Touring Lisbon’s Belém on National Museum Day Review – Stop on the Vasco da Gama Trail

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jeronimos Monastery) was relatively unscathed by the 18th Century earthquake that leveled much of Lisbon


If you love museums and seeing them enjoyed by all, International Museum Day (+/- May 18) may be the best time to visit Lisbon, Portugal


Free admission on International Museum Day brought out larger than usual crowds to Belém


Lisbon’s UNESCO World Heritage site Belém sure brings in the crowds on that day—to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jeronimos Monastery) and the Torre de Belém (Tower of Belém), among other historic Lisbon sites that open to the public free that day.  


Visitors on International Museum Day came from all over the world


(Read:  Warning to the more claustrophobic among us, or those who simply like to savor museums without crowds.  Even with the crowds, there were still private spaces to be found and explored.)


Decorated arches in the cloisters


A view of the cloisters from behind a gargoyle-like lion sculpture


Having just toured Castelo Sao Jorge National Monument the day before, our imaginations were still swirling from seeing the hall where Vasco da Gama was received by the Portuguese king after discovering a route to spice-rich India.   He is interred now at Jeronimos Monastery, which was built with the riches his explorations brought to the Portuguese realm.


Gargoyle-like sculpture at Jeronimos Monastery


Highly decorative, with much filagree and sculptural detail, Jeronimos Monastery is anything but the austere surrounds you might imagine religious monks sworn to a life of poverty to live in.


The monastery has archetypal Manueline architectural details


Looking down on the main chapel


Limestone, wood, all--- materials are crafted in ornate styles


These are just one component of the intricate Manueline design and architecture that transports you back in time to a Gothic, later Renaissance aesthetic.


Looking up at the chapel windows


Though the monks of the St. Jerome order were dissolved mid-19th Century and no longer inhabited the monastery, it still feels like quite the holy place. 


View of the monastery cloisters


The architectural style of filagree-rich and other ornamental styles extends to the chapel ceilings


In a country that we soon appreciated as having a rich literary tradition and reverence for writers, it seems fitting that this holy-feeling site also has the tombs of poet Fernando Pessoa, historical author Alexandre Herculano, among others.


Tower of Belém was an outpost to see off and welcome Portuguese ships traveling the world to make new discoveries and also to spot potential enemies


It is a short jaunt from the monastery to Torre de Belém (Tower of Belém), which not only affords great views of the river and surrounds but gives you a feel for how important the Portuguese fleets were during the “age of discoveries”. 


Tower of Belém feels like the fortress and prison it was


As you climb the tower, every window affords a wonderful view, thogh you share it with cannons often


A fortress, a customs house, dungeons for political prisoners, and later the UNESCO site it is today--- this scenic tower has had many lives.  Kings would come here to greet the ships returning with treasures, or send them on their way for more.   


Tower of Belém also has Manueline style archtecture


You can easily picture grand ceremonies on the plaza adjoining Tower of Belém when Portuguese ships brought back spices and other treasures from their voyages


Tip:  It’s likely that weekends create the kind of traffic jams at this site that we experienced on International Museum Day, and which precluded, given our time constraints, our viewing the very top of the tower where the visitor count is strictly controlled.  It’s probably best to go early on a weekday.


Today Tower of Belém is also a friendly park where we saw families picnicking and vendors selling treats, including these cocktails --long before the afternoon


For more information on these and other historic sites in Portugal see the Visit Portugal Website.



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