Belém is famous as the place from which many of the great Portuguese explorers set off on their voyages of discovery.
Belém is a parish of Lisbon, Portugal, located along the right side of the Tagus river, 6km west of the present city center. Belém is famous as the place from which many of the great Portuguese explorers set off on their voyages of discovery. In particular, it is the place from which Vasco da Gama departed for India in 1497.
Perhaps Belém’s most famous feature is its tower, Torre de Belém, whose image is much used by Lisbon’s tourist board. The tower was built as a fortified lighthouse in the reign of Dom Manuel (1515-1520) to guard the entrance to the port at Belém. It stood on a little island surrounded by water. Belém’s other major historical building is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery), which the Torre de Belém was built partly to defend. The building of the monastery, an example of Manueline architecture, was begun in 1502 on the instructions of Manuel I and took 50 years to complete. It was built as a monument to Vasco da Gama’s successful voyage to India and was funded by a tax on eastern spices. The monastery contains the tomb of Vasco da Gama.
Belém’s most notable modern feature is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries). This is a 52m high slab of concrete, erected in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. The monument is carved into the shape of the prow of a ship in which stand statues of various explorers, as well as a statue of Henry himself. Adjacent to the monument is a square into whose surface is set a map showing the routes of various Portuguese explorers.
In the heart of Belém is the Praça do Império: gardens centered upon a large fountain, laid out during World War II. To the west of the gardens lies the Centro Cultural de Belém. This was built for Portugal’s 1992 presidency of the EU. It is now an arts complex, containing Belém’s Museu do Design (Design Museum). To the southeast of the gardens is the Belém Palace (1770), the official residence of the Portuguese President. Five hundred metres to the east of Praça do Império lies Belém’s other major square Praça Afonso de Albuquerque.
One last remark: if you ever go to Belém don’t leave without trying the famous “Pastel de Belém”, a small traditional cream tart (better try two or three!).