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Standing 52 metres high, this cement caravel rises above the waters of the river Tajo.
Even though this huge monument is not to the tastes of all of Lisbon’s citizens, it has to be said that the Monument to the discoveries or the “Padrao dos Descobrimentos” as it is known, is one of the main points of interest in the district of Belém.
This district, at the mouth of the Tajo, evokes Portugal’s golden age, when its great explorers took to the open seas in search of new marine trade routes and distant lands. We can definitely say that this fine monument is located in the logical place.
If we want to find out more about its history we need to go back to the year 1960, when the monument was erected to commemorate five hundred years since the death of Henry the Navigator, the first and highly distinguished Portuguese explorer.
In 1960 Portugal found itself in the midst of the Salazar dictatorship. The dictator was a keen defender of colonialist politics and a promoter of his country’s great seamen and past conquests.
What’s more, it is easy to see in the characteristics of the monument, its dimensions and materials, a display of grandiloquence and pomp typical of the Salazar regime’s aesthetic style.
The monument shows the bow of the caravel, with the Portuguese coat of arms on both flanks, and above the door, looking inland, a huge representation of the sword belonging to the royal residence of Avis.
At the foot of the bow’s far end is the huge figure of Henry the Navigator. The explorer holds a small caravel in one of his hands and leads a group of other sailors, patron kings and explorers that form two lines on each side of the monument.
Following on from Henry the Navigator, on the eastern side of the monument, you can see King Afonso V, who commissioned the first journeys of exploration, the mythical Vasco de Gama, who opened up the sea route to India, the man that discovered Brazil Pedro Álvares Cabral, and the infamous sailor Ferdinand Magellan, the first European to find a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
On the monument’s western side Henry the Navigator leads the way ahead of Manuel I, nicknamed “The Fortunate One” because of great achievements during his reign like the discovery of the Atlantic route to the Indies. After him comes the poet Luis de Camoes, the painter Nuno Gonçalves palette in hand, representatives of the clergy, mapmakers, nobles looking like Christopher Colombus and famous generals.
All these figures are made of cement and come in sizes far bigger than in real life. They are all in heroic poses and bring to mind monuments and statues from other dictatorships. Without doubt though, the spectacular location and imaginative and distinctive design of the monument are unquestionable.
If you are a fan of spectacular views, we recommend you go up to the viewing point on the seventh floor, which can be accessed using the lift inside the monument. From here the view over Belém, the mountains nearby and the river Tajo is incredible.
You will also be able to make out a square below located on the monument’s northern side. On the ground you will see the drawing of an enormous compass measuring 50 metres in diameter which displays the layout of the explorers’ routes during the 15th and 16th centuries.
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