Stuart Forster takes a look inside the National Maritime Museum in Lisbon, Portugal.
Belem’s close associations with Portugal’s Age of Discoveries make it an obvious choice as the location for the Museu da Marinha, the Portuguese National Maritime Museum.
This is Portugal’s second most visited museum. In case you’re wondering, first place goes to the Museu Nacional dos Coches, the National Coach Museum, also in Belem.
Museum in a UNESCO World Heritage Site
One of the wings of the Portuguese National Maritime Museum is within the Manueline style Heironymites Monastery. The construction of the sixteenth century monastery, was funded by taxes on imperial trade, much of which docked home in Portugal at the port protected by the Tower of Belem. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Lisbon’s best known landmarks.
This sizable museum hosts exhibits with a broad appeal, covering themes such as Portugal’s maritime explorations and expansion during the late Middle Ages to the country’s recent military and civil maritime history.
Remarkably, despite the prodigious size of this museum, just one-fifth of the artefacts belonging to the museum’s collection can be shown at any one time.
There’s good news for English speaking visitors as the context of artefacts is clarified by legends translated from Portuguese.
Greeted by Henry the Navigator
You’ll be greeted by a sculpture of Prince Henry, just beyond the entrance. Henry encouraged maritime minds to meet at Sagres and is regarded a key figure in Portuguese maritime history. Some commentators suggest he was a catalyst to the exciting period of exploration that became known as the Age of Discoveries.
Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India, which set sail from Lisbon on 8th July 1497, is one of the best known aspects of that period of Portuguese maritime history. Of the 170 men who sailed in da Gama’s fleet, 116 were lost.
Unsurprisingly, many seafarers of that era turned to superstition or prayer. The portable oak altar that da Gama took with him on his flagship, the nau named Sao Gabriel, is on display in this museum. So too is a heavy wooden chest that also belonged to the explorer and colonial governor.
Astrolabes, cannons, medals and uniforms count among the exhibits. You’ll get a feel for the development of the Portuguese navy, fishing fleets and even the river traffic that has sailed in Portugal’s territorial waters. Model ships and boats put this into context.
The royal yacht Amelia
Among the most popular of the exhibits within the National Maritime Museum are the richly decorated cabins from Amelia, Portugal’s royal yacht from more than a century ago. The queen’s cabin contains a seat convertible to a bath and the king’s cabin is the home to a fireplace and office.
The collection of royal barges, including a gilded yacht dating from 1778 and sailed in by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II during a visit to Portugal in 1957, count among the prize exhibits of this museum.
You can also see an original moliceiro boat from Aveiro, the type of high-prowed vessel sometimes compared with Venetian gondolas, and the Class 470 yacht which Hugo Rocha and Nuno Barreto sailed to a bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympic Games of 1996.
Getting close to Schreck
Schreck too, is housed here. Schreck isn’t a famous ogre from an animated film but a surveillance aircraft that once patrolled over Portugal’s coastal waters. It stands just meters from the Fairley 17 plane called Santa Cruz flown by Coutinho and Cabral from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in their historic Atlantic crossing of 1922.
This museum is well worth a visit and just one of several tourist attractions in Lisbon’s Belem district. This is a fine location for whiling away a couple of hours on a hot summer’s afternoon or a wet November morning.
For opening times and prices visit the Portuguese National Maritime Museum website.
Enjoy reading this article on the National Maritime Museum in Lisbon? Here’s a look at things to do during a weekend in the Portuguese capital.
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