Today’s adventures took us to the Belèm area of Lisbon via metro and city bus. It’s nearly at the mouth of the Rio Tagas estuary, the water access to Lisbon from the Atlantic.
It was from here in 1497 that Vasco Da Gama set off on his historic voyage to India. With it, he ushered in a century of Portuguese naval supremacy and prosperity from the spice trade in the route to Asia via the Cape of Good Hope. He remains one of the first names that school children learn when introduced to the age of exploration and western colonialism.
In the early 1500’s as gold from explorations starting pouring in, Belèm remained the launch and landing point for Portuguese explorers. The Belèm tower was built as part of a defense system for the city of Lisbon. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, it remains in excellent shape today.
Nearby and also named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 we walked around the Jerónimos Monastery. Originally this site held a modest church which was in disrepair when Vasco Da Gama and his crew spent the night in prayer there before departing on their expedition to India.
The construction of the monastery on the site started in 1501 and lasted 100 years funded by a 5% tax on spices coming from Africa and Asia. With all those riches, the architects undertook a massive design that still dominates the landscape.
We (ad)ventured inside a portion of the building – the Igreja de Santa Maria de Belém – which is a church with beautiful architectural details, stained glass windows and the tomb of Vasco Da Gama.
In this Monastery sometime before the 18th century, the monks started making the pastéis de nata. At the time, large quantities of egg whites were used to starch the white clothes of friars and nuns. So it was common to use the leftover egg yolks in sweet pastry recipes. When the monks were faced with the closure of their monastery in 1820, they started selling their custard tart – the pastéis de nata – from the sugar refinery next door. Eventually they sold the recipe to the refinery who kept selling the treat using the unchanged, secret recipe.
Today their descendants sell 20,000 tarts per day from the same location next to the monastery. We had to try some – it’s named one of Portugal’s 7 wonders of gastronomy. Tiffany and Suaram liked them the best – it’s a lot like cream or custard pie but made with puff pastry instead of pie crust.
Not too far away was our youngest site of the day – the Padrão dos Descobrimentos. The image was originally created in 1940 to celebrate the Portuguese Age of Discovery during the World Exhibition that year. Although that version was temporary, a larger, permanent one was commissioned in 1960 and stands next to the Tagus River estuary today. The scale was surprising and detail in the limestone statues on each side was very impressive.
We didn’t stay too long at the site but are glad we went.
Overall, it was a chilly, windy day for our last adventures in Portugal but enjoyable all the same.