Portugal’s Belem District in Lisbon Stands as Monument to Age of Discovery

The district where some of Lisbon’s most iconic sites are located used to be a separate city

by Karen Rubin

Jerónimos Monastery took 100 years to build.

Belem, where some of Lisbon’s most iconic places are located, used to be separate city; today, it stands as a monument to the Discoveries, to the Age of Exploration, to the time when Portugal was one of the richest countries in the world.

Jerónimos Monastery, which dates back to the 16th century, was built by King Manuel to honor navigation, the discoveries and Portugal’s explorers, with the money that came from the spice trade. It is one of the late Portuguese Gothic masterpieces, in the decorative Manuelina style.

The theme of discovery figures into the architectural elements – the fantastical new flowers, plants, fruits, artichoke, palm trees, animals (like elephants from India) from the colonized places were worked into the stone- discovered the world, and combined with the religious elements of the cross and the symbol of the Templar. San Jeronimos is represented by a lion – strong, intelligent.

Jerónimos Monastery, which dates back to the 16th century, was built by King Manuel and manifests the most magnificent baroque architecture © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You see the sphere, which connotes the round shape of the world, the rope, and faces of native people carved in stone (from the various places they found during discoveries)

Here you see tombs of the explorer Vasco da Gama (his body was moved to India) and the poet Camões, and tombs of the royal family, like London’s Westminster Abbey.

The stained glass windows, destroyed in the earthquake, were recreated, and feature the caravels – the great sailing ships that ventured to new worlds.

Jeronimos Monastery, in Belem © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

King Manuel sent an elephant and a rhino to the Pope in the Vatican.

It is a testament to the time when Lisbon was the center of world, rich from silk, coffee, sugar, spice, and when Portugal and Spain essentially divided the world in half.

“It’s not by chance Portugal took Brazil; they didn’t have a concept of North America,” Carmo Batelho, from Tourismo de Lisboa, tells us. “Portugal invented globalization A small village like Portugal conquered the world – Japan, Azores, Timor, Africa, Brazil, Madeira, Mallora.”

“King Manuel was crazy – he intended it to be 100 times bigger.” As it is, it took 100 years to build it.

Explorer Vasco da Gama's tomb at Jeronimos Monastery © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

It was a huge religious order, housing 500-800 monks, one of largest in Portugal.

There is also an archeological museum here.

Discoveries Monument

Jeronimos Monastery

Just across the way is the Discoveries Monument, built on the north bank of the Tagus River in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. It represents a three-sailed ship ready to depart, with sculptures of important historical figures such as King Manuel I carrying an armillary sphere, poet Camões holding verses from The Lusiads, Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Cabral, and several other notable Portuguese explorers, crusaders, monks, cartographers, and cosmographers, following Prince Henry the Navigator at the prow holding a small vessel. The only female is queen Felipa of Lancaster, mother of Henry the navigator, the brain of the discoveries.

Inside is an exhibition space with temporary exhibits, an interesting film about the city of Lisbon, and an elevator that takes visitors to the top for some bird’s-eye views of Belem and its monuments.

The pavement in front of the monument is decorated with a mosaic representing a compass with the map of the world charting the routes taken by the Portuguese explorers.

Pasteis de Belem

The original stained glass at Jeronimos Monastery was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake, but reproduced

You cannot leave Belem without visiting Pasteis de Belem, Portugal’s most famous pastry shop, which offers the famous pastry of Lisbon.

People are lined up at the front counter to purchase boxes of the custard-filled pastry, but we walk through the cavernous rooms, decorated with the blue-white tiles, to sit at a table.

This is more than a pastry shop. It represents a significant history and heritage of Portugal. We learn from Carmo that all the traditional desserts originated in convents, since they were rich and had sugar. They sold the pastries to raise money for the convent, but mostly baked them for their own consumption.

The popular pastry shop, Pasteis de Belem, has a secret recipe to the custard-filled tarts that has been in the family since 1837© 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The monks at Geronimo Monastery started to sell to people coming to Lisbon from countryside on Sundays and it became hugely popular.

It is remarkable to contemplate that Pasteis de Belem has been a family business since 1837 – now the sixth generation operates it.

They have a secret recipe, still, that is kept in the family. Only three people at any one time know the original recipe – the patriarch of the family and two chefs, who are the only ones who can go inside the house where the ingredients are mixed. (It is amazing, and different, as we can attest after trying the pastry elsewhere.)

While you might get to get a peek at Pasteis de Belem's kitchen, no one is allowed to the inner sanctum where only two chefs at any one time know how the ingredients are mixed © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The current chefs are in their 50s, and have worked here their whole life, starting at 15 years old

It is a delectable cream custard (others make a tart, but make it differently), in a puffed pastry that is light.

“It’s not the ingredients, but the proportion of ingredients, the cream and the way the texture of the pastry that makes it special. No one makes anything that resembles this.”

Each day, they make on average 20,000 of the tarts, a manual process still done by ladies; 118 are employed.

On the table is cinnamon and powdered sugar to sprinkle on the tart

People crowd the counter at Pasteis de Belem to take home boxes of the delicate custard-filled pastry © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The shop operates daily from 7 am to midnight in summer.

By special request, you can see inside the kitchen (but not the secret house where ingredients are mixed.)

Expo ’98

We come to the Expo ’98 district. Not long ago, this was Lisbon’s most dilapidated district, with factories and abandoned buildings. Then it became the site for Expo ’98, a kind of world’s fair, and became a planned city, oriented around the theme of Discovery, in celebration of 500 years since Vasco Da Gama found the sea route to India.

