Lisbon Maritime Museum

Lisbon maritime museum

Lisbon is a great place to visit, but its streets and hotels are so crowded and noisy that some might find it best to stay outside the city, for instance on the beachfront at Cascais (try the Hotel Baía), and take the excellent train or other public transport into the city for specific daily activities. One of those visits might include a call at the Maritime Museum at Belém, a short train, tram or bus ride from central Lisbon.

To find the museum, look for the Monastery of Jerónimos (left) 500 metres inland, or the prominent Fairey IIID seaplane metal sculpture monument on the nearby riverfront.

It might be easy to miss the Lisboa Museu da Marinha, even though you know its entrance is in the west wing of the 16th century Monastery of Jerónimos. If in doubt, look along the waterfront for the prominent Fairey IIID seaplane monument, near the elegant Tower of Belém and the towering Monument to the Discoveries sculpture.

The massive Monument to the Discoveries.

The Tower of Belém, with its water-washed dungeons below, was built in 1519 in the middle of the Tagus River, but the river moved and it now stands on the embankment. The Discoveries Monument was erected in 1960, to commemorate the death 500 years before of Henry the Navigator. At its top are unsurpassed Lisbon views. About half a kilometre back, across the train track and parkland, is the Monastery of Jerónimos. The monastery celebrates the return of Vasco da Gama and the riches he brought back from the East. On its western (left) side is a ships anchor and a wide concrete pavilion. Directly ahead of the concrete pavilion is the Calouste Gulbenkian Planetarium, an interesting museum in its own right. On its right side is the entrance to the Maritime Museum and to the left is the modern-looking Galliot Pavilion, another exhibition wing of the surprisingly interesting Lisbon Maritime Museum. 

The museum is open 1000 to 1700 (1800 in summer) and is closed Mondays and public holidays. Admission is about Aus$4.00 (seniors half price). Half a dozen bus lines pass by, the Numbers 15 and 17 trams stop outside the monastery and the Belém station on the Oerias slow train line is about one kilometre away to the east. This train may be boarded in Lisbon from the central waterfront Cais do Sodré  terminal.

Atlantic crossing

The full-sized seaplane monument is constructed from enduring polished metal. It commemorates the pioneering efforts of the Portuguese Navy in a June 1922 first crossing of the South Atlantic. Three Portuguese Navy seaplanes set out, but only one, the Santa Cruz, completed the crossing from Lisbon via the Azores to land safely in Rio de Janeiro. The others apparently were damaged during landings at open-ocean refuelling stops.
LCDR Sacadura Cabral and CMDR Gago Coutinho crewed the successful aircraft. This original Fairey IIID may be found inside the Galliot Pavilion section of the museum, alongside a couple of other early seaplanes and a number of historic small craft. There is also a huge electronic map on the wall behind that illustrates the various phases of the saga.

fishing boats
As well as the trans-Atlantic seaplane flight commemoration, there are a number of interesting old fishing boats in the Galliot Pavilion.

“The pageant and the glory that characterised Portugal’s domination of the high seas are evoked for posterity in the Maritime Museum, one of the most important in Europe,” say D. Porter and D. Prince in Frommer’s 99 Europe, Macmillan: New York, 1998, p 808.The museum itself contains a remarkable collection of models and small boats. Right inside the entrance is a display of 15th century Japanese armour, reminding us of the part the Portuguese “black ships” played in the early trade days with Japan. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach Japan, in 1543. They led others who traded silks and porcelain from China for lacquers and silver from Japan. The “namba-jin” (barbarians who have come from the south) also introduced firearms and Christianity to Japan. The Jesuits were not slow to follow the flag in their desire to win converts and influence.

Vasco da Gama

The entire museum focuses on the important role of Portugal in discovery and trade, especially its influence in the critical 15th to 18th centuries. Henry the Navigator is appropriately honoured. His initiatives and genius led to studies and voyages that totally reshaped European medieval concepts of the world. Reminders of Christopher Columbus and his Santa Maria are there, as are other navigators, including Vasco da Gama, whose tomb may be found in the nearby Igreja de Santa Maria de Belém. A model of da Gama’s São Gabriel is in the museum, recalling his 1497-99 voyage with four ships and 170 men, of whom 116 were lost. His richly-laden caravels moored off Belém on their return from India.

Not forgotten are 30 or 40 small and large craft, many lateen-rigged, that carried brave (or foolhardy) Portuguese fishermen further and further out into the Atlantic Ocean in search of fish. Also exhibited are navigation instruments, including a rare 15th century astrolabe, and a number of very early maps and charts. In the Galliot Pavilion, as well as the aircraft, are a number of small sailing craft and a 38-oared richly decorated Royal Galley.

When next in Lisbon area, consider making the short trip to the Maritime Museum and the adjacent Monastery of Jerónimos. There are other attractions nearby. If time permits, visit the Tower of Belém and the Discoveries Monument, both within walking distance, just down the road along the river.

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