During the Age of Discovery, between the 15th and 17th centuries, when European maritime powers sailed off into unchartered waters in search of new lands and trade routes to enhance the coffers of their respective kings and queens, Belém, a bustling district of Lisbon, served as the anchors-aweigh point for Portugal’s greatest high-seas expeditions.
Belém, Portuguese for Bethlehem, just happens to be the first of three stops planned for today for my “band of merry media” and I — 29 travel journalists and photographers invited along by Insight Vacations (Insight) to sample a portion of its Iberian Adventure through Portugal and Spain.
While Helder, the skipper of Insight’s sleek, business-class legroom motor coach, drops anchor along the northern bank of the Tagus River, Laura, Insight’s Lisbon-based, art-history expert, leads us down onto terra firma and begins the narrative on two of Belém’s iconic structures: the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) and the Torre de Belém (Belém Tower).
The Belém Tower, also known as the Tower of St. Vincent, is a 16th century military fortification that was part of the defense system to protect the mouth of the Tagus River from invaders and also to serve as the ceremonial gateway into Lisbon.
Today, the 30-foot tower, with its Manueline-style architectural ornamentation, is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and is also included in the registry of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.
The Monument to the Discoveries, erected in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator, the patron of Portuguese exploration, is a massive concrete slab that stands 52 meters tall.
Sculpted in the form of a ship’s prow, the monument depicts dozens of figures from Portugal’s illustrious maritime past.
Standing here on the decorative mosaic pavement that frames large navigational maps — cartography that chronicles Portugal’s contribution to the Age of Discovery — I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like to be part of the crowd bidding farewell to the likes of Cabral, Corte Real, da Gama, Dias and Magellan as they raised anchor, sailed through the mouth of the Tagus, gliding past the Tower of Belém, and out into the vast Atlantic and the great unknown.
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All present and accounted for, our Insight “galleon” navigates its way across the little town of Bethlehem heading towards yet another local landmark: Pasteis de Belém. See you in just a couple for an authentic Portuguese sugar rush.
©The Palladian Traveler