After a couple of quiet ‘work’ days (thank you for the support and feedback on our first post!), we decided to venture out to Belém – a charming neighborhood 15 minutes west of Lisbon’s city center. Situated on the north bank of the River Tagus near the inlet to the Atlantic, Belém’s ancient harbors were departure points for many of Portugal’s 14th century discovery voyages.
Everyone told us we could do Belém in a half-day. You cannot. I don’t know what kind of power-trippers those people were, but if you want to enjoy yourself in Belém (i.e. have time for wine and pasteles de nata…more on those later), you need a full day.
It was only a 20-minute tram ride from Lisbon, so we ended up spending two consecutive afternoons there, partly so we could take time to see everything, and partly because we had to cut the first afternoon short because I made the mistake of resting my head on the headrest (SILLY ME) on the tram, which vibrated my skull into a soul-crushing, two-day migraine. Damn those centuries-old tram systems.
On afternoon one, we stumbled across the Jardim Botânico Tropical, Belém’s botanical gardens. For two euros, this place was a bargain. Originally named ‘The Colonial Garden,’ it was created in 1906 as a hub for experimentation and teaching of tropical agriculture. In addition to the centuries-old trees and thousands of plant species, there are several different kinds of birds roaming the grounds. The only ones I recognized were chickens, and the rest looked like something out of Jurassic Park. I have a slight distrust in our flighted friends (multiple goose attacks as a child will do that to you), so we snapped a few photos and were *briskly* on our way.
Historically, the Belém district is where Lisbon’s elite and royal residents resided, and it’s easy to see why. From the perfectly manicured parks to the tranquil water front, it’s a total escape from the Lisbon hustle.
As I mentioned, Portugal’s 14th century age of discovery originated in Belém’s harbors. The subsequent wealth from these voyages is still evident today, as displayed by the mighty Mosteiro dos Jerónimos – a national monument and UNESCO world heritage site. The ornate main entrance is breathtaking, with St. Mary of Bethlehem (Belém) the patron saint of the monastery, positioned above to bless the voyages and explorers as they departed.
Since we went on a Sunday, it was free to go inside (score). Actually, all churches and museums in Lisbon are free on Sundays, which is enough to get even this less-than-enthusiastic museum-goer in the doors.
Inside, the monastery is both impressive and oppressive – which, in my opinion, seems to be a pattern amongst ancient Catholic churches. Side note – It’s always crazy to me how people built these things centuries ago, when I still can’t figure out how to put a basic chest of drawers from Ikea together.
Also present, Vasco de Gama and celebrated 16th-century poet and author, Luís Vaz de Camões.
On the way out, we caught a glimpse of a wedding party leaving the monastery. This reminded me that I, too, have a wedding to plan. At some point. Even though Pat and I have been engaged for a few weeks now, those “HOLY CRAP I’M ENGAGED” moments still come through in full force. In the best way. And that’s a-okay with me.
Opposite the monastery is the Praça do Imperio (monastery gardens), which leads to the gigantic Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Discoveries Monument), dedicated to the explorers who established Portugal as a 14th century superpower. We’ve been carbo-loading like champions since we got here, so we decided to take the *267* stairs to the top. Once I could breathe and look up, the view immediately took my breath away again.
From the outside, the design was intended to represent the prow of a ship coming down the River Tagus, and the styling arcs come from the communist era of making imposing monuments to celebrate past glory and challenge anyone who dares to question the state’s power.
From the Discoveries Monument, we headed west along the waterfront toward the Belém Tower, taking in views of the “25 de Abril” suspension bridge and Statue of Christ the King on the opposite bank of the river.
The Belém Tower once stood in the middle of the River Tagus, but due to seismic activity and siltation, the outer banks now reach the edge of the building.
The Tower was built in 1521 to guard Lisbon from raiders, and was part of a line of defenses to protect Lisbon’s earliest harbor. It’s said that the fort was lavishly decorated for such a trivial role.
I’m sure you’re wondering where the ‘pastries’ part of this whole thing comes in.
This, friends, is a pastel de nata – Lisbon’s famous custard tart pastry.
Pastéis de Belém began making these little guys in 1837, following a sacred ancient recipe from Catholic monks at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. While you can buy them almost anywhere in Lisbon, THESE are the originals, and people will wait in line for an obnoxiously long time to get them. As did we. This place apparently sells over 10,000 of them a day. Insane.
I think of it as the Cafe du Monde of Portugal. But really, nothing compares to those beignets, amiright?
We didn’t get into the Belém National Palace (where the President lives), but we said what’s up to the guards. Pat was more thrilled than they were.
As with anything, life’s not always custard tarts and vinho verde in the world of travel. We ran out of gas in our apartment on Friday. Apparently, you need gas to run anything requiring heat here. Important things like the stove, oven and hot water. We’ve never had to hook up a gas can to run those kinds of things indoors, so we figured our neighbors just got really overzealous with their showers – cue the ‘typical millennial’ jokes – but two days and a couple hypothermia-inducing showers later, we determined there was something larger at play (the cans were empty!). Of course, no one can refill your gas cans on a weekend, so we lived on our microwaveable’s and a lot of deodorant for two days.
The gas-man came first thing this morning, though. Yes!
Unfortunately, the euphoria over a hot shower and a stove-cooked breakfast was short-lived. Alas, the apartment built a foot too short for Patrick finally got him. The poor boy forgot to duck when he walked into the kitchen, resulting in a serious bonk on the beezer (right, Chels?). No serious damage, just a lot of pain and rage.
You really can’t forget to duck around here. Did I mention the small doors?
BUT, luckily for us, Portugal has some POWERFUL ibuprofen (400 mg!). Small victories, guys, small victories.
We have almost three weeks left in Lisbon, and some serious ground to cover. Make sure you’ve ‘liked’ our new Facebook Page, and are following along on Twitter and Instagram for our upcoming Portuguese food round-up, some epic day-trips outside of Lisbon, and updates on where we’ll be traveling to next.