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25th Apr 2019
Arts & Culture Community & Living Tourism & Travel

Belém, a Day in Lisbon’s Bethlehem

With our constantly seesawing rand, travel is an expensive hobby these days … but Portugal is getting the nod right now for its affordability (if you’re careful with those notes!). The food, for one, won’t break the bank. We arrived with skewed perceptions of mama’s hearty stews radiating garlic, oodles of olive oil, stewed tomatoes, cubed potatoes, chunks of meat. As for seafood … fried sardines, fried bacalhau, fried everything. Wrong! I have never encountered such delicate, paper-thin octopus or wafer-sliced smoked fish as I did in Portugal.
And then there’s that sublime sweet pastry, pastel de nata. “Nata” means “cream”, as in a custard of eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon, encased in the crispiest puff pastry. These pastries were known originally as “pastéis de Belém”. And this district of Lisbon, where the pastéis originated, ended up as our favourite sightseeing spot in the city.
Lisbon is a difficult city to dissect. It sprawls so massively along the shores of the Tejo estuary (Tagus in English), you find yourself veering off in opposite directions for an entire day because of the transport required to get to your site. But how impressed we were with Lisbon’s taxi drivers… Despite the great divide in terms of communication skills — no Portuguese on our side, a paucity of English on theirs — we never felt threatened or faced aggression or felt that we were being duped by being taken on a long and winding road. Where they had a smattering of our lingo, drivers were friendly and engaging.
So off to the western end of Lisbon we went, to find Belém ꟷ the Portuguese term for Bethlehem. Unlike its landlocked counterpart, this one is settled alongside the Tejo River. There are long, big-sky walks along the promenade Avenida da India flanking the river with its immensely striking Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos) at one end, the Torre de Belém at the other, and a monastery, Mosteiro dos Jerónimus, in the middle. The monastery’s Manueline architectural style is highly ornamental: alcoves and porticos, door and window surrounds, all are crammed with fantastic elements inspired by Portugal’s seafaring prowess — ropes, cables and anchors but also coral, seaweed and seashells.
The massive Monument to the Discoveries (it rises for 56 metres and Henry the Navigator is 7 metres tall) was sculpted of limestone from Lisbon’s hill town, Sintra. Henry, known to the Portuguese as Infante Dom Henrique, stands at the forefront of the stylised prow of a caravel, staring out across the waters to imaginary territories he is about to conquer. He’s considered the driving influence behind Portugal’s overseas expansion during the European Age of Discovery. Rising up the ramp to either side of the monument are 32 figures representing colonisers, cartographers, chroniclers, missionaries and artists.
Nearby, at Praça do Imperio, a mosaic-tiled plaza features a giant compass rose and map of the world, all red, black and rare beige limestone. There are signs of the zodiac, stylised sea winds, sirens and mermaids. Most fascinating for me? It was sponsored by South Africa. A gift to Portugal. Who knew?! Well, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to touch South African soil, after all. And so, after much walking and ogling at architectural, sculptural and mosaic marvels, the right move is to go sample a pastel de nata with a good aromatic espresso.
Read my Blog www.gravelroadadventures.co.za/blog

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