We’ve only been here for a couple days, so it’s hard to be definitive, but one of the most unforgettable sights in Lisbon must surely be the Jerónimos Monastery, in the western neighborhood of Belém. Construction began in 1501, during the height of Portuguese power, and the complex has remained in incredible condition. UNESCO inscribed it as a World Heritage Site in 1983.
The Jeróminos Monastery was ordered by King Manuel I, at a time when Portugal was the wealthiest nation on Earth, and it looks like the project of the world’s richest country: decadent, massive, and awe-inspiring. (What jaw-dropping monument to glory is the world’s current wealthiest nation constructing? Will the Trump Tower stand the test of time?) To finance the construction, a 5% tax was placed on all imports coming in from abroad. With gold, spices and unheard-of treasures arriving daily, that added up quickly.
We started our visit in the Church of Santa Maria, where we saw the tomb of Vasco da Gama, the explorer who first rounded the tip of Africa. Before that legendary voyage, he spent the night here, in the monastery. Complementing his tomb is that of Luís de Camões, who wrote about da Gama’s exploits in Os Lusíadas, which is considered the most important work of Portuguese literature.
The church is lovely, but somber and dark, and moving into the bright, spacious courtyard of the monastery was a shock. Hieronymite monks lived here until the mid-1800s, and what a home they had. You know those monks who live in a mountain hermitage, subsist on bread and home-brewed ale, scrupulously observe their vows of silence, give all their money to the poor, and walk around barefoot? I don’t think the brothers of San Jerónimo were those kind of monks. When you live in the most remarkable building in the world’s most powerful country, it’s probably hard to remain humble.
The monastery took us nearly two hours to get through, but we were really taking our time. There was so much symbolism etched into the walls and columns, the rooms were so ornate, the tiles so beautiful, the information so copious. I spent 30 minutes just in the Sala dos Reis, devouring an excellent exhibition about the timeline of the church, mirrored with timelines of Portuguese and world history.
The Mosteiro dos Jeróminos is one of the most popular sights in Lisbon, and I would assume that it’s already part of the itinerary for most tourists to the city. But just in case you’re wavering, you shouldn’t be. This is an amazing place, and well worth the €10 cost of entry.