Walking off the brightly sunlit street, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the gloom of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery). When your eyes have adjusted, your mind has to follow suit. This is a magnificent building, in size, grandeur and its historical significance. This is where Vasco de Gama’s crew prayed in 1497 before departing on a voyage that would change history.
Nearly a year after departing these shores, in May 1498 de Gama’s crew became the first Europeans to discover India. Rounding the Cape of Good Hope they crossed the Indian Ocean and arriving in Calicut. The discovery of India changed everything. The opulence and wealth of India, and of its native rulers, was obvious. The European desire to have a share if it, insatiable.
Soon a network of trade routes flourished, pepper, cinnamon and other sought-after spices began to flow towards Lisbon. Gold flowed into the coffers of the Portuguese Crown and sparked a fierce rivalry with just about every other European nation. India’s discovery helped establish the Portuguese Empire and virtually ensured the rest of Europe would want a slice of that particular pie.
Built with an enormous amount of money from the booming early 16th century spice trade, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is a massive structure with vast stone pillars soaring to the domed roof. The ceiling is ornately carved and looks like a giant spider’s web; beautiful and ancient stained glass windows adorn the walls.
Europe’s early exploration and huge accumulation of wealth led to a truly impressive burst of artistic and architectural creativity. The Mosteiro embodies the Age of Exploration, exemplifying Portugal’s “Golden Age”; and fittingly this is the building where the most famous of all Portugal’s early explorers, Vasco da Gama, is entombed in beautifully carved marble. For a traveller, a visit to Lisbon wouldn’t be complete without a pilgrimage to see de Gama’s final resting place.
A little walk through some gardens brings you to the banks of the Rio Tejo, where fishermen try their luck and a couple of other monuments to Portugal’s Golden Age are found. The Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or Monument to the Discoveries, was opened to the public in 1960 to commemorate Portugal’s past glories at a moment of right wing nationalist tub thumping.
Harmless as it may look, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos was built by the Estado Novo government of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, in part to send a message to Portugal’s African colonies. When the rest of Europe was retreating in the face of pro-independence movements in the 1950s and 1960s, Salazar’s pro-colonial ideology saw Portugal dragged into colonial wars which only ended with a 1974 military coup overthrowing the Estado Novo.
Not so subtle message or not, the Monument to the Discoveries is a dramatic piece of sculpture. Along the sides are numerous carved figures of rather pious looking individuals facing towards the horizon. The wonderful thing is you can climb up inside the monument and get tremendous panoramic views over the river and town. Looking down there is a giant map of the world showing the dates of each of Portugal’s discoveries.
Stroll a little further along the river front and you arrive at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Belém Tower. It initially struck me that this rather odd boat like structure was just for ornament, but this was part of an elaborate defence system in the early 16th Century. It was still seeing action during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th Century. This little stretch of waterfront has seen its share of history.