Belém is an extension of Lisboa, about 5 miles west of the city along the coast. It was the original embarkation point for the ships leaving to explore the new world in the 15th and 16thcenturies. Today it’s very beachy community, and home to a collection of good museums. With that in mind, we caught the 15E tram at the Praça de Comécio for the ride out of town.
I don’t spend any of my regular life on public transportation – it’s just not a solution for where and how we live. On this trip we’ve done a bit of it. From the excellent (Metro) to the poor (electric trams.) Today was sort of in the middle. Very crowded by way of the hour and the destination, and like so many things we’ve encountered in Portugal, not clearly labeled. Most of the stops had no signs, and we were frankly lucky to get off when we did. But it got us there and so it was a success.
Our first stop of the day was the Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestre for one of their twice-weekly practice demonstrations. Founded in 1748 by King João V to create a Lusitano horse pipeline for the royals, it was also created to make his Austrian wife Queen Maria Ana happy, since she missed the royal Lipizzaner horse school in Vienna. Today the school maintains the tradition via a riding academy.
I purchased tickets more than a month ago, and with a 10:30 start time we made sure we were there with plenty of time to spare. Well, as it turned out a tour of the barns and tack rooms began at 10:30 and ended 15 minutes later. The show didn’t begin until 11:30 which left us a lot of time to hang around. Luckily there were a couple of horses being worked in the arena so at least we had some entertainment.
The show was great, not super formal like the Andalusian horse demonstration we’d seen in Jerez, more like a working session. The riders were in their show regalia – waist coats, breeches, tall boots, and tri-point hats. They went through all the various routines you’d expect, but in a more casual manner. Like a work day, not a show. On two occasions, trainers brought out horses and did routines on long lines. The entire program lasted about an hour, and in the spirit of the casual manner of the place, we were never told that show was over. They simply let us sit there until we figured it out on our own.
Lunch time now so we thought we’d toddle off to the local Starbucks and grab a coffee and a sandwich. The first sign that we were in an interesting situation was the crowd on the sidewalks – it was almost impossible to walk. The second sign was in front of a restaurant called the Pastéis de Belém, where the line was nearly a block long. We finally got the message when we took a look into the Starbucks and saw it jammed, wall to wall with what must have been enough teenagers to violate the fire code. Not a chance, we crossed the street, found a little restaurant and had lunch.
Next on the agenda was the Mosteiro do Jerónimos, a monastery commissioned by King Manuel I around 1501, and paid for with “pepper money,” the wealth flowing in from India and the spice trade. Manuel lent his name to the Manueline Style of architecture, and this place is considered the pinnacle of it. Ornate is too small a word for it, and honestly you look and look and you can’t quite believe it’s real, and that it’s made out of stone. Layers and layers of symbols, carved on every surface and in every window. Just bizarre. As a museum, it really wasn’t all that much, because it was almost entirely emptied out. Religious orders were banned in Portugal in 1834, so facilities like this suffered accordingly. Today it’s a monument, but not one with much flavor.
The church though was another story – huge, imposing, but again not as garish as the cathedrals in Spain. Today it remains the spiritual center of Lisboa, and in comparison to the Sé Cathedral, I can see why – it’s much more beautiful. The highlight for me was the tomb of Vasco de Gama, the great explorer, forever laid to rest in a sarcophagus embellished with ships, globes, and other symbols of his amazing feats of navigation.
The state has made good use of the Jerónimos site, situating two more museums there in addition to the monastery. We next visited a decent archaeology museum with a nice collection of proto-Iberian artifacts (much like the Carmo Museum,) an extensive display of Roman marbles and a small but interesting room of Egyptian pieces.
Our final stop turned out to be the best by far, the Museu de Marinha, a museum dedicated to Portugal’s seafaring tradition. What a treat – it begins with all kinds of displays covering the Age of Discovery and then continues on to the modern day. Maps, items from ship wrecks, navigation instruments, weapons, uniforms, hundreds of incredibly detailed models. So many things worthy of your attention and presented in a very accessible manner. We wandered for hours, until we came to the real gem of the collection – an aircraft hangar-sized room full of boats commissioned by various kings for their personal use, and an ancillary collection of all kinds of working boats, used throughout the country for activities as diverse as seaweed gathering and duck hunting. Just amazing.
We took a taxi back to town, had a break and went out for a great Italian dinner. MLW had a birthday meal worthy of Rome – tagliatelle with mushrooms. I had a great lasagna with a white sauce and ham. We had considered this place a couple of nights ago and passed because the Tyranny of Reviews got us again. Tonight, though we cast off the yoke of technology and thought for ourselves. And what a great choice it was. The perfect end to a great day.