Lisbon Day 2: Beautiful Belém & The Land of the Explorers
“And the sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses…”
~Joni Mitchell, Chelsea Morning
If Lisbon were a color it would have to be yellow. Yellow painted buildings, yellow tiled facades, yellow trams. And that big ball of a sun that bathes the city’s old architecture in a stunning, hazy light. Add the turquoise tones of the Belém waterfront, and you have a real feast for the senses.
It was a quiet Sunday morning as our taxi breezed through the empty Lisbon streets on its way to the Belém District, about fifteen minutes west of the city center. Perched on the banks of the River Tagus, Belém’s ancient harbors were the starting-off point for Portuguese explorers, launching the “Age of Discovery” in the late 1400s. It had been decades since I’d thought of the names Ferdinand Magellan or Vasco de Gama, but suddenly I was transported back to elementary school geography lessons, memorizing the exotic-sounding names of the explorers and mapping the equally exotic-sounding lands they discovered on our classroom globe.
The main attraction in Belém is the Monastery of Jerónimos, and the main attraction at the main attraction is the cloister. The church is free to visit, but there is a charge to enter the cloister. We had purchased a Lisboa Card for our two days in Lisbon, which not only enabled us to visit the cloister, but allowed us to “jump” the incredibly long line and walk right in.
The Monastery of Jerónimos was built by King Manuel I as a tribute to the Portuguese explorers and has an architecture style named after the king called Manueline. Influenced by elements from the newly discovered lands, the Manueline style features the look of East Indian temples, sea-relate themes and elaborate carvings. It is lavish, ornate and incredibly beautiful.
The two-story cloister is a dreamy place to take photos. The light changes at every view, casting shadows and turning the white columns almost apricot and golden in some places.
Tucked along the cloister’s arcades are tombs of some of Portugal’s beloved writers and poets. Although not as grand as Westminster Abbey’s “Poets’ Corner,” I was struck by the way Lisbon pays homage to its great writers. It seemed to me a place where its past is very much alive in its present.
We walked back downstairs and entered the Santa Maria de Belém Church. Richly decorated in the Manueline style, the church contains the tombs of Vasco de Gama, who discovered the sea route to India, and Luís Vaz de Camões, the poet who wrote about the adventures of de Gama and Portugal’s explorers.
Back outside, we headed to the Rua de Belém, the town’s main street, to find the Casa Patéis de Belém, birthplace of patéis de nata – known here as the Pastel de Bélem – baked from an “ancient secret recipe” since 1837. After our first taste of the delicious custard tarts at Café Martinho da Arcada, we were eager to have a second Portuguese pastry break! (Lisbon Day 1: A Tale of Three Neighborhoods & A Tuk-Tuk Ride.)
The café was packed, and it took us a few minutes to figure out how to get a table. We passed the long “take-out” lines and followed what appeared to be the dining-in line. As we made our way through the various little dining rooms, we realized that we were following the line to the restrooms! We went back outside and tried again, still trying to find the line for getting a table. It turns out that there is no line. The trick is to wander around the café, keeping a close look-out for people who are just about ready to leave. As soon as they stand up, it is appropriate to swoop in and claim your spot!
The pastéis de nata were as wonderful as those we had tried at Café Martinho da Arcada. These were served warm and also with a shaker of cinnamon. This time we were old hands and knew the cinnamon drill. We left the café with a bit of a wistful feeling, knowing that this was our last Portuguese pastry break and that we were getting quite accustomed to the whole experience.
The next stop on our Belém itinerary was the Belém Tower, a Manueline-styled fort built in the early 16th century that stands watch over the harbor. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the Monastery, along Belém’s beautiful waterfront. We crossed onto the bridge and joined the long line of tourists. I saved our spot while Herb checked inside to see if our Lisboa Card entitled us to “line jumping” privileges. The rules were different from what we had experienced at the Monastery, and the only people we noticed who were able to walk right in had reserved tickets for a specific timeslot.
The Tower’s interior isn’t much to see and probably not worth a long wait. The views are lovely, and the gorgeous day more than made up for the time spent in line. Once we reached the second level, there was another line for visiting the top level. We opted out of that and continued on our way. I’m not sure there was much to see at the top – just a higher viewing point.
Near the Belém Tower is the Monument to the Discoveries, an ode to Portugal’s explorers and the Age of Discovery. Originally built for the 1940 World’s Fair hosted by Lisbon, the current monument was designed in the1960s to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator, founder, financier and “father” of Portugal’s Age of Discovery. Thirty-four intricately carved figures, led by Henry the Navigator at the front, represent the explorers and financiers of the expeditions.
Before leaving Belém, we walked back to the Rua de Belém for a quick lunch at Pão Pão Queijo Queijo. Mediterranean/Portuguese cuisine, extremely crowded, friendly, reasonable and delicious! We scanned the menu posted by the door, placed our order with the cashier and waited for our number to be called. I went upstairs to secure a table (only permitted after you order) while Herb stood at the counter, gave instructions for customizing our sandwiches and finally appeared with our food. The Belém cafés seemed to have their own unspoken rules for ordering and getting tables!
It was mid-afternoon before we headed back to Lisbon. We were already behind our planned time for boarding our cruise ship, but we still weren’t quite ready to leave. We asked our taxi driver to drop us a few blocks from our hotel, giving us one last chance to walk along the leafy Avenida da Liberdade.
That evening the Crystal Symphony sailed from Lisbon at 10 pm. The air was cold and windy, and the night had pulled up the covers on our our sunny day in Belém. We joined a few other travelers on the top deck, watching Lisbon fade in the distance as we sailed under the 25 de Abril Bridge. The moon appeared, and there was that color again. Yellow. Or at least that’s how I like to remember it.