Monday, February 3, 2014

Lisbon's Belem with Kids

As I was researching our trip to Portugal, I was reminded of the country's key role (along with Spain) in the Age of Discovery, the time period in the 15th and 16th century when Europe became aware that not only did other continents exist, but that they could get there by sea. You'll likely recall bits and pieces from your own world history courses back in high school. (Names like Magellan, da Gama, and Christopher Columbus probably ring a bell.)

Portugal pays tribute to this era most notably in the Belem parish of Lisbon, located along the Tagus River, where many of the ships departed on their worldly voyages.

Besides being aware of the landmarks that are located there, I knew little about Belem, so it was a toss-up as to how much the boys would enjoy it. After all, they don't have a sense of the enormity of this history yet. Fortunately, each of the major monuments found there was surrounded by wide open spaces, statues, gardens, and plenty of people to make it interesting enough for them. In fact, it was the perfect starting point for our time in Lisbon.

We started at the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, a monastery built by Henry the Navigator. It was enormous and so beautiful that it took my breath away the minute we stepped off the tram (Tram #15 will take you right to its doorstep, which we caught in Rossio square).

Big Arrow had fallen asleep on the tram, so instead of heading straight toward the monastery, we stepped away from the other tourists into a quiet park across the street so that he could take his time waking up a bit. (Or to be blunt, spare our fellow travelers his inevitable tantrum.)

That turned out to be the most wonderful twist of fate, as the detour allowed us to discover this beautiful fountain, a perfect vantage point from which to admire the monastery. The boys loved that the fountain switched on and off, reaching high into the sky and then slowing to a trickle. They raced each other up and down the stairs while my husband and I could relax and enjoy the view.

Once they had their fill, we headed across the street (look for the underground tunnel to get across) to get a closer view of the Monument to the Discoveries.

This monument was built to celebrate the many ships and explorers who departed from this spot in the city to venture to India and Asia. The various figures on the sculpture were key participants during this time period, all pointed in the direction of the sea as if they were about to embark on a voyage.

While my husband and I appreciated the artistry of the monument, with the backdrop of the setting sun over the river, the boys could have stayed there for hours admiring something else entirely. There was another boy there racing remote control cars.

I couldn't help but laugh at how different our experiences were in Belem. For the adults, it was full of history and architectural triumphs. For them, it was games of chase and battery powered cars. At least they're easy to please!

If you're planning to visit Belem, know that there are several other big attractions we missed, given our deadline of the setting sun. In particular, I would have loved to see another iconic symbol of Lisbon, the Belem Tower. But there are also many museums in this area, too. You could easily spend a full day here.

I know this era of history is rife with controversy. After all, you can't really "discover" places where people already live and civilization is in full swing, whether Europe was aware of it or not. And this exploration led to the inevitable colonization and the brutal treatment of native people. I don't think of these explorers as heroes. But significant nonetheless? Certainly.

Since visiting Belem, I've had time to contemplate what an overwhelming journey those early explorers took on. Pointing their ships in a direction where they knew nothing of what they might find when they next hit land. (Or even if they would ever see land again.) I vividly remember waiting for our flight to Chicago (and then on to Heathrow) in the Indianapolis airport back in May. I was well versed on what was ahead for us... I had seen pictures of our new house, toured Big Arrow's new school, and had even corresponded with a few people who lived nearby in advance of our arrival. Not to mention I knew that we will return to the U.S. someday. And yet I was so very, very scared. I can't begin to imagine what the emotions of those sailors were. 

On the ground in front of the Monument to the Discoveries, you'll find a map of the world laid out at your feet, set in stone. We took some time to show it to Big Arrow (an avid fan of maps), and he had fun "stepping on" Indiana. Then he skipped over to England.

"Wow, that's far," I remember him saying. "Those oceans are big."