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My European Favourites – Lisbon’s Belem District

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The Belem district of Lisbon is where you will find the most famous buildings and monuments from what is called the Age of Exploration or Age of Discovery as well as numerous parks and museums. It is located along the coast at the mouth of the Tagus river about 4 kilometers west of Lisbon’s city center. Belem, which is Bethlehem in Portuguese, used to be a small fishing village before it became the shipyard and docks at the center of the discoveries. It remained a separate town until recently when it became a parish district of the city of Lisbon. To better understand the Belem district and its monuments requires a brief history of the Age of Discovery, Prince Henry the Navigator and the Order of Christ.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portuguese sailors were at the forefront of the Age of Discovery. They recorded information about places they visited, and they mapped the coasts of Africa, Asia, Brazil and even Newfoundland. The expeditions were started in 1419 along the west coast of Africa under the sponsorship of Prince Henry the Navigator, who at the time, was Grand Master of the Order of Christ.

Historical figures from the Age of Discovery on the Monument of the Discoveries

The Order of Christ’s origins in Portugal lie with the Knights Templar that were founded around 1119. The Templars were best known as Christian warriors, but the majority of their membership were not combatants; they managed the economies in Europe and formed an early form of banking and finance. The Templars, who had become wealthy and powerful, were abolished on the 22nd of March 1312 by Pope Clement V under pressure from the French King Philip IV. The French king had many debts with the Templars, so he was motivated by an opportunity to erase those debts and remove the Templar threat to his power and influence.

The Templars were pursued, persecuted and annihilated throughout Europe with the help of political influence from the Pope as head of the Catholic Church. Portugal’s King Denis refused to go after the Templars and in 1319, he negotiated with Clement’s successor, Pope John XXII, to establish the Order of Christ, which were granted the right to inherit the assets and property of the Templars. So, with the support of the order’s Grand Master, Prince Henry, the emblematic cross of the Order of Christ was emblazoned on Portuguese sails during the discoveries.

The cross is seen on various emblems today including on the logo of the Portuguese national soccer team and on that of the Brazilian national soccer team. If you are interested in the Knights Templar and Order of Christ, there are various sites of interest throughout Portugal.

Compass Rose with a World Map of Portuguese explorations

To conduct the exploration of northern Africa, the Portuguese needed a vessel that could be easily maneuvered, so they developed a small boat called a caravel. The caravel had lateen sails, so it could reach good speed on the open water with the wind at its back, but just as important, it could also be sailed into the wind.  Using the caravel, the Portuguese worked their way along the African coast and set up trade posts.

Eventually, in 1488, Bartolomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope and rounded the southern tip of Africa and into the Pacific Ocean. Probably the most famous Portuguese discoverer, Vasco da Gama, followed the same path and reached India in 1498 setting up the spice trading route. By cutting out the “middle men,” which at that time were Arab, Turkish and Italian merchants, the Portuguese Crown became very wealthy.

In 1500, Pedro Alvares Cabral set sail for India but sailed far west into the Atlantic to take advantage of the trade winds. He spotted the northeastern part of South America which would become a Portuguese colony and the only Portuguese speaking country in the Americas, Brazil.

The Portuguese continued setting up trade routes to other parts of Asia, including Japan in 1542. The immense wealth from the discoveries and subsequent trade laid the foundation for the Portuguese Empire.

Manueline style architecture, a caravel and the Order of Christ cross on the Portuguese national soccer team logo

With wealth, came great building projects. Portugal has a unique architectural style called Manueline or sometimes referred to as Portuguese late Gothic. The Manueline style originated during the 16th century and depicts maritime elements paying tribute to the discoveries made at that time and financed by the resulting lucrative spice trade. Some of the most prominent features of the Manueline style include armillary spheres, sea shells, the cross of the Order of Christ, rope columns and botanical motifs like laurel branches, oak leaves and acorns. Many Manueline buildings were destroyed in the great earthquake in 1755, but the Tower of Belem and Hieronymites Monastery, which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, are two of the best examples we can see today.

