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Belém

The Restelo shore is one of the oldest anchoring places in Lisbon recorded in the annals of history; it is mentioned in reports made by Rui de Pina pertaining to events in 1295. The port charter of the city of Lisbon predates the year 1337 and confirms the growth of the port and village of Restelo due to intensive trading activity. From roughly 1400 onwards, or from 25 July 1415 onwards to be precise, maritime expansion began with the departure from the port of Restelo of the expedition that was to conquer Ceuta on 21 August of the same year. The chapel of Santa Maria de Belém, built on the Restelo shore by Henry the Navigator and donated to the Order of Christ, was confirmed in a Papal bull in 1459. In addition to the new church, water pipes, a fountain and a bridge were also built for all who lived or arrived and departed there. It was from this same shore/port of Restelo that Vasco da Gama set sail for India in 1497 and Pedro Álvares Cabra departed on the expedition that discovered Brazil in 1500. During the reign of Manuel I (1495-1521), who envisioned Lisbon as a great imperial capital, the area of Belém became a hub of development, the epicentre of which became the Jerónimos Monastery, which was begun in the early 16th century. In its surroundings there emerged the Tower of Belém, the trading stores of the Infante Luís (Manuel's son) and Queen Catarina (the wife of João III), as well a number of palaces and aristocratic estates that transformed Belém into a place of prestige. Accompanying both the moments of glory and the ups and downs of the history of Portugal, the monks lived in the Monastery until dissolution of the religious orders by royal decree in 1833. The Real Casa Pia charitable institution took over the monastery when the Hieronymite Order left.

Between 1852 and 1885 Belém was an independent municipality made up of the parishes of Ajuda, Benfica, Belém, Carnide, Odivelas and other areas outside the Lisbon city walls such as Alcântara, Santa Isabel and São Sebastião da Pedreira. Alexandre Herculano was its mayor from January 1854 to December 1855. In the late 19thcentury, the area attracted not only new recreational facilities - such as the Belém Hippodrome (later the starting point for Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral's transatlantic flight), the Teatro Luís de Camões (later Belém Clube), the Belém Fair and Belém Beach (a summer resort chosen by the royal family before they opted for Cascais) - but also a number facilities belonging to the then nascent industrial age: the Fábrica Nacional de Cordoaria (rope factory), the Central Tejo power plant (today the Electricity Museum), the Antiga Fábrica dos Pastéis de Belém, and two gas factories (Companhia Lisbonense de Iluminação a Gaz and Gaz de Lisboa).

All this development - plus the Colonial Garden (now the Tropical Garden), the National Archaeology Museum and National Coach Museum, and the foundation of the Os Belenenses football club in the early 20th century, which was later to occupy land belong to the former Alcolena quarry (which contributed so much to the building of the Jerónimos Monastery) - reflects the rapid growth of Belém.

The Exhibition of the Portuguese World in 1940 led to radical alterations in the space, meaning that Belém was never to be the same again. The late 1930s saw demolition work in the historic centre and the unexpected transfer of the local population elsewhere. Blocks of streets and whole streets and squares, fairs, gardens, factories and countless small shops and Belém market all disappeared. The Exhibition, which took place from June to December, was certainly a must-see event, but its legacy today is a very scant one: the Folk Art Museum (currently closed and not operative); the Monument to the Discoveries (which was rebuilt in its present form in 1960); a few pavilions on the waterfront, for example that of the Naval Association and one or other sculptural leftovers in the Tropical Garden.

The latter half of the 20th century brought the construction of the new stadium for Os Belenenses and new residential developments on the Ajuda and Restelo slopes. In the 1960s Belém finally seems to have recovered from the great upheaval that was the Exhibition and has since become an almost exclusively tourist-oriented zone that also invests in cultural facilities. Examples of this are, in addition to the abovementioned, the Maritime Museum, the Calouste Gulbenkian Planetarium and, above all, the Belém Cultural Centre, which significantly reinforced and modernised the cultural character of this western district of Lisbon.

Text adapted from the book "Belém" by Isabel Corrêa da Silva and Miguel Metelo de Seixas, published by Junta de Freguesia de Sta. Maria de Belém, 2000

 

 

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