Our guide, who skipped the long line to buy Pastel da Natas for us, couldn’t do the same at Jeronimos Monastery or the adjoining church of Santa Maria de Belém. We decided the line to Jerónimos Monastery, which stretched the length of two football fields, was too formidable on this hot sunny day.. We did, however, join the shorter and faster moving line to the imposing Santa Maria church.
Both the monastery and church, built in1502, are among Lisbon’s top attractions. Both also were once the home of monks in the Order of Saint Jerome. Their spiritual mission was to give guidance to sailors and pray for the king’s soul.
The church is one of the great triumphs of Portuguese gothic architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage monument. Built near docks on the Tagus River, where navigators and explorers set sail for unknown lands, it marks the site of a small hermitage where Vasco da Gama and his crew spent their last night in Portugal in prayer before leaving for India.
The church, made of locally quarried limestone and marble, is massive. You had to wonder how engineers in the 16th century could build the massive dome. Just inside is the elaborate tomb of Vasco da Gama. It was not the explorer’s first resting place. In 2018, we visited the site of his first burial in St. Francis Church in Kochi, India. His remains (or parts of them) were returned to Portugal in 1539.
In our travels, we’ve been fortunate to visit the tombs of a number of other famous explorers and their benefactors, including Queen Isabella (Granda) and Columbus (Seville). We also saw the Douro Valley home, where Magellan was born.
Our Belem tour also included a stop at the somewhat controversial Discoveries Monument, originally a temporary structure glorifying Prince Henry the Navigator and other Portuguese explorers for the propagandistic 1940 “Portuguese World Exhibition.” Rebuilt in concrete and limestone in 1960, it remains a grand symbol of Portugal’s unrivaled feats in the “Age of Discovery” that ignores the consequences of Portuguese colonization and slave trading. It’s a history the country continues to reckon with. However, there are no plans to tear the dramatic monument down.
When you visit, take a moment to peruse the map on the square in front of it, that shows where Portuguese explorers ventured in the 1500s – Brazil, Africa, India, China, and more. All in the effort to dominate the spice trade, tho they’d soon return with much more valuable riches for the king’s coffers.
Our last tour stop was Belém Tower, built on the edge of the Tagus River in 1514 about the same time as Jeronimo’s Monastery was built and in the same architectural style. The five-story tall tower has sixteen widows for canons, placed to defend the river and Lisbon. It’s possible to go inside (tho most visitors are underwhelmed), but it was closed the day we visited.
One interesting feature on the tower facade is a curious stone gargoyle in the shape of a rhinoceros. It commemorates the first rhino brought to Portugal in 1513 from India. You have to look closely to find it, especially because of its missing horn.