Belem Tower wall, view of the Tower from the Discoveries Monument and the Santa Cruz sea biplane

The Belem Tower, officially named the Tower of St. Vincent, is a four story 16th century fortification that guarded the entrance into Lisbon. It was the last and first thing explorers saw as they left and returned from their voyages. When it was first built in 1520, the tower stood on an island in the middle of the Tagus river, about 200 meters from the northern shore. The tower has been rebuilt various times and its current style combines Manueline, Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance features. It has also been used as a prison and is one of the most recognizable and photographed landmarks of Lisbon and Portugal. For a fee, you can enter the tower.

At the corner of the Belem Tower Park, you will see the Santa Cruz biplane monument dedicated to Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral who were the first pilots to cross the South Atlantic ocean in 1922. The seaplane was followed by a support ship as they didn’t have the fuel capacity to make the entire voyage. It was a perilous 79 day journey from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, and the plane was ditched along the Brazil coast after an engine failure in bad weather. It’s quite the story. You can see a replica of the actual plane in the Maritime Museum. From the monument walk around the Bom Sucessso docks and along a nice waterfront walkway. You will pass the Old Belem Lighthouse on the way to our next stop, the Monument of the Discoveries.

Monument of the Discoveries, Compase Rose and Prince Henry the Navigator

The 52 meter Monument of the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos), completed in 1960, celebrates the Age of Discovery and is designed to look like a caravel. The monument commemorates the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, depicted at the front of the monument holding a caravel. The monument has sixteen statues on each side of Prince Henry depicting notable people from that era including monarchs, explorers, cartographers, artists, poets, scientists, and missionaries. The square in front of the monument, donated by South Africa, has a compass rose and a world map detailing the Portuguese explorations. Inside, there are exhibition halls and an auditorium plus a lift to the top of the monument that offers great views of the Tagus river, the 25th of April Bridge, the statue of Cristo Rei on the other side of the river, the world map on the square below and the Hieronymites Monastery.

Hieronymites Monastery from the Monument of the Discoveries

The Hieronymites Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos), started by King Manuel I in 1501, and took 100 years to complete, is the former monastery of the Order of Saint Jerome. The monks’ role was to provide spiritual guidance to the sailors and to pray for the king’s soul. In front of the monastery, there is a nice park with hedges and a fountain decorated with the coats of arms.

The Santa Maria de Belem church and the monastery cloisters are great examples of Manueline architecture. The entrance to the church is free while there is a charge to see the monastery cloisters. Once you enter the cloisters, you can enter the vault of the Santa Maria church for a great view of the columns and nave. Some kings and great figures in Portuguese history are buried here including Vasco da Gama, whose tomb you can see at the entrance, along with the poet Luis de Camões, who wrote the epic, “The Lusiads,” detailing the exploits of Gama and his compatriots.

Hieronymites Moanstery fountain, Santa Maria de Belem church interior and the tomb of Vasco da Gama

In the western wing of the Hieronymites Monastery, you will find two museums. The Maritime Museum (Museu da Marinha) is administered by the Navy and offers more details about the explorations and all other aspects of the Portuguese history of navigation. You can see scale models of ships, maps, paintings, navigation instruments, royal barges and sea planes.

The Museu Nacional de Arqueologia (National Museum of Archaeology), founded in 1893, contains ancient art and artifacts from throughout the Iberian Peninsula. In the Belem Cultural Centre, located near the monastery, there is the Coleção Berardo, which is a modern and contemporary art gallery.

The Pastéis de Belém busy counter, a peek at the production and the beautiful tarts

After a busy morning, you might need a snack. The Pastel de Nata is a Portuguese custard tart with a flaky crust that is dusted with cinnamon. It was invented by Catholic monks in Belem at the Hieronymites Monastery before the 18th century. Why the monks, you ask? Convents and monasteries used egg whites in those days to starch clothes, so the leftover yokes were used to make cakes and pastries. Today, the nearby Pastéis de Belém café is a must stop while you are in Belem to taste the authentically made pastry. There are sometimes long line ups outside, but they are customers waiting to buy “to go” sleeves of the treat.

There are many seats inside, in various rooms, where you can sit and order your tarts and coffee. As you go deeper inside, there are windows where you can see the custard tart operation at work. Every few minutes you will see a staff member emerge from the bakery carrying multiple trays of the tarts to restock the front counter as they constantly fly off the shelf. Every self-respecting Portuguese bakery in the world makes their version, but the monks’ original recipe is a closely guarded secret and is held by just a few people. They have all memorized the recipe as there can be no written version.

