Lisbon’s treasures of the Portuguese empire
Today we dived into the exorbitant wealth of Lisbon’s past. When you walk the streets of the capital, the prosperous past oozes through the streets. And through holes of neglected walls.
On every shabby corner of Lisbon you can see that it was a powerful empire, playing a first class role in the orders of the world.
During the Age of Discovery Lisbon flourished with riches pouring into Portugal, which saw the construction of great monuments like the Tower of Belém and the Jerónimos Monastery – the latter I show you in this post.
Portugal derived massive earnings and gold from its spice and slave trade, starting in the 15th century. Decolonisation is a fairly new thing. Independence to Portugal’s African colonies was granted not before 1975. While on our trip to Macao, I learned that the country had only gained its independence from Portugal in 1999 (well, if you can call it an act of independence while handing it over to China).
Portugal’s capital produced architectural masterpieces, magnificent living quarters of the tradesman.
Merchants build their residences, missionaries created magnificent cathedrals, churches, monasteries, idolatrous images of saints and religious icons.
An overweening amount of money from colonies and voyages went into the world of Jesus.
Happy blessed family.
Coming from deeply Catholic Poland myself, the depictions of Jesus and other martyrs in an endless repertoire of suffering images, framed by vast and excessive golden interiors in Lisbon, was nevertheless overwhelming.
Today’s picture is a contrast to Portugal’s historic wealth. Much is falling apart or under renovation. House ruins, proud but empty buildings, stand in their faded beauty with many, many wearing vende (for sale) signs.
Symptoms of a chronic lack in economic development are marking a slightly backward, small-town Portugal… well, yes, with sporadic spots of big and modern cultural buildings and pretty renovated house projects here and there. Portugal is in the EU after all.
Let’s go back to past riches.
THE JERONIMOS MONASTERY
Location: Praça do Império, Lisbon – in the historic centre of Belém.
It took roughly 100 years to build but construction started in 1501, after Vasco da Gama returned to Lisbon to honour his discovery of the route to India.
You can visit Vasco da Gama here – the Portuguese navigator who established the sea link between Portugal and India in 1497, thus setting a new and safe trade route. For over a century this would grant the Portuguese commercial monopoly in the Indian Ocean.
Globalisation made its first steps and brought pepper and cinnamon. For that, rest in peace Vasco da Gama.
Naturally, Jerónimos Monastery was planned to be a stunner.
Huge and looking more like a fancy royal palace than a monastery. My naive thinking of humble cloisters and monks was recently updated.
A UNESCO Heritage Site in all its glory. Garden and fountains in the Praça do Império, in front of the massive Monastery. View from the Monument of Discoveries.
Arches. Manueline ornamentation. Adorable.
The monastery was financed through Indian spice routes and a most lucrative trade in Africa under King Manuel I (1495–1521). It so happens that his name would define a unique period of Portuguese architecture.
Manueline style was influenced by the discoveries of Portuguese navigators, mixing decorations of East Indian temples and building inspirations from the Far East.
King Manuel I choose the religious order of the Hieronymite monks (from the Order of Saint Jerome) to pray in the monastery for his well-being and that of his navigators and sailors.
Prayers were heard.
Vasco da Gama brought gold and spices from his discoveries, the monks prayed in the monastery and Lisbon flourished.
So did the carriage business.
MUSEU DOS COCHES
Location: Praça Afonso de Albuquerque, Lisbon – a block down the road from the monastery.
At the coaches museum further down the road, I was impressed by the camp carriages plastered with paintings, lined with expensive tapestry and littered with wooden decorations – in over drive.
Rolls Royce, Maseratis and Porsches of the past.
Incredible artworks of completely ridiculous weight (hard working animals had to pull).
Huge vehicles for big people. That is, royalty and clergy.
Understated design is for poor people.
Modesty. No. But if not for the spacious carriages, how else would Sir and Madam Portuguese Nobility fit (their hairdos).
One treasure from the past has withstood the test of time.
PASTEIS DE BELEM
Probably the most delicious ancient recipe in the world and the sweet secret of Hieronymite monks from the mentioned Monastery, is a pastry invention of the monks.
I can’t get over the taste of egg tarts from Belem! We visited repeatedly. Which is why I feel obliged to report repeatedly.
This is the place of a previous sugar cane refinery from the early 19th century which collaborated with the monks, took over their custard production and would become Lisbon’s bestseller pastry shop.
I think I have mentioned egg tarts in all my Portugal posts so far, so you do know the story of Portuguese monks and nuns who wore robes that had to look presentable, which is why they were starched with eggs.
Back them, in order to get the desired look, egg white was used to achieve stiffness. This left a lot of egg yolk… which the monks processed into delicious egg tarts.
Today, the site of production, baking according to the ancient recipe, is called Pasteis de Belem and only a stone’s throw away from the monastery.
We were served like kings, eh, monks. Warm and super tasty pasteis de belem with coffee and milk. Powdered sugar and cinnamon sifters give the tarts a pretty finish.
We drink coffee the traditional PT (Portugal-Perpetual Traveler) way.
Tip: There is a huge line outside waiting to be served at the counter but it is a lot faster and more comfortable to go inside and order from a table. There are various rooms (it is a huge pastry shop) with tables further back. You can also order take-away from here!
Japanese style food model of the egg tart (in ceramics) are a unique souvenir.
A splash of ridiculous pink and a simple walk by the sea is all the luxury I need to digest consumed treasures.
Portuguese riches, just as pink, is addictive – more of that in coming posts!