Next along the riverside is the neighbourhood with the largest number of heritage sites connected with the Portuguese voyages of discovery: Belém. It was from the beach in Belém that Vasco da Gama set sail to discover the sea route to India and the grandiosity of the former empire can be sensed throughout the area. One of the most imposing symbols of the city is here – the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the construction of which was started in 1501 by King Manuel I and finished a century later. Overlooking the magnificent Praça do Império, the monument is an outstanding example of late Gothic and Renaissance architecture and is regarded as one of Lisbon’s finest landmarks.
Royal, religious, naturalist and nautical decorative elements combine to create a building that is considered the jewel of the distinctively Portuguese Manueline style, and it has been recognised as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO.
In one of the wings of the former monastery is the Museu da Marinha, – an excellent place to discover the naval history of Portugal – and the Museu de Arqueologia. The monastery church, the Igreja de Santa Maria de Belém, is a magnificent church with a nave flanked by two aisles separated by elegant pillars supporting a unique ogival dome.
The sunlight filtered by the stained glass windows creates an almost dreamlike atmosphere complimenting the beauty and grandiosity of the building which embodies the history, the faith and the knowledge and determination that drove Portuguese culture. The tombs of Vasco da Gama and the epic poet Luís de Camões can be found in the church.
Also in Belém, on the river bank, is another marvellous Manueline monument, again classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site -, the Torre de Belém. Designed in the 16th century by Francisco Arruda, the Torre de Belém is a square tower with a polygonal bastion facing the river Tagus. The exterior facades, balconies and verandas are covered with abundant decoration, with Arab and Venetian influences which contrasts with the austerely decorated interior. The organic elements of the Manueline style – such as plants and animals – are represented in many different forms and the Torre de Belém has the first sculptural portrayal of an African animal, in this case a rhinoceros.
Much more recent, but still invoking the grandeur of the Age of Discovery, is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos in Belém. The monument, dating from 1960, commemorates the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator and pays tribute to the instigator of the Voyages of Discovery and to the most important Portuguese sailors.
Belém is the symbol of the “golden age” of the Voyages of Discovery, however the modern age is very much in evidence at the CCB – Centro Cultural de Belém, where you can find the Museu Colecção Berardo. Not to be missed are walks in the extensive gardens to admire the river views, and a delicious “pastel de nata” with friends.