Sunday, 28 December 2014

A day in Belém - the best Lisbon has to offer

I can't believe how many tourists miss Belém, located 15-25 minutes away from the centre of Lisbon by tram. It is an area filled with important monuments - from renowned museums to religious buildings and gardens - and it's very nice if you just want to take a walk.  Here you can see one of the best things that Lisbon has to offer: a dive back to the time when Portugal led the way to the discoveries of other parts of the world. It was perhaps my favourite part of Lisbon, more than the Alfama or the Chiado, and this is why I want to write about it first. The weather helped me: even though it was December, the sky was blue and clear, those famous clear blue skies of Lisbon that poets write about.

I caught the tram - n.15 to be precise - from Cais do Sodre train station, near my hostel. The tram was crowded and the journey a bit uncomfortable, but I met an old Portuguese man who spoke perfect Italian, and taught me many things about Portugal and Lisbon. We passed the famous suspended bridge, Ponte 25 de Abril, which takes its name from the date of the Carnation Revolution and that looks so much like the Golden Gate Bridge. Just the day before I had enjoyed an amazing sunset involving the bridge, from the banks of the river Tagus.

Lisbon Sunset
As soon as I got to Belém, I found myself in front of the first of the many attractions of the area.  I know that I would love it, and I did: the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was on my top three things to visit in Lisbon. Not only it has a distinctive architectural style not to be found in any other European country - the Manueline style - but it is also beautiful and elegant. The most striking element is the southern portal, so full of intricate decorations and almost blinding in its whiteness. Founded with the money coming from the trades with the colonies, the monastery was built in the 16th century to offer spiritual assistance to the navigators who left from the harbour nearby.

The western portal

Detail of the portal
Detail of the portal

The cloister of the monastery is all a game of shadows and decorations. I spent half an hour just admiring every nook and corner of it, especially the shadow and light on the walls.

The cloister of the monastery

From another angle

After visiting the monastery, I decided to enter the church adjoined. Here are buried famous Portuguese people, like the poet Camoes and the navigator Vasco da Gama. This church left an impression on me with its slender pillars, the ceiling high above, and its whiteness.

The church of Santa Maria de Belém
After visiting the monastery, I took a short walk to visit the Monument to the Discoveries, with all the statues of the explorers who left from this area. From here you have a magnificent view of the suspended bridge, but it's also a perfect area to walk around and enjoy the sun.

Monument to the Discoveries and Ponte 25 de Abril in the background
The Tower of Belém is maybe the most famous monument of all Lisbon and it's the jewel of Belém. Built as a defensive tower, it resembles a piece of the chessboard. The white of the limestone and the location, close to the riverside, makes it look almost unreal, as if you were in a fantasy movie or a fairy tale. It's a pleasure to visit it: there are so many intricate details and the view is amazing. José Saramago, in his book "Journey to Portugal", mentions Carlos Queirós, a Portuguese poet,  who in a moment of unbelievable humbleness wrote: "So isto fazemos bem, torres de Belém" ("There's only one thing we do well, build towers of Belem"). Saramago dismisses Queirós's humorous opinion, but he is one who dislikes and criticizes most Portuguese works of art in his travelogue about Portugal. Not the Tower of Belem, though, of which he writes: "the traveller cannot understand what military use this exquisite piece of jewellery could have had, with its wonderful lookout turrets facing the river Tagus, much more suited to watching naval regattas than for positioning cannon to help repel any invader" (p.330).  
In front of the Tower of Belém
Tower of Belem
View of the river fom the Tower
The tower in all its whiteness

After visiting the Tower of Belém I looked for a place to have lunch, as my stomach was beginning to groan. I decided to trust the Lonely Planet and I stopped at Floresta, where I had a plate of grilled sea bass with boiled vegetables, a simple but delicious meal al fresco (yes, it was warm enough!). It is a habit of Portuguese restaurants to bring you some bread, cheese and butter at the beginning of each meal. You will be charged for it, but don't worry, it won't break the bank! 
After lunch I decided to indulge myself and visit the Berardo Museum of Contemporary Art, situated just a short walk away. It's completely for free and it hosts masterpieces by Warhol - his Portrait of Judy Garland - and Dali, like a version of his famous lobster telephone.
Dali's lobster telephone
And of course a trip to Belém would not be complete without a stop to eat a pastel de nata, the simple but delicious Portuguese sweet that was born in this neighbourhood, in the kitchens of the monastery. I have eaten many pasteis de nata during my stay in Portugal, and I can assure you that the one from Fábrica de Pasteis de Belém was the best: crispy on the outside but creamy and tender inside. Even though this is an old and very famous pastry shop, with rooms decorated with azulejos, it was not at all expensive. One pastel de Belém costs around 1€. 

Pastel the nata with tea in Belém

Did you enjoy Belem? Would you make sure not to miss it when in Lisbon?

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