When in Lisbon, you can’t always walk down to the river. A busy harbor may turn you away. But if you visit the suburbs of Belem or Park of Nations, the same river, Rio Tejo, will open up and reveal its contrasts.
Belem, to the west, is a vital part of Portugal’s history, formed by the Voyages of Discovery, kept alive by Belem’s architecture and monuments. It’s easy to reach Belem, by the fast tram 15 from Figueira Square, or by bus. Park of Nations, eastward, balances between present and future, yet with a proper respect for history. The Metro’s red line, where stations are like galleries, will get you to the station of Oriente.
Be aware. When heading for Belem, make sure the tram takes you past two spectacular landmarks, the 25th of April Bridge and the giant Cristo Rei. They may lead your thoughts to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, or the Christ statue in Rio. Then comes Belem, a green stretch with monuments spread on either side of a majestic park, disturbed by a traffic artery of trains and cars. Tourists have choices, one of the first is Confeitaria de Belem and their custard tarts baked since 1837.
A commotion is developing outside the pink Belem National Palace, the Presidential residence. Soldiers in parade uniforms, assisted by a military band, are ready for a parade, but in which direction and with whom is difficult to establish. A lady says the President is going for a Sunday morning walk, she’s obviously wrong. President Cavaco Silva has possibly escaped his Sunday duties and gone sailing on the quiet waves of Tejo instead, thereby missing a stylish parade.
Many an explorer set off from these waters in the Age of Discovery, the 15th and 16th centuries. Vasco da Gama embarked in 1497 on a voyage that led him to India, the reason why his name is linked to buildings and monuments all over Lisbon. One of them contains his tomb. It was begun in 1502 by King Manuel I and the following 50 years, perfected into Lisbon’s finest monument: Jeronimos Monastery, the heart of Belem. The style is Manueline, inspired by the King who elaborated the Gothic style through brilliant ornamentation, often with floral or nautical motifs.
Belem Cultural Center is devoid of style. It’s a concrete structure in modern design, housing exhibitions, a library, cafes and several spacious yards extending it enormously. The 1520 Belem Tower, a fortified lighthouse, is a pearl in comparison, also in the rich Manueline style.
Since 1983, it has shared World Heritage status, together with Jeronimos. The Tower appears like an oversized toy ship, but it guarded the harbor and served as a prison when under Spanish rule. Originally surrounded by water, Lisbon’s most photographed monument is now connected to a peaceful lawn.
Henry the Navigator, a prince closely tied to seafaring history, educated and financed potential discoverers. His role is being redefined, though, suggesting that the sugar industry and Afro-Atlantic slave trade were his main interests. Nevertheless, he still adorns the Discoveries Monument from 1960, shaped as the prow of a ship, with Henry up front and a crew of 32 historical figures, among them, Vasco da Gama. Cristo Rei, on the opposite shore, seems to bless their next trip, whereas an approaching airplane is a reminder that all lands and continents are already explored. An artistic compass rose, at the feet of the monument, is followed by the park of Praca do Imperio where a sprouting fountain makes the Jeronimos Monastery in the background shine like a fairytale palace.
The riverside is an invitation to walk back, at least to the 25th of April Bridge, its suspension and locality form a monument of its own. Built in 1966, it didn’t get its present name till after the Carnation Revolution in 1974. Small lazy marinas lie along the way. The only active people are the men who take a break from wife and children, with a fishing rod in one hand and the open car within reach of the other. A car is what you need to frequent the trendy Docks, a line of restaurants and cafes in pointed wooden houses, just after the Bridge.
Going east is a quantum leap. The station of Oriente is Lisbon’s new traffic junction and the entrance to Parque das Nacoes, Park of Nations, a city center belonging to the future, connected to the opposite side via the Vasco da Gama Bridge. Built for Expo ‘98, the 100th World Exposition, this place is planned to relieve the overall pressure on the capital.
The Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava, receives you deep down in a cave and bids you farewell amidst slender pillars splitting like leaves and covered by glass, turning Oriente into a garden of white palms and giant lilies.
Everything relates to the sea and seafarers, in tune with the theme of Expo ‘98: “The Oceans, a Heritage for the Future”, held in a year appointed “Year of the Oceans” by UN, coinciding with the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India. Here are buildings shaped as sailing ships, a pavilion that surely could be an upturned ship and a sagging roof of concrete imitating a huge sailcloth in the wind. One construction overshadows all others, Vasco da Gama Bridge, with its 17.2 kilometers, among the longest in the world, yet radiating lightness and simplicity.
The buildings were sold for after-Expo purposes. Several pavilions continued as a permanent Lisbon Fair, the entrance section was turned into a shopping center. Other pavilions got a new life as indoor arenas, a science museum, bowling alleys, Casino Lisboa and last but not least, an extremely popular Lisbon Oceanarium, where people proceed in long lines and semi-darkness through the fauna and flora of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Ocean and Antarctic. All the many species seem to interact in one universal eco-system, an illusion created by transparent acrylic sheets.
A footbridge from the Oceanarium across the Olivais Dock practically makes you walk on water, while telecabins keep circulating above. The sight of the Bridge never leaves you, though plants native to Madeira, Azores and Cabo Verde call for a closer look. Some joggers are around, otherwise few of the 25,000 citizens claim to live here. Activity increases during weekends when people come to enjoy the depths of the oceans, along with fresh air and a good lunch. Concerts, sport events and temporary exhibitions are magnets too. The ongoing construction of office and apartment blocks signal optimism.
Traces of previous buildings, among them a refinery, were systematically removed to accommodate Park of Nations, an approach also practiced back in 1755, when an earthquake nearly wiped Lisbon off the map. Ruins were removed to give room for a new Neoclassical city, today known as Baixa, downtown Lisbon. Belem survived. Being an exceptional living museum, Belem does deserve a tunnel to enclose its traffic artery, an investment that would make Lisbon authentically historical, neoclassical and ultramodern – three cities wrapped in one.