The History of Jerónimos Monastery
By 1496, Portugal was deep within its Age of Discovery. Vasco da Gama returned from a successful voyage in which he discovered a direct ocean route from Portugal to India, which opened up the famed Indian Spice Route.
It was then that King Manuel I requested permission from the pope to build a grand monastery in Belém, steps from the Tagus River, as a gesture of thanks to the Virgin Mary who he believed had guided the voyagers safely. Permission was granted, and construction of the Jerónimos Monastery began shortly thereafter.
The construction of the monastery took over 100 years to build. However, a building of such grandeur would come at a high cost, and Portugal was not considered a wealthy country. So how did they receive the necessary funds? King Manuel I introduced a 5% “pepper” tax on commerce from Asia and Africa, but that wasn’t enough. Apparently treasures from voyages to Asia, Africa and South America were bartered for cash to allow for the construction to continue.
King Manuel I invited the religious order of St. Jerome, or Hieronymite monks, to occupy the monastery. They were expected to pray for the existing and future kings, as well as offer spiritual counsel to sailors leaving from and returning to Belém. The monks did this over four centuries until 1833, when the religious orders ended and the monastery was abandoned.
The Jerónimos Monastery is widely regarded as one of the best examples of Manueline architecture. This unique Portuguese style combines Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance together. It is lavishly ornate, weaving in complex sculptural themes. Carved in limestone are nautical elements as a nod to the Age of Discoveries.
The building has a façade of nearby limestone and extends for more than three hundred metres (or 985 feet). The main (side) entrance to the monastery is massive. Standing at 32 metres (or 105 feet) high and 12 metres (or 40 feet) wide.
The monastery is a shrine for explorers, full of maritime motifs like rope wrapped around the columns and innumerable aquatic monsters, all recalling the period when Portugal ruled the oceans.
An overwhelming sense of tranquility overcomes you as you see the double-tier cloisters. The large square of 55 metres x 55 metres (or 180 feet x 180 feet) features wide arches and windows with tracery resting on delicate mullions. Visit in the early morning or late afternoon to catch the light spilling through the broad arcades.
The Church of Santa Maria
Part of the monastery includes the church of Santa Maria. Nothing less than spectacular, the continuation of Manueline architecture is seen in the interior of this church. One of the church’s most admired historical artifacts is the tombs of Vasco da Gama and Luís de Camões. Their highly ornate tombs bear all the symbolism of Manueline architecture – carved ropes, spheres, and other seafaring motifs.
The Belém Tower
The Belém Tower built between 1514 and 1520 is also an UNESCO World Heritage site. Sitting on the bank of the Tagus River, this tower was used to defend the city. It was later turned into a lighthouse and then customs building.
The interior has 16 windows on the ground floor, each with their own cannon. There are five floors, each named for the purpose they served. From bottom to top they are: The Governor’s Hall, The Kings’ Hall, the Audience Hall, the Chapel and Roof terrace.
Combine your tour of the monastery with visiting the tower due to their close proximity to each other.
The Pastéis de Nata Recipe
In 1830, the first sale of Portugal’s favourite pastry was made. Adjacent to the monastery sat a sugar cane refinery and a small general store. A monk offered the sweet pastries, which they have been making for at least a century before, for sale in the shop. These delicious custard pastries quickly became known as ‘Pastéis de Belém’. The monks agreed to pass on the secret recipe and it has remained unchanged to the present day.
Jerónimos Monastery is €10 + Belém Tower is € 12 and Belém Tower + The National Archaeological Museum is €16 (discounts for children, students and seniors).
Tip: save money by purchasing the bundle pricing and the Church of Santa Maria is free.
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Hours of operation:
October – April: 10am to 5:30pm
May – September: 10am to 6:30pm
Mondays and major holidays: closed
How to Get There
The fastest way to get to the Belém Tower and Jéronimos Monastery is to use public transportation. Both of these top attractions sit outside the city centre of Lisbon in the Belem neighbourhood. From the city centre of Lisbon it is about 5 kilometers and takes approximately 31 to 37 minutes to get there.
Tram – Take line 15
Buses – Take 727, 28, 729, 714 or 751
As a holidaymaker…
When a landmark holds two distinct status – UNESCO and Seven Wonders of Portugal – you know it must be a must-see attraction. If you love history and architecture, you’ll definitely want to add this to your intinery.
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