May 1st – Belem

We’re told to take the tram to Belem, where Portugal’s most famous piece of architecture lives.  After boarding the crowded tram, we realize the machine accepts coins only, of which we have none.  We desperately ask people to make change for our paper money, but no one has any.  We notice that they really do make a valiant effort to look – very unlike what we’re used to in America.  After giving up and simply hoping we won’t be kicked off this tram, we notice that one of the men we originally asked for change had made his way to the front of the crowded tram, and is now pushing his way back in our direction.  He gives us coins, and it’s apparent that his trek through the crowd to the front of the tram was solely a mission to get us the change we needed.  We’re astounded by his kindness.

We pass our desired stop at Belem, but when we get off one stop later, we’re standing in front of the Jeronimos Monastery, a centuries’ old, vast building with domes and iron wrought spokes extending across its massive roof.  We admire the architecture for a long time and walk around the gardens surrounding the monastery.  There’s a beautiful fountain directly in front, which adds to this amazing scenery.  We see an interesting looking sculpture in the distance, up by the water, so we head in that direction.  The sculpture hangs over the Tagus River, depicting various 16th century prominent figures boarding a ship.  It was such an interesting structure, and the placement of it hanging over the river made it that much more impactful.
At the base of this sculpture, we find ourselves on a path along the Tagus, looking at the Torre de Belem in the distance.  As we enjoy our lovely stroll across the river, we stop at one of the ultra simplistic cafes that pop up along the path.  By simple, I mean the décor of these restaurants consisted only of white walls with floor to ceiling glass windows, with outdoor and indoor seating.  We had a quick orange juice and sandwich as we stared across the Tagus at the rolling hills and terra cotta covered homes dotting the Portugese landscape.
We continue on and reach the Torre de Belem, the most famous structure in Portugal, a castle/fortress standing since the 1500’s.  We walked around and admired it from all angles.  As we walked away from the fortress, we stumbled upon a military memorial, guarded by two military soldiers.  Fully dressed in uniform, the soldiers were slowly marching towards each other in front of the memorial.  When they reached each other, they promptly turned around, and slowly marched back to their individual posts at either end of the memorial.
Next, we made our way to the famous Pasteis de Belem, which I can only describe as the Café du Monde of Portugal.  Sitting at a table in a large area crowded by tourists, our disgruntled server brought us our coffee and pastries.  These were no beignets, though.  The following description won’t do the pastries justice, but these were the most amazing creations, crispy, caramelized goodness on the outside with creamy, cheesy deliciousness on the inside.  Randi and I were in a complete daze as we lost ourselves in these delicacies, savoring every single bite.
Dinner that night was at a restaurant called AlCantera, located in the neighborhood of the same name.  The expansive restaurant with high ceilings and nude statues was almost empty, and we’re told this is because it’s Sunday, and May 1st, which is Portugal’s national Labor Day holiday.  The décor reminds me of Morocco with the high ceilings, wood paneling and wooden fans hanging down from the ceiling.  Everywhere we go in this country reminds us of somewhere we’ve been, but really, it’s like nowhere we’ve seen.  There’s a little Israel, Spain, Italy, even New Orleans here.  We’re still encountering confusion followed by delight everywhere we go.

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