For breakfast this morning we head up the street to a little deli advertising a breakfast special. In fact it’s the only dish they serve for breakfast, but that’s fine with us and before long we have coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice, french toast (cheese and ham toastie) and a pasteis de nata – Portuguese egg tarts. All for €7.50.
Pasteis are a big thing in Lisbon and you’ll find them all over the place. The trick is to find the good ones! Once you have a pasteis in front of you, the best thing to do is sprinkle a little cinnamon on it and savour every bite. These ones – our first – are incredible. Bigger than a lot of those I’ve seen, they are beautifully sweet and flaky and the cinnamon does add a certain touch.
Today we are spending the day in beautiful Belem. Belem is the cultural corner of Lisbon, housing some of the most incredible museums and monuments in town. We walk down through the alleyways of Alfama until we reach the bus stop for route 728 to Belem.
The Museum of Coaches is the first thing on our agenda this morning and whilst this may seem a little boring to some, let me assure you the work on these beauties is just incredible and not to be missed.
Normally I would not be interested in visiting a museum of coaches either, but watching an episode of The Amazing Race last year, curled up on the couch during the freezing Melbourne winter, they just happened to be racing in Lisbon. Lisbon wasn’t even on our radar at that point, but after that I kept seeing it mysteriously appear in Facebook posts, Pinterest Posts, magazine articles and I knew – we had to add it in.
The Museum of Coaches as seen on the Amazing Race (though they didn’t even show much of it) had me hooked. Elaborate pumpkin style coaches (why am I thinking of Kath and Kim here now…), all gold gilded, standing in silence, in homage to eras long past….
Another monument that I glimpsed on the episode of the Amazing Race which initially inspired my trip, was the Discoveries Monument (Padrao dos Descobrimentos), although I didn’t know that’s what it was called at the time and initially had a little trouble trying to locate it.
It’s a statue, shaped like the prow of a sailing vessel and lined at its base with Portugal’s most famous explorers, of which there are a number! It was built to honour Henry the Navigator, who led Portugal’s discovery expeditions into the New World during the 15th century. Inside the prow is actually a maritime museum, which is interesting, but perhaps the best part of this is the elevator to the top which plies you with birds eye views of Belem. Stunning.
It was from here in Belem that Vasco de Gama left to explore India in 1497 and also here where Christopher Columbus anchored on his way back to Spain after discovering the Americas.
Speaking of Christopher Columbus, history has it that Italian explorer Christopher Columbus introduced syphilis to Europe. Apparently. Well, I’ve just finished reading “They Got it Wrong: History”, a book which begs to differ. Studies apparently show that syphilis may well have existed in Europe long before Columbus even set foot in the New World.
It is true that the earliest known break of out Syphilis in Europe occurred soon after Columbus’ return in 1493. The disease ravaged Europe with an estimated 5,000,000 deaths – in an age without antibiotics, the disease caused serious damage to its victims skin, joints, stomach, heart and brain with death resulting within a few months. In east London, an excavation of medieval hospitals unearthed skeletons dating from 1,200 to 1,400 which showed clear signs of syphilitic disease. There are also recent discoveries in the ruins of Pompeii which indicate presence of the disease, with the remains of twin children who died in the eruption of 79CE showing almost certain signs of congenital syphilis.
So there you go Chris, off the hook.
Anyway, I digress.
Just further up the coast is the Torre de Belem – a fortified tower built as part of the Tagus River defence system. At the bottom is a small prison, where there is barely enough room to stand up straight. I can only imagine how freezing cold anyone unlucky enough to be chained up in here would have been. Regardless it’s a stunning relic of Lisbon’s past and many flock to see it.
One of Portugal’s most famous street artists is Bordala II. He is known for using rubbish to create 3D art – think animals glued to walls and painted trash. Just behind the Belem Cultural Centre, you can find one of his biggest pieces – a giant racoon made from car tires, computers, printers and other machines. Unfortunately I didn’t notice the work until I was already down the street and had just happened to look back in that direction, but I still managed to capture a snap.
Monasteiro dos Jeronimos took 100 years to build, commencing in 1501 for the order of the Heironymites. It survived the 1755 earthquake of Lisbon without much damage at all. It is incredibly intricate in design and it is best to go late in the afternoon when the sun bounces off the sandstone giving it a honey coloured glow.
I am no novice to the world of custard tarts. I’ve been to Macau where the Portuguese spent enough time to leave behind the recipe and then transferred it to Hong Kong (where I’ve also tasted the tarts) – in my opinion, the Macau ones are so much better than the Hong Kong ones, though the quality of those in Hong Kong does vary. But the question is – will they taste as good as all the ones I’ve tasted before (not to mention the ones at our local IGA (independent grocer) store? Sacrilege, you might say. Well, let’s see.
When you arrive at Antiga Confeitaria de Belem the first thing you notice is the queue outside. They have been making pasteis de nata since 1837 so you could say they have the recipe down pat. You need to go into one line to make your order, where you’ll get a receipt and ticket for your order. Then you need to line up in the collection queue to collect your order. Service is certainly not with a smile – they are far too busy for that – rather it’s a production line feel to your transaction, but the end product is great. These tarts have a different appearance – more eggy and the pastry is really, really crunchy and flaky. Some would say the best in Lisbon, I beg to differ finding the ones from this morning to be more to my liking.
For the final leg of our journey home we jump aboard the historic No. 28 tram, crammed full of tourists (pretty much only tourists these days). The tram’s yellow body squeezes itself through the narrow streets of Alfama, narrowly missing cars and other assorted things (sometimes including humans) which come in its way, squealing and braking down the hills.
i must mention all our transport in Lisbon has been free and we scored some pretty good discounts, if not free entry to everything we saw in Belem today, courtesy of the Lisboa Card. I normally don’t go for these sort of city discount cards because I think you never get the value out of them, but this is one occasion where I’d say it’s a great idea to get one. We’ll even be using it tomorrow for our day trip to Sintra. So go ahead and check it out.