Just further down the street, you will see the Pink Palace, which is the official residence of the Portuguese President. Next to the palace is the 18th century Royal Riding School, which used to house the Museu Nacional dos Coches (National Coaches Museum). The Royal Riding School can still be visited and will have some coaches on display. The museum’s new location, which is only a few meters away, has a much larger space to show off one of the world’s finest collections of horse drawn carriages the from 16th to the 19th century.

The 5 hectare Jardim Botânico Tropical (Tropical Botanical Garden), which was laid out in 1912 by Hieronymites Monastery, is one of Lisbon’s best green spaces. The park has flora from all over the world, principally from Portugal’s former colonies. Some of the art and architecture with colonial themes date back to the 1940 Portuguese World Exhibition. The grounds have 18th century marble statues by Italian artists, an Arch of Macau, an Oriental garden, greenhouses, and the 17th century baroque Calheta Palace, which is now a library and is used for exhibitions. Visitors enjoy seeing the ducks, swans, geese and peacocks who are found throughout the garden and its ponds. It is a good place to take a break from a busy day in Belem.

In the evening, you may consider a short walk along the waterfront, maybe while enjoying a beautiful sunset, to the Doca de Santo Amaro (Dock of St. Amaro). The dock is located next to the foot of the 25th of April Bridge. Here, you will find a variety of restaurants to have a nice dinner. As you enjoy your wine, you can reflect on the courage of the great explorers who left these shores to explore the world.

Explore Europe With Us

Azorcan Global Sport, School and Sightseeing Tours have taken thousands to Europe on their custom group tours since 1994. Visit azorcan.net to see all our custom tour possibilities for your group of 26 or more. Individuals can join our “open” signature sport, sightseeing and sport fan tours including our popular Canada hockey fan tours to the World Juniors. At azorcan.net/media you can read our newsletters and listen to our podcasts.

Images compliments of Paul Almeida and Azorcan Tours.

My European Favourites – One Day In The Bavarian Alps

 

 

I have been in sports management and the sports tour business since 1994 when I created my company, Azorcan Global Sport, School and Sightseeing tours. Please visit our website at azorcan.net for more information on our company, our tours and our destinations. We are European group tour experts specializing in custom sightseeing tours, sport tours (hockey, soccer, ringette, school academies) and fan tours (World Juniors). Check out our newsletters, and listen to our podcasts at azorcan.net/media.

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My European Favourites: Český Krumlov

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Český Krumlov is the most picturesque medieval town in the Czech Republic, and one of the best small town destinations in Central Europe. Český Krumlov is located in the South Bohemia Region of the Czech Republic about a two hour drive directly south from Prague and only thirty minutes from the nearby city of Ceske Budejovice. It is only about thirty kilometers from the Austrian border, and Linz is only an hour away. It is a natural stop from Prague to Salzburg, and we frequently stay in Ceske Budejovice, where many of our hockey groups play games or train at former NHL and Czech hockey star, Jaroslav Pouzar’s arena.

Český Krumlov’s old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is nestled in between a meandering river and is surrounded by lush green hills and a towering castle above. With narrow cobblestone streets and a mixture of baroque and renaissance architecture, this could be the backdrop to any fairytale.

After we enter the town, we will park our bus across the street from a little park, called the Deer Garden, that is dwarfed by the back side of the Český Krumlov Castle. To get up to the castle, there is a path at an incline just on the right of the park or there are stairs up to the castle located at the back right of the park.

Once you reach the top, on the right you will find the eleven hectare castle garden. The garden includes a cascade fountain, an outdoor amphitheatre with a revolving auditorium, the Bellaria summer palace and the castle’s winter riding hall, which is now used to host special events.

If we go left instead of going into the park, a few steps away is a small gated entrance to a terrace that you should not miss. The terrace offers a spectacular panorama of the river, the town below, the castle on the left and the surrounding area. Your camera will be busy here and, at times, you will have numerous people jockeying for position to get that perfect shot. Please note that the terrace is not always open in the evening.

Cesky Krumlov Castle from the photo terrace and from the Lavka pod Zamkem wooden bridge.

