Perched on the Northern Shore at the Mouth of the Tagus River, Belém Tower is a time machine back to the Age of Discovery. It was built while Ferdinand Magellan was still making the first circumnavigation of the globe, a high point on a string of maritime milestones for Portugal. It was designed by Francisco de Arruda as a “permanent ship” to help defend Lisbon and the river, and features the Portuguese Manuelino style popular during the lifetime of King Manuel I. That it stands largely as it was built 500 years later is a blessing. Countless souls have walked through Belém Tower, from kings to prisoners to tourists from all over the world. I’m lucky to have been one of those souls. As travel remains a dream for the future, I thought I’d return once again.
Belém Tower is an island dropped in the waters of the Tagas River. To visit it you purchase a ticket next door and go stand in line on the small pedestrian bridge that spans the lapping waters that swirl around the base of the tower underneath you and then splash up the stairs that circle the tower on shore. Apparently the island was once further out in the river but an earthquake shifted the land and moved it closer to shore. Better for tourism today, and it’s likely that the prisoners held in the lowest level didn’t really care about a 360 degree water view anyway.
You enter into the bastion at the base and the arched ceilings grab your attention. There are views of the magazine from when it was a fort, or where the prisoners were held when it was a prison. As you climb, you visit the Governor’s Hall, the King’s Hall and the Audience Room. I quickly learned that the staircases are very tight, and require you wait your turn to climb up or down in a controlled fashion. I didn’t expect to be waiting at traffic lights in a building built half a millennium ago, but sure enough I did. Great indication of just how many people visit, and how cramped those staircases are. Like other spiral staircases built long ago, these were tight for this tall writer. There just weren’t a lot of clydesdales walking around in 1520, something I’ve grown to accept as I duck my way through history. The other thing you notice is the ornate gothic details adorning the building. This was built as a fortress, but also for a king. There are wonderful details throughout, and I did my best to take it all in. Traveling solo, I was able to allocate as much time as I wanted for Belém Tower and managed to explore all parts of the structure open to the public.
I fell in love with Portugal and wonder when I’ll get a chance to return again. My visit to Belém Tower in January of 2018 capped off an incredible week in my life that marked a new beginning of sorts for me. I visited before the tower’s birthday, before the pandemic, before a lot of things. It would be interesting to return again someday to see Belém Tower with fresh perspective. To feel the energy of Lisbon and the possibility that the Tagas River offered those who launched their own discoveries sailing right past the tower. I was so busy looking back during my visit that I wasn’t fully aware of the future that Portugal helped launch for me. My own age of discovery, if you will. In many ways, it started right here.