This has become one of the most expensive areas to live in, and you can see why: you can walk to work, shopping, restaurants, movies and entertainment venues; it’s five minutes from the airport. The area has the Oceanarium (the aquarium), parks, a cable-car ride, and is a major transit hub for international trains that go to Madrid and into Europe, and is five minutes from the international airport.

Gulbenkian Museum

The Discoveries Monument in Belem was built on the north bank of the Tagus River in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator© 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Lisbon is chock-a-block full of museums – Tile Museum, Museum of Fado, the Museum of Electricity, Museum of Ancient Art. We get to visit one of Portugal’s most world-renowned, the Gulbenkian Museum Considered one of the best small museums in the world, hosts the best world collection on René Lalique jewelry.

The museum houses the collection of Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (1869-1955).Gulbenkian was an Armenian businessman and philanthropist who played a major role in making the petroleum reserves of the Middle East available to Western development. By the end of his life he had become one of the world’s wealthiest individuals and his art acquisitions considered one of the greatest private collections.

Belem Tower© 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Assembled over the course of his life and influenced by his travels and personal taste his collection consists of more than 6,000 pieces from all over the world and dating from antiquity until the early 20th century. It includes pieces from ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, Babylonia, Armenia, Persia, Islamic Art, Europe, and Japan. His attachment to the pieces that he acquired was so strong that he even called them his “children”. He wanted his collection to have a home under one roof after his passing, and while the National Gallery in Washington and the French government sought to get it, in 1960, the entire collection was brought to Portugal, where it was exhibited at the Palace of the Marquises of Pombal (Oeiras) from 1965 to 1969. Fourteen years after the death of this illustrious collector his wish was fulfilled, when the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum-specially built to house his collection-opened in Lisbon.

Today, a visit through the museum is a time capsule for some of the greatest works of art from around the world over the centuries. The permanent exhibition galleries are distributed in chronological and geographical order to create two independent circuits within the overall tour.

The first section highlights Oriental and Classical Art – Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, eastern Islamic, Armenian and Far Eastern. The second covers European Art, from the 11th to mid-20th centuries, with sections dedicated to the Art of the Book, Sculpture, Painting and the Decorative Arts, particularly 18th century French art and the work of Rene Lalique, which is most spectacularly displayed in its own gallery.

The Expo '98 district has become a planned community with some of the most expensive real estate in Lisbon. © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The European section begins with work in ivory and illuminated manuscript books, followed by a selection of 15th, 16th and 17th century sculptures and paintings. Renaissance art produced in Flanders, France and Italy is on display in the next room. French 18th century decorative arts have a special place in the museum with outstanding gold and silver objects and furniture, as well as paintings and sculptures. These decorative arts are followed by galleries exhibiting a group of paintings by the Venetian Francesco Guardi, 18th and 19th century English paintings, and finally a superb collection of jewels and glass by René Lalique, displayed in its own room.

You see breathtaking masterpieces by Rembrandt, Hals, Rubens, Turner, Renoir, Sargent, Cassat, Degas.

You need at least two hours to visit; there is also a second building of contemporary art, and gardens. (Gulbenkian Museum, Av. de Berna 45A, 1067-001 Lisboa Codex).

Lisboa Card Makes Getting Around Easy

The Vasca da Gama shopping mall at the Expo '98 district makes you think you are in a cruise ship © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Getting around Lisbon is easy. My favorite means is to walk, but there is a new metro, along with the old-style tram that is utterly charming and fun. Locals have to vie with the hoard of tourists and there is a strategy to get on the earliest stop possible (you can buy tickets for all-day and multiple days of transportation so you don’t need to bother about the fare).

Lisboa Card provides free or reduced admission to scores of major sights, as well as the transportation system, saving money and making it convenient.

The Lisboa Card is a Lisboa City Pass which provides free or discounted entrance to more than 80 Lisbon museums, sights, and tours, including the Jerónimos Monastery, the Belém Tower, the National Pantheon, and Tile (Azulejos) Museum.

Lisbon's Gulbenkian Museum, which displays the collection of Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, is considered one of the best small museums in the world © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

In addition, the card provides discounts at some of Lisbon’s most important sights (Sao Jorge’s Castle, 30%; Monument to the Discoveries, 30%; Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, 20%, Fado Museum, 30%; Belem cultural Centre, 20%, and 55% discount off the Aerobus airport shuttle).

When you purchase the pass, you also get a free Lisbon guide that provides information on all the museums and establishments associated with this program.

Transportation around the city is also free, because the Lisboa Card includes all trips on the Metro, public buses, the trams and the Elevadores, such as the Elevador de Santa Justa.

A highlight of the Gulbenkian Museum is the exquisite collection of Lalique jewelry © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Outside Lisbon, spectacular sights such as the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, the Batalha Monastery and the national palaces of Mafra and Queluz, and the Convento de Cristo in Tomar are free with the card, as well.

The Lisboa Card is valid for one year after the date of purchase. It is then activated the first time it is used and expires at the end of the period selected: a 24-hour Lisboa Card is 17 euros; 48 hours, 27 euros; and 72 hours Lisboa Card, 33.50 euros.

A family at Lisbon's Oceanarium. © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You can obtain the Lisboa Card at Lisbon Airport or at the Tourist Information Office (Lisbon Welcome Center) at the Plaza do Comércio (www.golisbon.com/Lisboa-Card).

Another interesting way to see the city is the Go-Car, a funky yellow open-air electric car that talks to you, takes you on a city tour. cracks jokes, teaches Portuguese words and describes Lisbon as you drive. The cars have a personality and a sense of humor, telling stories that bring Lisbon to life. (34.5E)

Tourism Portugal has an outstanding website that is easy to use and most helpful: www.visitportugal.com.

Next: Living it up in Lisbon

Thursday, 22 September, 2011

© 2011 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visitwww.examiner.com(In National)www.examiner.com(Long Island). Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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