Český Krumlov Castle

The Český Krumlov Castle dates back to 1240 when it was built by the Witigonen (Vitkovci) dynasty. In 1302, the Rosenberg dynasty became owners of the castle, and you will see their family’s five petalled rose logo at various locations throughout the city. In 1622, the castle was transferred to the Austrian Eggenberg family who expanded the castle, including adding the unique baroque theatre that bears their name. Today, the local brewery in Český Krumlov is named after the Eggenbergs. The Schwarzenberg family took over the castle from 1719 until 1947 when it was transferred to the Czechoslovak state. The castle complex, with five courtyards, is listed as a Czech National Monument and is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

What would an old castle be without a good ghost story? In medieval times, the appearance of a White Lady during the day or night was an omen that someone in the family would soon die. At the Český Krumlov Castle, legend has it that the castle is haunted by their own White Lady, Perchta of Rosenberg. Her husband treated her poorly and on his death bed he asked her for forgiveness. She refused and her husband cursed her. Since her death, her ghost has haunted her former husband’s estates including the castle.

 

Cloak bridge, entrance into the 4th courtyard and frescoes on the courtyard walls.

When we leave the photo terrace, we cross the fifth castle courtyard surrounded by the baroque castle theatre and the renaissance house to the white and grey Cloak Bridge. The bridge, which offers more great views of the old town and river, has three stories above the arched walkway that connect the castle to the theatre.

Entering the area called the Upper Castle, we pass through two small courtyards, named the fourth and third castle courtyards. The courtyards’ facades were painted in the 16th and 17th centuries. The frescoes painted on flat walls use the “trompe–l’oeil” technique to create the optical illusion that the walls are three-dimensional brick with intricate stone decorations and inlayed statues. The “Upper Castle’s” renaissance interiors are palatial with an important collection of paintings, tapestries and furniture. The castle’s underground foundations, called the Wenceslas Cellars, are a labyrinth of pillars and arches. Exiting the third courtyard, we go down a steep and windy passage way, which may have been used for vehicles.

A sundial, the second courtyard fountain and tower. The first courtyard and the red gate.

Arriving at the second castle courtyard, we find the Burgrave’s house from 1578. The Burgrave, or “Count”, was the governor of the town, with judicial and military powers bestowed on him by the Holy Roman Emperor. From 1742-1948, the lower floor of the Burgrave’s house was used to house the Schwarzenberg grenadier guard.

The courtyard has a stone fountain from 1641 in the middle and the colorful castle tower in the corner. The tower and the adjoining “Hradek” building are the two oldest parts of the castle. If you climb the tower, you will get amazing views of the castle and the town.

The castle Bear Moat with bears enjoying bread, vegetables, apples and watermelon snacks.

To access the first courtyard, we cross a small bridge that has a Bear Moat below. There have been bears in the moat since 1707, and most times we can see them walking around or eating their vegetables and fruit. Unfortunately, we don’t always see them as they like the area under the bridge. This is the largest courtyard and was used as an agricultural area and animal enclosure. We leave the castle through the Red Gate and continue until we reach the Latrán street where we turn right. A few meters away on your left is the entrance to the Monastery. 

Monastery of the Minorites

After the castle, the monastery is the second largest historic complex in Český Krumlov. The medieval monastery was founded for the brothers and sisters of the order of St. Francis of Assisi in 1350. St. Francis gave the name “Friar Minor” or “Minorites” to the Franciscans. The order of St. Clare, “Poor Claires” or the “Clarissas,” is the name of the female branch of the Franciscans. The monastery church located in the center of the complex separates the convents of the Minorites (here from 1357-1950) and Clarissas (here from 1361-1782).

The Latrán street, a Trdelník vendor and the crucifix on Lazebnicky bridge.

 Latrán Street and Lazebnicky Most

The renaissance area just outside the castle and across the river from the old town center was once the home of castle servants. Today the cobble stone Latrán Street’s colorful houses are full of shops, cafes, restaurants and artist galleries. Just off the Latrán, you will find artist workshops featuring paintings, iron works, statues and furniture. Some of these artist workshops are decorated with interesting murals.

