Lisbon Part 2 - Belém; its monastery, tower and Botanical Gardens
I thought I would share a few more photos of our trip to Lisbon today, and talk a little about our visit to Belém, Lisbon's western district which sits on the banks of the River Tagus and is home to many of the city's main sights, including the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Torre de Belém, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Belém is easily accessed by tram #15 from the centre of town, and the journey takes about 15 minutes.
The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery) is a vast, imposing and altogether breathtaking hulk of limestone which rises somewhat incongruously out of the street it sits on, completely dominating its surroundings. Built using money from Portugal's colonies, it took a century to complete (1501 -1601) and was originally a monastery housing Hieronymite monks, until it was secularised in the 19th century. It is a truly spectacular feat of architecture, and definitely worthy of a visit, if only to experience its sheer size and scale. It is one of Portugal's most prominent examples of the Late Gothic Manueline style of architecture, an incredibly intricate and ornate style incorporating maritime elements and representations of the objects of discovery found during the voyages of Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral. And as all of the literature is very keen to point out, it was the place where Vasco de Gama spent his last night before his journey to the Far East. One of the most incredible aspects of the monastery is its unwavering commitment to decoration, whereby seemingly every pillar, post and even step has been ornately carved into complex and intricate shapes and patterns. The other striking aspect is its two tier cloisters, which I have never seen in another church or monastery anywhere else. It is free to visit on Sunday mornings and at other times tickets cost €7 or €13 if combined with the Torre de Belém .
The Torre de Belém (Belém Tower) is a short walk or taxi drive from the Monastery and sits on the banks of the River Tagus with views across the water. The four storey limestone tower was designed to be partly for defensive and partly for ceremonial purposes and is another famous example of Manueline architecture. I was struck by what a compact, almost squat construction it is, perched at the edge of the river all on its own. The views from the top over the soft grey river, and the head-clearing breeze made it a refreshing place to spend half an hour or so, and we enjoyed watching the seagulls encircle it from inside the tiny turrets, and waving to boats passing by.
If you have time after the Monastery and Tower, Belém's Tropical Botanical Gardens are just a couple of minutes from the main Belém tram stop, and are a very atmospheric place for a wander (if you like a good old bit of planty decrepitude that is). Created in 1906, the Gardens contain over 600 species of tropical flora, as well as several now rather dilapidated glass greenhouses and crumbly looking 17th and 18th century palaces and residences. Somewhat unusually the whole site has been turned over rather enthusiastically to a whole host of peacocks and hens, chickens, geese, ducks and a resident cat, which brings its own charm, but does also mean the place feels a bit like its been forgotten about and the animals have moved in!
I personally loved communing with all of the ducks, chickens and peacocks, and thought there was something rather magical about they way they had turned it into their own peaceful little oasis, although the copious amounts of bird poop did seem a bit of a shame. Similarly, I found the overgrown shabbiness of the greenhouses, and their state of green and mossy disrepair rather beautiful, in a dishevelled sort of way. The whole place felt like it had been taken over by nature, and left to get on with its own thing. There were hardly any other visitors, so it felt as if we had happened across a secret place, untouched by the outside world.
We spent a very relaxed hour strolling, exploring, peering into the abandoned greenhouses and identifying the plants. It was a bit overcast when we visited (which added to the atmosphere) but I thought it would make a very pleasant place to escape the heat for a shady picnic in the summer months. I don't know whether they will tidy it up a bit before the summer season gets underway or if there are plans to restore the greenhouses at some point, but even if not, the entrance fee is only a couple of euros and it is a memorable place to while away an hour or two, away from the hustle and bustle and touristy crowds.
Oh and Raoul made a little furry friend!
I've got one more post about Lisbon about where we ate and shopped which I will try to get up soon!