakery make a convincing case that they are the best in the world as well. We managed to keep our consumption to four tarts between us; they came still warm and with portable packets of cinnamon and icing sugar. Light flaky crust surrounds a flan-like filling that tastes a little eggy. I could eat them for every meal and, judging by the line at the shop, others can too.

One happy coincidence is that this is the period of Carnaval leading up to Ash Wednesday. In Portugal, kids are encouraged to dress up for several days beforehand and we saw lots of adorable princesses and superheros wandering the streets with their parents, as well as one intense Darth Vader.

Filled up on calories, we spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering through the National Archeological Museum and the Maritime Museum. There was a decent assortment of Roman and Egyptian artifacts, mosaics, and tombstones; even a couple of Egyptian mummies with carefully painted and hieroglyphed sarcophagi. A Treasure Room showcased centuries of jewelry, some of which is clearly inspiration to more modern designers – layered bangles and delicate gold chains never go out of style.

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Inside the monastery’s church, an altar taken along by Vasco de Gama’s expedition, interior of one of the royal yachts.

The Maritime Museum was a tribute to a nation that prides itself on its history of seafaring. It included hundreds of model ships (several kids were geeking out), real ships, cannons, maps, and navigational equipment. Old globes and maps are my favorite – some cartographers were good guessers, while others completely missed the size and general outline of, say, India, or the fact that California was not an island. It’s a good thing we have maps on our phones now… I completely underestimated the distance to get to the museums even after looking up directions. I can’t imagine trying to navigate to a city using a map that may or may not include all the continents, much less any sort of true-to-life distance measure.

We pretty much museumed ourselves out for the next few days, so on schedule this week is wine tasting, eating more pastries, wandering down more narrow, winding streets. We still aren’t used to the ‘chilly’ weather, though it is warmer here than in Seattle. At least the early spring climate gives us an excuse to wear all the clothes we brought along so we don’t feel like we are lugging around useless items.

 

 

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