With its maritime history, attractive riverside location and slew of good museums, Belém (pronounced ber-layng) is rightly one of Lisbon’s most popular suburbs. It was from here that Vasco da Gama set off for India in 1497, and the vast Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was built here to honour his safe return. Along with the monastery and the landmark Torre de Belém, the suburb boasts a group of small museums, most of them set up under the Salazar regime during the Expo in 1940 – though the best of the lot, the Berrardo Collection, is a more recent addition. Just to the north of Belém is Ajuda, famed for its palace and ancient botanical gardens. Bear in mind that quite a few of Belém’s sights are closed on Mondays, and many are free on the first Sunday of the month.
Continue reading to find out more about...
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
If there’s one building that symbolizes the golden age of the Portuguese discoveries, it’s the Mosteiros dos Jerónimos, which dominates the north side of the Praça do Império. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the monastery and its adjacent church were built to fulfil a promise made by Portugal’s king, Dom Manuel, should Vasco da Gama return safely from his inaugural voyage to India in 1498. The fact that the spices he returned with were more than enough to fund the building was, perhaps, a happy coincidence. Construction duly began in 1502 under the architect Diogo de Boitaca, who had made his name on the Igreja de Jesus in Setúbal, considered to be the first ever Manueline building.
Appropriately, Vasco da Gama’s tomb now lies just inside the fantastically embellished entrance to the church. Crowned by an elaborate medley of statues, including Henry the Navigator, the 32m-high entrance was designed by the Spaniard João de Castilho, who took over the building of the church in 1517; the portal now forms the obligatory backdrop to weekend wedding photos. The church’s interior is even more dazzling, displaying the maritime influences typical of Manueline architecture: the pillars are carved to resemble giant palms fanning out into a ceiling resembling a delicate jungle canopy. The church also contains the tomb of Luís de Camões (1527–1570), Portugal’s greatest poet and recorder of the discoveries, alongside those of former presidents and dignitaries.
Equally impressive is the adjacent monastery, gathered round sumptuously vaulted cloisters with nautical symbols carved into the honey-coloured limestone. You can still see the twelve niches where navigators stopped for confession before their voyages of exploration, until the Hieronymite monks were forced out during the dissolution of 1834. In 2007, the monastery was again influential in blessing future trade: the Treaty of Lisbon was signed here to cement the format of the European Union.
With its entrance via the first floor of the Centro Cultural de Belém, the Berardo Collection is a unique assortment of modern art amassed by wealthy Madeiran Joe Berardo. Some of the most celebrated artists of the current and last centuries are displayed, though note that the collection is so large that not all of it can be shown at once, and two floors are given over to temporary exhibits. The best parts of the permanent collection (some of which should be on display) include Eric Fischl’s giant panels of sunbathers; Andy Warhol’s distinctive Judy Garland; and Chris Ofili’s Adoration of Captain Shit, made with elephant dung. Portugal’s Paula Rego is well represented, with works such as The Past and Present and The Barn, while Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Picasso, Miró, Man Ray, Max Ernst and Mark Rothko usually feature, along with various video artists.