On our third day in Lisbon we took a little trip to Bethlehem, no not that Bethlehem, or even that Bethlehem...... Santa Maria de Belem, or just Belem is a district of Lisbon. Belem is translated as Bethlehem in Portuguese, but don't let the name fool you, it's not some quaint Biblical village. Rather , this is where the great explorers during the Age of Discovery, Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco de Gama set sail. Belem district is beset by museums, a large garden, and monuments galore. It is about three miles from downtown Lisbon, so hoofing it would be a bit far; even for the Missus. The Missus unable to resist a "good deal", decided that Sunday would be the day to go since admission to the museums are free on that day. I'm usually a bit wary of large crowds, but didn't want to miss stuff like this:
Or this (click on them to enlarge):
So we made sure to get to the #15B trolley stop at Praca de Figueira rather early, in relative terms since Jeronimos Monastery doesn't open until 10. We're glad that we caught the trolley from Praca de Figueria. By the time the trolley made it to Praca do Comercio it was packed solid and just skipped the stop with a crowd of unhappy people waiting.
Getting off the trolley in front of the Monastery de Jeronimos, we didn't enter right away, instead we walked over a block to the place I really wanted to visit, the legendary Casa Pastéis de Belém. If you're after the "original" Pastel de Nata, which you should call Pasties de Belem here, or be lynched, you need to visit Casa Pastéis de Belém. According to the story, the original pasties de Belem recipe was created by two nuns in Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (Monastery of Jeronimos) and only served in the monastery until 1837 when this shop was established several priests. Since Belem was a central port, the fame of these egg tarts spread to all the Portuguese colonies across the world. If you know my twisted priorities, you'd understand how important it was to check this place out.
Since it was still before the 10 o'clock hour, when all the tourists and visitors would be hitting the area for free admission day, the place was buzzing but not crazy. We decided to do the "local thing" for a quick bite; order at the counter, then move over and eat at the counter standing up, which we'd grown fond of.
While waiting for our espresso and pasteis de Belem I took a walk around the rather maze0like interior of the shop.
Returning to the Missus we had a funny moment; the gentleman to the right in in the photo above was having some pasties with his wife. His wife grabbed the shaker of cinnamon and shook out a mushroom cloud of it on her pastry, causing the gentleman to cough and give her a rather dirty look. The woman could only laugh in amusement. He looked at me, I could only laugh and make the sound "poof", making the motion like a bomb exploding....he shook his head and laughed.
So how were these? Without a doubt the best we had on the entire trip! The pastry was served warm. Even though I read that it should be served cold; I disagree, these were wonderful warm. The crust was light and crisp, the custard wasn't too sweet and was relatively light....it seemed just perfect with a sprinkle (not a mushroom cloud) of cinnamon on it.
There's a reason this place goes through 10,000 a day and locals and tourists alike stand in line for these....they are delici-yoso!
Like most "legendary/cult" favorites there are stories about the the recipe. Supposedly this recipe is a closely held secret, known by only three people. According to Leite's Culinaria, the custard is made in a locked room! Unlike other places we've tried with "secret kitchens/recipes" (i.e. Crustacean) this place delivered. Business was really picking up when we left.
Casa Pastéis de Belém
Rua de Belem 84
After this, I was ready to get on that trolley and head back to Lisbon proper....but of course, we weren't leaving without seeing the Jerónimos Monastery.
If you're a fan of ornate and elaborate Manueline Architecture, there's no better example than Jerónimos Monastery.
I recall walking the arched walkways in awe. Eventually, it just seemed like so much excess, just over-the-top......then the Missus looked at me and said, "somebody had to pay for this....." Which was true, the monastery was funded with a 5% tax on commerce from Asia and the Orient.
I will say that the place is one big photo opportunity.
I did want to see the main chapel for one main reason. It was Sunday so services were being held. They did a nice job of handling things. We stood in line and some really nice attendants let us in a few at a time.
The interior of the main chapel is quite ornate. There was one thing I wanted to see. The great explorer, Vasco da Gama is buried here. His tomb is located in the lower choir area.
I remember writing a paper on Vasco da Gama when in elementary school, so this was one of those "meeting history" moments for me.
There's a bunch of museums in the area, but this was all we came to see. We had made some additional plans though.....