Situated five miles west of central Lisbon, the Belém district has several claims to fame.
After the earthquake of 1755, the royals moved house to Belém, as it was relatively unshaken. They never left, and the president is still in residence here.
But one of the major attractions is an edible one. Since 1837, it has been known for the custard tart called pastel de Belém. At the Casa Pastéis de Belem cafe, its birthplace, they churn out about 20,000 a day, and they go quickly. The line for takeout is long, but the cafe service moves quickly, and we were able to snag a table and enjoy ours with tea and espresso. The proper way to eat them is with powdered sugar and cinnamon shaken on top. Yummmy! We have craved one ever since we saw them made on “The Great British Bake-Off,” one of our many viewing addictions.
On a more scholarly note, we also visited the National Coach Museum, founded in 1905 by the last queen of Portugal, who had the wisdom to see that horseless carriages were going to take over the roads. The coaches she had preserved began with one from 1600, once used by Philip II, King of Spain and Portugal.
The rest of the collection shows changes in technology and increases in royal vanity, with beautifully preserved examples of how the rich got around.
Even the first automobile in Portugal snuck in, along with sedan chairs, more modest conveyances, and the carriages of the kiddie set.
The collection was originally housed across the street in the Royal Riding School, which is lovely and has a few more carriages to admire.
The difference between the two coach museums is quite interesting. The modern building has all the earmarks of a big influx of EU money going to build something totally out of proportion to its contents, completely unsympathetic to its environment, and just plain ugly to boot. The old building is charming and in perfect harmony with the neighborhood.
After shaking our heads in despair, we move on to something more classical – the Monastery of Jerónimos, built in the 15th century by King Manuel as a thanks to God for all the discoveries of the early Portuguese explorers – and the loot that came back with them. It was financed in part with “pepper money,” a 5% tax on spices from India.
It was a time of extreme Christian faith, and the scope of the monastery is evidence.
The church is massive, with nautical themes woven into stone. Nearly everything here survived the earthquake. One highlight is the tomb of Vasco da Gama, in the spot where he prayed for success in 1497 for his trip around Africa on the way to India. His success launched Portugal’s Golden Age.
The cloister of the monastery is considered the finest in Europe. It is decorated in what is called the Manueline style, after King Manuel. Highly ornamental, blending the Gothic with Moorish elements, it is quite elaborate and very effective.
The final treasure of Belém we visited was the Monument to the Discoveries, a 1960 sculpture honoring the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. It is in the shape of a huge caravel ship in full sail, with Henry at the helm and the great navigators, sailors and explorers on board behind him. In the foreground is a map of the world showing Portuguese explorations, and the mosaics showing the waves of the sea.
The Golden Age was truly golden in Portugal. They did play a major part in advancing human knowledge – along with the spread of various diseases and the business of slavery. But let’s give them their due and applaud the courage that led them to set sail for strange new worlds.
Don’s Food Corner
Our major caloric intake was supplied by a few pastels de Belem and we didn’t dare linger over lunch because we had to battle the crowds of tourists to get into the various sights we wanted to visit. So we stopped at a sandwich shop that turned out to be pretty good. We shared a nice vegetable soup, to start. Having now tasted the soup at a few places, it is clear that there is one recipe for vegetable soup in Portugal that is used universally. No one vegetable dominates, but it seems like it consists of mainly root vegetables. We asked one waiter what kind of vegetables were in the soup and the answer we got was: “Many.” It’s not clear what gives the soup its orange color, but we don’t detect any strong carrot flavor. Pumpkin? Lentils?
The sandwiches, helped greatly by spectacular bread, were chicken salad with sliced egg and roast beef that had some mysterious but delicious soft cheese spread on it.
A bag of sweet potato chips rounded things off. And Diet Coke gave us the energy to persevere. The line of people shown above at the cafe gives an idea of the lines elsewhere in this tourist-centric town.