At the point where the estuary of the Tagus River meets the Atlantic Ocean, Belém, the western-most district of Lisbon, tells the epic story of Portugal’s maritime past.
It is from there that navigator Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) set out in 1497, on the voyage that opened the sea route from western Europe to India by way of the Cape of Good Hope. And it is there that three years later, his triumphant return set the stage for the development of the lucrative spice trade, with Portugal establishing control over key trading ports and routes.
The Manueline Era
For the next century, this monopoly on trade in the East became the source of inordinate wealth for the Portuguese crown, which in addition to further voyages of exploration, financed grandiose architectural projects back home. King Manuel I, whose reign (1495–1521) coincided with this windfall, engaged in a construction spree of monasteries and palaces fitting for Portugal’s status as an emerging European powerhouse.
A lavish architectural style emerged, a uniquely Portuguese late Gothic style with elaborate stonework featuring motives inspired by both maritime and Christian themes, which would become known as Manueline style. Although it actually continued for some time after the death of the monarch, it is the prosperity of his reign that the style celebrates. The Tower of Belem and nearby Jerónimos Monastery are two of the most iconic monuments of the era.
The Tower of Belém
In the early 16th century, with the discovery of Brazil (by Pedro Álvares Cabral – 1500) immediately following the successful voyage of Vasco da Gama, Lisbon was fast becoming a worldwide center of commerce, and a wealthy city in need of protection. While previous monarchs had addressed this issue by building a defensive tower at the tip of the southern peninsula of the Tagus estuary, King Manuel I undertook the construction of the Tower of Belém on the northern bank, thus creating a crossfire between the two banks to prevent enemy ships from entering the estuary.
Built in 1515-1521 on a small outcrop at the edge of the Tagus River, it is divided into two parts. Its bastion is an irregular hexagon jutting toward the river, with watchtowers at each of the corners of its open terrace. Then on its north face, a 30-meter (100-foot) rectangular tower comprises five levels, including its terraced rooftop. The lower level of the bastion features a large fan vault and 17 openings for canons.
The Tower of Belém is a foremost example of Manueline style. The elaborately ornate complex is a blend of decorative elements: stylized templar crosses emphasize Manuel’s role as Grand Master of the Order of Christ while maritime motifs, twisted ropes friezes and armillary spheres, mark the building’s association the great navigators, and the distinctive turrets evoke the Moorish era. Although it was originally intended as a defensive bastion, the tower soon became the point of embarkation and disembarkation for Portuguese explorers, as well as the ceremonial gateway to Lisbon. Today, the Tower of Belém is considered one of the most remarkable monuments in Lisbon and a landmark of Portuguese identity.
The Jerónimos Monastery
Founded by Manual I in 1499 in honor of Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India, the Jerónimos Monastery is recognized as the finest example of monastic Manueline architecture and one of the premiere landmark in Portugal. Construction began in 1501. Built entirely in pale local limestone, the sprawling masterpiece took one hundred years to complete, under the successive direction of some of best architects and master builders, both national and foreign, of their time. Behind the endless facade (300-meter, or 990-foot) long punctuated by the extravagantly ornate 32-meter (105-foot) high south portal, the cloisters and refectory are a dazzling world of stone decoration.
The vast two-storied square cloister mesmerizes for its lacy architecture and the wealth of its ornamentation. There is barely a surface that is not adorned with some sort of Manueline sculpture. Coats of arms and the cross from the Military Order of Christ assert the growing world power of Portugal, while nautical elements such as sea creatures and coils of rope and knots pay homage to the Navigators.
The refectory is another of the monastery’s highlights, with its low, multi-ribbed vaulted ceiling, azulejo wall panels and, outside its entrance door, the Lion Fountain where the monks washed their hand before meals.
The Church of Santa Maria de Belém
Adjacent to the monastery, the Church of Santa Maria de Belém is a startling contrast, sublime in the simplicity of its hall-style layout, with the soaring nave and side aisles of equal height. Its unadorned floors and walls are a perfect setting for the six slender, intricately carved columns that lead the eye to the improbably high web of its spreading ribbed vault.
It was always the intention of Manuel I, that in addition to being the physical embodiment of the Age of Discoveries, the grand monastery would be a pantheon for himself and his line. The royal tombs rest in side chapels, on marble elephants. The tombs on the left side of the choir belong to King Manuel I and his wife Maria of Aragon, while those on the right side belong to his son King João III and his wife Catherine of Austria. However, pride of place goes to Vasco da Gama, whose sarcophagus is positioned just inside the main portal.
The Monument of the Discoveries
A 10-minute walk east from the Tower of Belem, the 52 meter (170 foot) vertical slab of white concrete of the Monument of the Discoveries rises ostentatiously from the bank of the Tagus. Built in 1960, iit is intended to evoke the prow of a caravel (the ship used in the early Portuguese explorations). Its design features ramps on either side, each holding 16 statues that amount to a veritable 16th and 17th century Who is Who in the discovery and appropriation of the “new worlds”. The ramps joint at the river’s edge, with Henry the Navigator standing at the tip of the prow.
Good to Know
- Getting there —The easiest way to get to Belém from Lisbon’s city center (approximately a 30 minute drive) is to take the tram nº 15 at the Cais do Sodré station, in the Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square). Note — Be especially aware when riding this tram. It is popular with pickpockets as it is always packed with tourists.
- Visiting — Jerónimos Monastery and the Tower of Belém are open October through April from 10:00 am to 5.:30 pm and May through September from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm. Closed on Mondays, January 1, Easter Sunday, May 1, and December 25. Advance entry tickets may be purchased through their respective websites and strongly recommended. Monument of the Discoveries is open daily, October through February from10:00 am to 6:00 pm and March through September from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed on January 1, May 1, December 24, 25 and 31.