I spent a day in Belém because one thing led to another: the Monastery of Jerónimos was high on my list of places to visit in Lisbon, then I saw that the Tower of Belém was part of the same UNESCO World Heritage site, then I noticed that the Museu da Marinha was in the same area and I like maritime museums.
Thanks to clear directions and a map from the hotel receptionist, I found my way to the stop for the bus to Belém. Once at the monastery, I bought my ticket for the monastery and tower and thanks to a suggestion from a TripAdvisor reviewer, headed for the tower first. Despite arthritic knees, I like climbing towers and the view from up high. Standing in line to enter the tower, water was splashing over the walkway, which explained why there was a space in the line! That reminded me that Nuno had told me the day before that the Tagus River is saltwater and tidal at this point.
The tower was built around 1514 as part of the defense system of the port of Lisbon. Starting in 1589, it was successively used as a prison, a customs post, a telegraph station, and a lighthouse. A curious feature is a corbel in the shape of a rhinoceros head. This carving was inspired by the arrival in Lisbon of a rhinoceros from India in 1513. It was given by King Manuel I to Pope Leo X the next year, but sadly, the rhinoceros drowned when the ship carrying it sank.
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After lunch, I headed to the Museu da Marinha. Walking through an area that was a mix of residential, commercial, and apparently abandoned buildings, I passed an alleyway. Ten seconds later, I decided to backtrack and take a picture and lucked out – a horse and carriage passed just then and were framed by the opening!
The Museu da Marinha was a mixed bag. The first section included exhibits and signage that were interesting and informative, without being overwhelming. For example, the sign board for a selection of maps pointed out that cartography provided practical information for navigation and that charts and maps were also illustrated with the new types of plants and animals and the different people being encountered by Europeans. Another exhibit of model ships explained that these were used for training purposes and listed the details of the actions illustrated by the model (most of which I didn’t understand, but I appreciated the concept). A couple of highlights for me were noticing that the frame of a painting of Henry the Navigator was made to resemble rope and learning a new phrase – armillary sphere.
The next part of the museum was filled with displays centered on the navy, merchant marine, and fishing. These were mostly models and I wished for more context and easier-to-read signage. A section I liked contained two rooms preserved from the royal yacht Amelia; I could definitely see myself being quite comfortable in one of these rooms! In an area across a courtyard was a huge space filled with royal barges and traditional fishing boats. The prows of both barges and boats were decorated, albeit in quite different styles.
I wrapped up my day by visiting the monastery. I can only describe the Manueline style as exuberantly magnificent. My neck hurt from looking up, trying to note every detail of the columns and ceilings. I understood why people were taking pictures – so was I – but I cannot think it proper to take selfies in front of an altar. As with my walking tour the day before, I was introduced to a person of whom I had never heard – Alexandre Herculano – via an exhibition on his life and contributions. Another exhibition consisted of a timeline of 500 years of the monastery, Portugal, and the world. I chuckled internally when I saw a notation about the synthesis of aspirin, since I’d stopped at a pharmacy the evening before to buy some, anticipating sore muscles after walking so much.
In a triumph of figuring out something, I found the stop for the bus back to my hotel. And thank goodness, another pastry crossed my path that evening!
Images © Melissa Corcoran.