West of central Lisbon, in an area separated on the tourist map by a large swathe of un-chartered city (at least by the travel guides – presumably the neighbourhood is deemed unattractive to tourists) is the area of Belém. It’s quite a hassle to get to. You need to take a tram (or a taxi which actually, so we found, doesn’t cost all that much more) which, sadly, is not one of the rickety old pre-war types, but a modern sleeker affair (well I say sleek by way of comparison, but in fact most were covered with graffiti, their seats falling apart at the seams and the polythene sponge falling out). The tram journey we embarked upon was not altogether successful. The tram was rammed like the sardines for which Portugal is so famous, but the journey didn’t take us far. We got almost as far as the Ponte 25 de Abril before the tram stopped, without reason, and we were all unceremoniously ejected from the tram. Not knowing an alternative way to travel, and being literally shooed away by the driver of the equally packed tram behind, we set out on foot. This took us under the mightly Ponte 25 de Abril which literally towered above the streets of this Lisbon suburb. In fact it looked as though the various concrete plinths holding up the bridge were planted in people’s gardens, as the huge red metal form soared right above an entire residential district. It made for quite a paradoxical sight.
Having walked past the bridge, and with Belém still some distance away, we were lucky enough to coincide with the arrival of another, much emptier tram as it approached a bus stop. We were away. And we even got a seat, albeit no longer cushioned by the long disintegrated polythene padding that once sat upon it.
In no time we had arrived at Belém. Situated at the mouth of the River Tagus, where the river opens out into the vast Atlantic Ocean and the end of continental Europe, the region is inextricably linked with Portugal’s golden age of travel and discovery. As a result, the area has sprung up with a surprising wealth of monuments, churches and gardens despite its distance from central Lisbon, and is consequently a must of the tourist trail. Amongst those many monuments is the more contemporary and yet no less striking Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos). Standing prominently on the Belém waterfront, the immense angular monument was built in the 1960s to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator and features likenesses of many of Portugal’s great Discoverers, including Vasco de Gama and Pedro Alvares Cabral (the discoverer of Brazil). Having been commissioned by the Salazar regime, it’s not surprising that it is quite blatantly arrogant in its prominence and unapologetic historical propaganda, and it has something of a look of a communist monument about it. Still, there’s no denying its impact, nor the splendour of its location, overhanging the Tagus against a backdrop of the 25 de Abril bridge.
Bolstered by the good weather, and having gawped to our satisfaction at the Discoveries monument, we headed on a pleasant river-side stroll, stopping off at an Ibiza-esk all white chic waterfront bar for a requisite morning coffee and a touch of sun-inspired abandon. Next on the agenda though was the Torre de Belém, a little fortress emerging straight out of the sandy beach like a child’s sandcastle, but with all of the strength of the war machine and guardian of the city which was its design and purpose. For a fortress, the tower was surprisingly elegant in its intricate stone work and heavily adorned terrace, whose balustrades and battlements were of such varying shapes and sizes that they reminded me of the chimneyed rooftop of Gaudi’s Casa Mila in Barcelona.
Up a very steep and very narrow winding staircase, with regular stops as tourists attempted to squeeze past each other with unfortunate proximity (there was sadly no one-way system – these castles weren’t built for tourists, after all) we eventually made it to the top terrace. Ahh, up there with the sun on my face and the brisk ocean wind ruffling my hair, with a view across the Atlantic, sweeping down towards central Lisbon and the vibrant red suspension bridge beyond, I felt like the Prince of Belém, guardian of the city, King of the Castle.
But of course all dreams must come to an end. I was, after all, being butted in the back by the large cameras of the bustle of overzealous tourists nearby, each one leaning over the battlements attempting to capture the best view of Lisbon and the Monument of Discoveries in the foreground. Time to leave, and back along the river, where a luncheon at Portugalia, a traditional affair, ensued, but with a picture perfect view of the Monument and a face full of sun. One can’t moan.
Belém is like a tourist paradise. There’s so much to see and do, and with light fading fast, we did not repose unduly. For the soaring towers and the elaborately crafted Mosterio dos Jerónimos awaited, a vast monastery complex which also benefited from the riches brought back to Portugal during the Age of Discovery, and rather appropriately hosting the burial place of one of the greatest discoverers of them all, Vasco de Gama. The Nave and the Portal of the large adjoining church were undoubtedly stunning, but my favourite area was the sun-soaked tranquility of the stone-wrought cloisters, engraved with a multitude of carved creatures and plants, geometric patterns and soaring gothic arches. Also there was the cute little lion-shaped fountain (dried up, like many of Lisbon’s water features), heraldic animal of St Jerome.
Almost ready to drop, but with one place more to go. The Museu Colecção Berardo Arte Moderna e Contemporânea is another cruicial stop on Lisbon’s art trail, an impressive collection of art from the business mogul and collector José Manuel Rodrigues Berardo which boasts some 1000 works and provides a rich compendium of a century of modern and contemporary art including Picasso, Dali, Warhol, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, Jeff Koons and, to my great pleasure, a huge swinging mobile by Calder. The gallery could easily compete with the almost unconquerable Tate Modern, not least because in guiding visitors through a chronologically curated ordering of modern art, it presented all visitors with a visually interactive education of the multifaceted changes which rocked the world of contemporary aesthetics.
The Museum of Modern Art
Quite exhausted, we were in no mood for the tram. Leaving a sunset-softened Monument of Discoveries behind us, we rushed off along the riverfront in a taxi which cost us only 20 centimos more than the tram, and refreshed by the comparative convenience of the journey were much buoyed to find opposite our hotel a bar of utterly indulgent romantic boudoir-resembling beauty. Draped with lavish scarlet damask wallpaper, and crammed full with gilt-framed mirrors, chandeliers and art nouveau lighting of every size and variety, statuettes, an amplitude of armchairs, flickering candles and all species of paraphernalia straight out of the Versailles court, this bar (appropriate called the Pensão Amor, looked more like a Moulin Rouge brothel, but was so excessively indulgent that as I sat there drinking tea, and then (inevitably) port, I began to redesign my entire hallway in my head to emulate it.
The lavish darkness of the Love Pensão
Can things get any better than this? Well they did at dinner – a feast fit for the Prince of Belém himself, in the restaurant of celebrity chef Henrique Sa Pessoa – Alma. But let me lavish praise no further – that exquisite dinner needs a post all of its own. Until then… Let Lisbon sleep, and our feet recover in time for Day 4 of our own age of discoveries.
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