Every guide book on Portugal will tell you to jump on a tram and go to Belém, an outer, older suburb of the city. I’m not one to swear by guide books but this time, they were right.
The first thing to visit is Jerónimos Monastery, a giant late-Gothic structure (officially ‘Manueline,’ a unique Portuguese style) with a peaceful convent and dark church. I’ve never seen a building so dripping in carved curls and ornate pedestals. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site, believed to be the best surviving example of Portuguese art at it’s peak.
*My camera battery died pathetically on this day, so many of these lovely photos are taken with permission from Sarah at Flaneur.*
The monastery was built in the 16th century for the Hieronymite order of monks, whose duty it was to pray for the king’s soul, his ancestors, and to provide assistance and spiritual guidance to the sailors who left to expand Portugal’s empire.
After a peek inside the dark cavernous Gothic church, which has tombs of several kings and even Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer, we wandered into the cloister. Confessionals and private rooms lined the hallways, while a peek into the garden afforded us with a quiet, peaceful view. Every pillar and post had a different design to it, full of sea monsters, gargoyles, ropes, and curls. The effect is a garden draped with lace hallways, delicately carved.
The monastery is beautiful, but what you should really visit for is next door at Cafe Pastéis de Belém, the most famous pastry cafe in Portugal. For over a hundred years this cafe has been churning out delicious egg custard tarts according to a secret recipe from the monastery. All over Lisbon you can buy the pastries (called pastéis de nata anywhere else), but the original, and arguably the best, come from here. They’re served hot out of the oven with a tin can of cinnamon to shake over the crispy filling, and are best with strong coffee.
We took it upon ourselves to test many of these treats, from several shops around Lisbon, and I have to agree: the Pastéis de Belém were the best. No question. But they have to be right out of the oven. I took one home to Jesse, and it wasn’t near as good (though that may be because of the smooshed state it ended up in).