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Into the Unknown

[Tuesday 4th September; Portugal Day 4, Lisbon Day 4]


I love exploring. Today was a day of exploration, mostly to the neighbouring district of Belém, a “town” about 6 kilometres west of the city centre. We had been recommended by our hostess Eleonora to visit; and so we happily followed her recommendation without really knowing why.


And as we went into the unknown, we discovered the steps of those who had also headed off into the unknown before us – in their cases much more scarily I would imagine.

Our journey started with a #15 tram from the city centre. The vintage rattler which we first considered boarding was chockers, no doubt mostly with visitors like us who wanted to experience the old carriage. Even if we’d wanted to catch that one there’s no way that we would have fitted on, so we opted for the very modern double carriage one that came along straight after the old rattler. It took us half the journey to work out how to buy a ticket on board, which of course if half the fun of being an explorer.


We alighted in the centre of Belém. People everywhere. A queue snaked out of a shop, along the footpath, across a small roadway, further along the footpath and almost around the corner. A queue of perhaps 100 people. What could they be queuing for I wondered. The answer lay in the sign on the old building above the shop “unica fabrica dos pasteis de Belém”. It would seem that the good burghers of Belém, or more likely the explorers from all parts of the world, liked their pastel de natas as much as I do.

The pastel de natas line (above), showing the age of the shop (below) ...

But I wasn’t going to line up for an hour to get one, so we headed around the corner for a coffee and a pastel.



Belém has two or three major sites to see, and so we started with a igreja, the Church Santa Maria de Belém. The church is attached to the Mosteiro da Santa Maria de Belém, commonly known as the Jerónimos Monastery, and the two of them combine to form a most impressive building. The queue to get into the Mosteiro was huge – it was at least a couple of hundred metres long, dwarfing the one into the pastel shop.

The church is an impressive building in itself, but it is its inhabitants which impressed me most. It contains the tombs of various kings, bishops and notables, the most notable of those being the tomb of Vasco da Gama. Finding this was a delightful surprise to me; Vasco da Gama was one of the world’s greatest explorers. Being in his presence (well, his 500-year-old bones anyway) was quite inspiring to me. And yet there was more to learn. Whilst I recall learning in school about Vasco da Gama and his countryman Magellan, I don’t recall ever having heard of the Infante D. Henrique (Anglicised name Prince Henry, the Navigator). Henrique seems to have been an amazing fellow who drove much of Portgual’s and da Gama’s successes, and yet also seems to have flown under the radar (wonderful mixed metaphor that), at least in the western eye.

Vasco da Gama, above


So, where’s all this going? Across the road from the Mosteiro complex is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the Monument of the Discoveries. The Monument is a breathtaking building on the banks of the Tagus River, at many levels. The first is if you choose to walk up the to the top, as we did. The young woman guide at the bilheteria respectfully told us that it was 267 steps to the top, and it was indeed a little breathtaking by the time we got there. Once at the top the view was breathtaking, and if you leaned (just a little) over the western edge you got a lovely breeze racing up from the river below. The third element was the enormity of the construction and recent restoration project of 2016, which is recorded in the photographic exhibition in the basement of the Monument. And the fourth was the sheer architectural grandeur of the Monument. Beautifully designed, its stylised form of Henrique holding (guiding?) a caravel looking forward out into the winds really evokes the spirit of exploration. How these people just sailed off into the unknown, not even certain that they weren’t going to fall off the edge of the world. These famous Portuguese explorers who, according to some theories, were actually the first Europeans to “discover” Australia. How different life would have been as a modern Australian if they’d stepped ashore back in the 16th century.

There's Henry, holding his caravel ...


Below, some views from atop the Monument ...




After wrangling a #`5 bus (this time) back to the main pat of he town, the rest of the day was just spent a’wandering. So much to take in …


Inside the vary popular Mercado da Ribeira ...




A sight I don;t recall seeing in Australia for many years - a policewoman helping out some lost tourists …


In the main drag ...


Some magnificent ceramic tiles, different to the very regular patterned ones I’d grown accustomed to seeing …


Street markets ...



Bo ho laneway ...


Some wonderful street art in the bo-ho part of town …



Another wall mounted mask ...


I've loved this city. Tomorrow we leave at dawn (that sounds dramatic, doesn’t it?) for a train to Porto.

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Peter Campbell is a traveller, photographer, author.  He lives in the south-west corner of Western Australia with his wife Janet and golden retriever Peggy alongside the Indian and Great Southern oceans, in a peaceful rural setting surrounded by tall trees and in the company of kangaroos and kookaburras.  He can be contacted at this email address.

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