PORTUGAL’S AGE OF DISCOVERY: Tracing the Footsteps of the Great Explorers

By Richard Varr

BELÉM WATERFRONT, PORTUGAL – I sit cramped within a stone-walled sentry booth and can feel the exhilaration.

As I peer out through the guard post’s lone window atop the imposing Belém Tower, I imagine seeing the masts of Portuguese galleons with puffed sails piercing the horizon, returning home with tales of distant lands and their cargo bins brimming with spices and treasures.  I then imagine hearing welcoming cheers from Portuguese soldiers echoing throughout the stone-carved walls of this 16th century fortress.

Belem Tower.  Photo by Richard Varr.

Belém Tower. Photo by Richard Varr.

I enter the nearby Jerónimos Monastery with its elaborate façade of Manueline-style architecture and now imagine seeing the great Portuguese explorers kneeling down to pray before embarking on their one and two-year voyages, perhaps wondering if they would ever return.

Located along the Tagus River’s expansive shoreline, the nearly five century-old Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery are two of Lisbon’s most recognized landmarks and remain the symbols of Portugal’s Age of Discovery – a time when the likes of Vasco da Gama and Bartolomeu Dias led the worldwide mercantile expansion and turned Lisbon into the trading capital of the world.

Jeronimos Monastery.  Photo by Richard Varr.

Jerónimos Monastery. Photo by Richard Varr.

“Lisbon was the departure point and the hub during the Age of Discovery,” says Lisbon Tourism Director Paula Oliveira.  “All the world was here to trade spices, gold, silver and slaves.  It was so important for the city during those centuries because we were very wealthy in Europe.”

Construction of Belém Tower with its grandiose Moorish-style watchtowers, arched balconies and rope decorations carved in stone was completed in 1521.   It sits in the heart of Lisbon’s Belém neighborhood that is also home to other key attractions and monuments – all within walking distance of each other – highlighting Portugal’s exploration legacy, including Jerónimos Monastery where Vasco da Gama is entombed, the Maritime Museum and the colossal 20th century Monument to the Discoveries.

Portugal’s great Age of Exploration began in the early 15th century with maritime expeditions along the coast of West Africa.  But the era reached its highpoint after Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India, bringing in great wealth from the newly established spice route. Using “dinheiro da pimenta,” or spice money, Portugal’s King Manuel I commissioned the building of Jerónimos Monastery as a symbol of gratitude and Belém Tower to defend the monastery and river entry point to Lisbon.

Monument to the Discoveries.  Photo by Richard Varr.

Monument to the Discoveries. Photo by Richard Varr.

“Vasco da Gama sailed from this spot in 1497 and it’s the place that most associate with his achievements,” says Miguel Carvalho of the Portuguese National Tourism Office.  “It’s safe to say that da Gama changed the course of human history.  His trade voyages united three continents and established the first global trading network.  His name is revered and memorialized in statues, monuments and plaques across the nation and world.”

Two years later, Pedro Álvares Cabral’s expedition was the first to sail from Europe to South America.  Over the following century, Portuguese ships reached the shores of what are now California, Canada, Japan, China and Southeast Asia.  “In less than a generation, they had introduced one half of the planet to the other half and opened a cultural, commercial, and spiritual interchange that would change the future,” notes Carvalho.

Today, the legacy of this prominent age has gripped Portugal’s culture and is manifested throughout Lisbon – from the Moorish influence in the Alfama neighborhood to azulejos, or painted tile art, of maritime panoramas and sailing ships that decorate building interiors and facades.  The waterfront Exposition area, the site of Expo 1998, commemorates the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s first trip to India.  Highlights include a 10-mile-long bridge (Europe’s longest), Lisbon’s tallest building and even a giant shopping mall – all named after the great explorer.

Belem’s Jerónimos Monastery is a crowning example of Manueline-style architecture, a blending of Moorish Mudéjar with nautical influences, featuring chiseled maritime motifs of ropes and anchor chains, armillary spheres, religious crosses and coats of arms as a tribute to King Manuel I.  The church’s nave features ornate pillars supporting a spectacular vaulted ceiling.

Tomb of Vasco da Gama inside Jeronimos Monastery.  Photo by Richard Varr.

Tomb of Vasco da Gama inside Jerónimos Monastery. Photo by Richard Varr.

Towards the rear sits the tomb of Vasco da Gama – a figure of the great explorer rests in prayer atop a carved façade of ropes, spheres and other nautical symbols.   Opposite sits the tomb of Portugal’s greatest poet, Luís Vaz de Camões, whose epic poem Os Lusíadas details in part the journeys of da Gama and other pivotal moments in Portuguese history.  “His work has been compared to that of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare,” says Carvalho.

Across from the monastery and the adjacent Império Square with its centerpiece fountain, I approach yet another grand reminder of Portugal’s golden era.  Unlike the 16th century structures, the symbolic 52-meter-high Monument to the Discoveries was built in 1960.  It sits prominently on the Belém Waterfront, with carvings of writers, navigators, soldiers, philosophers and kings who contributed to the exploration legacy.

As I gaze upward, sunbeams cut through the cloud cover and illuminate the figures now immortalized in concrete.  Leading the procession and seemingly looking out across the Tagus is a likeness of Henry the Navigator, the third son of King João I, who founded a navigation school and financed the first expeditions to the West African coast.  Also included is da Gama, Cabral, Ferdinand Magellan, whose expedition sailed around the world under the Spanish flag, and the first explorer to sail around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Bartolomeu Dias.

Monument to the Discoveries, detail.  Photo by Richard Varr.

Monument to the Discoveries, detail. Photo by Richard Varr.

Exhibits inside the monument highlight the explorers and their journeys.  An elevator whisks visitors to the sixth floor lookout for stunning views of Jerónimos Monastery, Império Square and the Belém Waterfront.   The pavement of the plaza below the monument is designed in the form of a walk-on world map showing the explorers’ routes.  Also in clear view is the 25th of April Bridge, similar to San Francisco’s Gold Gate and named for the 1974 revolution date that restored democracy to Portugal.  Across the Tagus, the King the Christ statue sits high atop a shoreline hillside.

Belém’s Maritime Museum, located in Jerónimos Monastery’s western wing, showcases paintings and statues of the great explorers amidst enclosed glass cases housing model ships and galleons.  An unusual exhibit is a small casket containing a rib of Vasco da Gama, recovered in 1880 when his remains were transferred to the monastery.  The exhibit also highlights his breakthrough two-year journey to India in which he lost 116 of his 170-man crew.

Statue of Henry the Navigator inside the Museum.  Photo by Richard Varr

Statue of Henry the Navigator inside Belém’s Maritime Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

“The museum gives you a perspective on the fragile boats and many dangers these brave sailors faced in the 15th and 16th centuries,” says Carvalho.  “You grasp the vastness of their courage, vision and dedication, and see how much a sacrifice and achievement this was for a small nation of just over one million people.”
“I think that memory of our history keeps us moving forward,” says Oliveira.  “We can understand our past and we can be great in the future.  It gives us hope.”

“It’s like we belong to a kind of people that when we want, we can do great things,” she adds.

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IF YOU GO      For more information:  www.visitlisboa.com

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