Europe 2013: Belém Tower – Lisbon, Portugal

Aug 13, 2015 | Travel

Belém Tower, Lisbon

On our last day in Monte Carlo, we were packing when I heard a low rumble, which grew louder and louder. Having experienced my share of earthquakes, I paused to listen but felt no movement, so I slid open the glass door in our room and stepped onto the balcony. In a few seconds, Dave joined me. The steady vibration intensified and seemed to be coming from the Formula 1 pits near the harbor. We assumed the drivers were test-firing their engines until the noise became almost deafening. Then to our delight, one race car after the other came roaring down Princess Grace Avenue in front of our hotel. Hearing and seeing the Formula 1 cars in action…now I was hooked on Grand Prix racing. I was sorry we weren’t staying for the race, but we had a plane to catch.

Formula 1 race car driving down Princess Grace Avenue, Monte Carlo.

Leaving Nice, we flew over the Mediterranean, the best part of the uneventful two-and-a-half-hour flight. We had arranged for a driver to take us to our hotel in Lisbon. When we greeted him outside the terminal, he appeared sheepish. “There’s a slight problem,” he said. Evidently, the room we had reserved at the Altis Avenida Hotel in town wasn’t available for the night. While on a business trip, the prior guest had suffered a heart attack and been hospitalized. His wife was en route from Spain to pack up his luggage, which was still in the room, and the hotel was completely booked. However, the Altis had accommodations at one of their other locations “just for the night.” We weren’t thrilled about this news, as the other Altis was miles from any tourist attraction and we had already mapped out our plans for the afternoon, but we went with the flow.


The 25 de Abril Bridge and view of Lisbon.

On the drive into Belém, we crossed a bridge that looked remarkably like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and I commented on this to our driver. The 25 de Abril Bridge, which connects Lisbon to Alamada, was built by the American Bridge Company, the same firm that constructed the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, but not the Golden Gate Bridge. The upper deck has six car lanes, while the lower deck carries two electric trains. The name “25 de Abril” commemorates the Carnation Revolution, a military coup that overthrew the regime of Estado Novo on April 25, 1974. The “Carnation” in the name refers to no shots being fired during the unrest.


As it turned out, the change in accommodations was a pleasant one. The Altis Belém Hotel overlooks the Tagus River, and the minute I saw the contemporary design I was curious about the decor of our room. The choice didn’t disappoint. The ultramodern room was decorated in red, black, and white, a color combination I’ve always loved—clean and cheerful. The walls behind the bed and to the right were white, while the opposite one, which ran the length of the room, was a deep red with a pattern of circular white lines etched into the ruby color. The other wall was glass, and it faced a small marina. The furniture was black and white with a red sofa and a plush red accent rug. The bathroom shower had black granite walls and countertops. The tub was white Corian, a solid surface material manufactured by DuPont. The acrylic polymer can be molded into just about anything and comes in a myriad of colors. My first thought when I saw the bathroom? I loved the look, but I know from experience that black surfaces are a nightmare to keep clean because of water spots.


White metal shutters in our room at the Altis Belém.

As a waning sun sneaked into our room, I found the button for the electronic curtains as well as a remote control for a series of white metal shutters. Not only were the shutters an architectural feature, but they also served a purpose: filtering the bright sunlight. They ran along the outside of the entire building, anywhere a window was located. Quite intrigued by this design, I paused from unpacking to play with the system. During the day, it afforded enough privacy to forgo the curtains.


On the coffee table next to the red sofa sat a tray with a bottle of chilled chardonnay, wineglasses, appetizers, and a note from the manager apologizing for the change in hotels. We finished the appetizers, then left to explore the closest attraction, the Belém Tower.


Belém Tower. The banner photo shows one of the terraces on the tower.

The tower was built on the Tagus as part of a larger defense bulwark and completed in 1521. The architectural style is referred to as

Manueline, named for King Manuel I, and is a Portuguese variant of the high Gothic style found in northern Europe, but with more exuberant decoration and nautical-themed ornaments. The style reflected Portugal’s self-confidence and wealth, a result of the Age of Discovery, when explorers created new trade routes that brought riches from India and other faraway destinations to Lisbon.


The exterior is rather ornate for a tower, with beautifully sculpted balconies and limestone ornaments. It has Moorish-style turrets at each corner, where a battery of cannons was housed to defend the waterway. At one point, the tower basement was used as a prison. The terrace above the basement is decorated with a statue of Mary and child meant to protect seafarers, for it was from here that many of the great Portuguese explorers embarked on their voyages. And Christopher Columbus stopped at the tower after discovering the New World. The second floor contained the royal residences, and on the upper floors were the armory and private rooms. On the top floor is another terrace with pretty views of Belém and the Tagus River, and a beautiful loggia with intricate carvings and several balconies. We spent over an hour exploring the tower, then returned to our hotel for dinner.


Still feeling rundown from our colds, we ordered room service and relaxed for the evening, as we had a busy agenda planned for the following day. To accompany the chardonnay left by the hotel management, we chose a selection of cold and hot starters rather than mains: marinated tuna with a wasabi cream, sautéed Algarve shrimp with a fresh cucumber salad, pan-seared lobster ravioli and mizuna with lemon, a small cheese sampler, and a basket of freshly baked breads.


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