I loved just about everything I saw and did when I was in Portugal last month and yet one of my absolute favorite things was the Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), a celebration of the Portuguese Age of Discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s located in Belem (also home to the Jeronimos Monastery and the world famous Casa Pasteis de Belem) on the Tagus River estuary where ships departed to explore and trade with India and the Orient. It’s an attraction whose image is often found in Portugal guidebooks and after seeing it in person, it’s easy to see why. The monument is incredibly striking and the monolithic figures that grace it are daunting and impressive, their carved and chiseled faces looking out onto the horizon, the same horizon that led the way to the world no longer being a “closed off” place.
The monument comprises a 171 foot high slab that stands vertically along the bank of the Tagus, its design in the form of the prow of a caravel (a ship used in the early era of Portuguese exploration)n with the figure of Henry the Navigator on its edge (the same person who never went on any of the sailing explorations that generated so much fame and prestige for Portugal). Each side of the slab has 16 figures (33 in total), all representing important individuals from the Portuguese Age of Discovery including monarchs, explorers, cartographers, artists, scientists and missionaries. Some of the most famous include Vasco de Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, and for a different sort of celebrity status, Queen Philippa of Lancaster, Prince Henry’s mother and the only woman featured on the monument. What I found ironic is that Philippa is depicted as being distraught, wringing her hands together and looking worried, yet her son, Prince Henry, never went on any of the dangerous explorations he financed and planned.
Although we didn’t go up in the monument (the Lisboa Card only offers a discount and we saw other incredible views from atop nearby Belem Tower so I didn’t feel the need), I thought it was one of those attractions that you want to enjoy from ground level. The whole raison d’etre of the monument is to honor those men (sadly, the dawn of exploration was entirely a man’s arena) who truly changed the world in many regards, and if you’re inside the monument gazing down at the rest of Belem and Lisbon, you can’t see the striking nature of the monument and what it truly represents. It’s not like the Washington Monument where the structure bears only the name of the first American president. Monument to the Discoveries has so many fascinating details on the outside, the views offered are secondary. My only regret is that we weren’t there at sunset, because pictures I’ve seen of the statue during this time of day are even more stunning.
For Americans at least, Portugal is a country most know little about, especially its history even though for tourists who visit there today, the nation is bursting with it. While eating pasteis de nata is a must and gazing at the rich beauty of the Portuguese azulejo, a standard item on the tourist’s to do list, so is learning about its inspiring seafaring past. Portugal truly was the nation that started the dawn of exploration.
More in this series!