Make the most of your trip to Belém: be sure to visit the Tower, and also try some Pastéis de Belém!
A Passage to India
Where the Jerónimos Monastery now stands, near the coast of Belém, there was once a rather more humble hermitage, founded by Henrique the Navigator. The nearby harbour used to shelter ships before sending them on their great voyages during Portugal’s ‘Age of Discovery’, and the hermitage and its monks helped prepare them. Vasco da Gama and his men passed the night in prayer there before setting out on their famous journey to India in 1497.
During the 16th century the church was rebuilt as a grand monastery to celebrate the success of that same voyage. The result is an exemplar of the Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline style of architecture. It is a richly ornate style that often incorporates maritime themes, here carved into calcário de lioz, a golden limestone quarried from Ajuda. Scalloped arches, coils of rope and shell-like turrets nestle among the usual motifs of leaves and vines.
The monastery was founded in celebration of - and funded by - Portugal’s Age of Discovery. Portuguese vessels reaped wealth from Africa, Asia and South America, and held tight control of the spice trade through their navy. However, the monks were moved out in 1833 when the building became state property; it was then used as a rather magical orphanage until 1940 and is now open to visitors. It is certainly one of the most beautiful buildings in Lisbon.
The Great and the Good
Inside the church Vasco de Gama himself is interred in the lower chancel, across from the 16th century poet Luís Vaz de Camões, author of the epic The Lusiads in which he lauds the exploits of Da Gama and his compatriots. And these two are not alone: other great figures in Portuguese history are entombed here, including King Manuel and King Sebastião, as well as the poets Fernando Pessoa and Alexandre Herculano.
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