Not many people know about the holiday potential of Portugal – which is a great loss for them. With its beautiful cities, laidback people and one of the most magnificent – and virtually untouched – rivieras in the world in the Algarve, there are plenty of holiday delights for the vacationer willing to go somewhere a little off the beaten track!
Portugal and the Age of Discovery
At the dawn of the 16th century, Portugal was one of the most powerful nations on the face of the earth. Its sailors, soldiers and missionaries explored almost every corner of the earth during this era of discovery, opening up trade routes, conquering nations, spreading the country’s influence and bringing back riches and glory from its colonies for the kingdom. It was in this heady time of wealth and change that in the strategic port of Belem, from which the galleons and trading ships of Portugal set sail to change the world, the King Dom Manuel I ordered the construction of the Mosteiro Dos Jeronimos near the river Tagus, in the year 1502.
Legacies from a time of power
Five centuries later, Portugal has descended from its zenith as an international power. It holds a far more modest position in the political scene, and its colonies overseas are mostly memories; but the Mosteiro Dos Jeronimos (pictured above) , or more commonly the Monastery of Jeronimos, still stands as a beloved testament to the once-mighty strength of the nation, and is popularly regarded as the most recognized monument in the country.
Every facet of the Monastery recalls the power and the grandeur of the period, which was known as the era of Discoveries. When Dom Manuel I decided to build the monument, he began by levying a five percent tax on all the spices (other than pepper, cinnamon and cloves) that made their way to Portugal over the trade routes from India. The monies raised from this tax went to pay for the Monastery, and ever since, it has been described as being ‘built of pepper’. Upon the Monastery’s completion, it housed monks whose main purpose was to pray for and guide the souls of sailors and the king. At that time, the River Tagus flowed nearer to the Monastery, and it was possible for the monks to watch the boats sailing into port, laden with all the fragrant spices that generated Portugal’s wealth and paid for the building in which they lived.
The Monastery has since become the finest remaining example of Manueline architecture, showcasing an intriguing mixture of carved storybook monsters intermingled with more traditional Catholic images. Architects and artists have made much ado over the quality of the stone carving throughout the monument, from the sculptures in the upper niches of the west portal depicting scenes from the Christ’s birth, to the spacious and breathtaking hall church hall.
The style received its name from its development during the reign of its patron, Dom Manuel I, and is considered Portugal’s greatest contribution to the arts of architecture and stone working. Further examples of the King’s prominence in the artistic traditions of the period, can be seen on the west portal, where the sculptor Nicolau de Chanterenne erected a statue of the king on the left, and a statue of his queen D. Maria on the right.
Another prominent historical figure immortalized in the stonework of the Monastery is Prince Henry the Navigator, the man known as the ‘promoter of the Discoveries’, whose statue stands in a rank of figures gracing the main entrance to the church. His inclusion recalls the Santa Maria de Belem chapel, a structure that he commissioned, and which once stood on the land the Monastery now occupies.
The Tower on the Tagus
For visitors less interested in the quality of the stonework, there are also a number of more human draws — in the Monastery are the tombs of Dom Manuel I, Dom João III and their wives, with each of the tombs supported by two elephants with ivory tusks. One of the more poignant tombs here is the empty tomb of King Sebastiao, who never returned from battle in 1578. Portugal’s two most famous sons were also laid to rest in the Monastery: the explorerVasco da Gama (1469-1524), who opened the profitable spice routes to India, and the poet Luis de Camoes (1524-1580), composer of the epic poem ”Os Lusíadas” (the Lusiads). Fresh flowers are still placed before their tombs by visitors.
Another monument to the Era of Discoveries is the Torre de Belem (pictured above), located a scant 500 meters away from the Monastery. The Torre was originally built on a basalt island close to the right bank of the river Tagus — over time, however, the bank itself has crept further out and today, the Torre is sits almost on top of the bank itself.
Today, the Torre stands as one of the most beautiful military constructions in the world, with its delicate stone carvings of Moorish-influenced design, and it has even been chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 1520, however, when it was completed after a six-year construction period, it was viewed with more ominous feelings, for it was originally designed as part of the defensive system protecting the mouth of the River Tagus. The Torre was intended to support heavy artillery, which together with crossfire from the Sao Sebastiao da Caparica fortress on the south bank, would crush any armada attempting to sail up the Tagus.
These two monuments stand as the most beautiful and tangible monuments to the heady days of Portugal’s reign as a world power. During that time, the kings and wealthy merchants used the riches they gained to expand their city, and there were palaces, thoroughfares, religious buildings and civic monuments, all paid for by the wealth that streamed in from the country’s colonies overseas. Unfortunately, many of these structures were damaged or destroyed by the Great Earthquake of 1755, which saw not only devastating tremors, but also a 6-metre high tsunami and raging fire. Vast swathes of the city were destroyed and 60,000 lives were lost in Lisbon alone. Today, only the Mosteiro Dos Jeronimos and the Torre de Belem still stand as a mute testament to Portugal’s fabulously wealthy, world conquering past.
Articles About Portugal