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13 Mar 2016

Torre de Belem

Standing on the beautiful waterfront at Belem near the River Tagus is the Torre de Belem, the most iconic symbol of Lisbon. It was used to be a lighthouse , eventually built as a defensive fortress on the orders of King Manuel I. 

Based in Évora and hailing from a long and illustrious line of royal surveyors and builders, de Arruda had worked on the nearby Mosteiro dos Jerónimos with his brother Diogo and similarly wrapped his new creation in a wealth of Manueline symbolism - highly decorative carved stone maritime motifs including twisted rope and the Cross of the Order of Christ.

 North African and Italian architectural influences are also apparent. When it was inaugurated in 1521, the tower would have been much further from the shore than it is today - the earthquake of 1755 shifted the river's course, and in the 19th century, land on the north bank was reclaimed, making the river narrower.

Granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1983, the Belém Tower is today one of the most popular sightseeing attractions in Lisbon. Reached by a narrow walkway from Belem's broad esplanade, this quirky Manueline gem is a delight to explore. Kids especially will have endless fun playing hide and seek amongst the parapets, or scampering up and down the narrow spiral staircases. The rest of us, meanwhile, can contemplate the achievements of Portugal's bravest navigators who departed near this historic landmark to chart unknown lands 500 years ago.

One of Lisbon's most iconic buildings, the Tower of Belém typifies the Manueline style of architecture that is symbolic of Portugal's great era of expansion. Constructed on a hexagonal floor plan, the four-story tower was created in the shape of a ship's bow jutting into the water. The main façade of the fortress faces the sea and offers a completely different impression of the tower from that enjoyed along the riverbank. Built from ivory-white limestone, the real beauty of the structure lies in the decoration of the exterior. Embrasures have been incorporated into the walls of the lower bastion, and the distinctive battlements are shaped in the form of shields embellished with the Cross of the Order of Christ. The same ornate filigree decorates the external walls of the square tower where carved stone armillary spheres and nautical rope - symbols of Portugal's seafaring prowess - embellish the windows and arches. Dinky onion-domed Moorish-style sentry posts accentuate each corner of the terrace, while another four turrets surround the top terrace. The tower's outstanding feature, the beautiful arcaded Renaissance loggia, graces the south façade, so it cannot be seen from the shore - enticement enough to tread the gangway and visit this graceful Manueline sea fort, a mini masterpiece of military architecture.

The staircase continues to spiral upwards to the second level where you are regaled with the king's chamber. This is the most interesting room in the tower because it leads onto a balcony, an elegant Renaissance loggia, inspired by Italian architecture. Here you can gaze down onto the tower's lower terrace and take in the sweeping river panorama. Look for the eight round holes in the floor, known as machicolations, through which the garrison's defenders could drop stones or other objects to fend off attacks. The room itself is unremarkable except for an impressive stone fireplace with a mantelpiece adorned with decorative armillary spheres set in the northwest corner.

The claustrophobic climb to the top of Torre de Belém is rewarded with a wide-open panorama of the River Tagus and the waterfront. Clearly visible to the east is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos and in the distance, the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge. The vista north leads the eye all the way to the top of Avenida da Torre de Belém and, peeping through the trees, the tiny Ermida de São Jerónimos, a charming, but rarely visited chapel built by Diogo de Boitaca in 1514, one of the architects responsible for building the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.

Tips and Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Torre de Belém Visit

Much of the allure of Belem Tower is its beautiful exterior, but there's still plenty to discover inside. Average sightseeing lasts about 45 minutes. The following Tips and Tactics will help you maximize the potential for fun when you visit:

The lower battery allows partial accessibility to visitors with reduced mobility, and the elderly might find the steep spiral staircases hard going.
Photography is permitted.
Beat the tour parties by arriving early.
Weekends, particularly on Sunday, can get very busy.
Consider purchasing a combined "Lisboa Monumental" ticket that allows access to the tower, Jerónimos Monastery, and the Ajuda Palace.
For a different perspective of the tower, take a Tagus river sightseeing cruise: the boat passes the monument.

Getting to Torre de Belém
By tram (eléctrico): Tram n°15 departing Praça da Figueira in central Lisbon stops outside the Centro Cultural de Belém.
By bus: Bus n°714, 727, 729, and 751 stop at Belém.
By train: The Lisbon-Oeiras suburban train service from Cais do Sodré stops at Belém.
Parking: No visitor parking is provided. Free parking is available at the adjacent Doca do Bom Sucesso and in Praça do Império, on the opposite side of Avenida da Brasília/Índia
Address : Avenida da Brasília, Belem, Lisbon, Portugal 1400-038

Articles credited to Planetware

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