Undoubtably, you will be hit by the sweet aroma of the chimney cake or Trdelník. The Trdelník is a rolled dough which is wrapped around a thick spit, baked over hot coals and topped with sugar, walnuts and sometimes cinnamon. You can find variations of this treat throughout the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

Connecting the Latrán street to the old town is the wooden Lazebnicky bridge with a large crucifix in the middle. Form the bridge, you have a magnificent view of the castle above, the Vltava river meandering its way around the town, and the riverfront houses and restaurant patios of the old town.

The Český Krumlov old town square with the Marian Plague column and city hall.

Historic Old Town

Once you cross the bridge, if you go forward on the Radniční street for about a hundred meters you will arrive at the Town Square. Instead, we will turn right and take the curved Dlouhá Street with interesting cafes, restaurants and hotels. At the end of the Dlouhá street, we arrive at the Široká street. Turning right we will come to the old mill where we can see the waterwheel still turning and we get another great view of the castle. We continue in the other direction leisurely making our way down the wide and vibrant Široká street until we reach a junction where three streets meet. This is a very picturesque little square with colorful buildings decorated with frescoes.

Only a few meters away from this junction, we find ourselves in the Český Krumlov town square or Náměstí Svornosti. The square has served not only as a market in medieval times, but also as a place of execution. The large white building with renaissance arcades is the 16th century Český Krumlov Town Hall. The four coats-of-arms painted on the façade of the building are those of the Eggenbergs, the Schwarzenbergs, the town and of the Czech state of Bohemia. Like many towns in the Czech Republic, the square has a Marian Plague Column with a fountain at the center. The plague columns give thanks to the Virgin Mary for the end of the plague that killed many throughout Europe in the 17th century. The beautiful buildings adorned with stucco decorations and frescoes around the square once belonged to the town’s upper class and have been restored to their original splendor.

The St. Vitus church from the river, the old town’s Široká street and the three street junction.

Church of St. Vitus

From the town square you will see the 19th century spire and tall roof of the Roman Catholic church of St. Vitus. A short climb up Horní Ulice street you will reach the church entrance. The gothic church has a white interior with an impressive vaulted ceiling supported by stone columns. The tall but clear gothic windows allow light to flood the nave and they push your eyes upwards to the magnificent ceiling. Dating back to the 13th century when the site became a place of worship, the church has undergone a few additions and changes over the years. The church is the burial place of notable Bohemian families including generations of the aforementioned Rosenbergs and Schwartzenbergs.

Not far from the church is a little garden called the Seminární Zahrada, or the Seminary Garden. The garden is part of the Regional Museum, which used to be a seminary for the Jesuits. Like the terrace by the castle, this garden is one of the best spots in town to get that spectacular panoramic photo. The castle and tower are prominent in the background, seemingly rising above a sea of the red tiled roofs below.

Panoramic view from the Seminary Garden and buskers on the Latrán Street.

Rafting on the Vltava

As you leave the old town back to the parking area, you will cross the Lavka pod Zamkem wooden bridge which leads to the Deer Garden. The bridge offers a few more photo opportunities of the river, the castle and the Cloak Bridge. One of the most interesting things to see from the bridge is the wier on the Vltava River that has a spot on the right for rafters to slide down from the higher water level to the lower level. Rafting is very popular, and in summer months you will see raft after raft leisurely floating down the river. The Malecek Rafting company offers canoe and raft rentals with trips of various durations from a thirty-minute trip in the city center all the way to half-day and full-day trips further down the river. They also offer a fifty-minute historical cruise on a twelve-person wooden raft. In the middle ages and beyond raftsmen used the Vltava to transport goods and raw materials like wood and salt. Today, people can enjoy this experience in amazing surroundings.

Rafters and canoers going down the Vltava Rivers’ weir and leisurely past the castle.

Český Krumlov has many small museums worth visiting. My favourite is the Museum of Commerce (Muzeum Obchodu) located in the old town just as you cross the Lazebnicky bridge. The museum has recreated shop interiors, shop machinery and advertising from the early 1900s. Individual packaging of products, like we are used to today, was non-existent. They have a great display of metal dispensary containers where customers would get their coffee beans, sugar, flour or other goods. They also have old style metallic advertising signs for sale. Across from that museum, there is an antique shop with very unique items and next door is the Fairytale House & Puppet Museum.

Other museums you may want to visit in Český Krumlov include the Museum Fotoatelier Seidel, the Egon Schiele Art Centrum, the Moldavite Museum (Muzeum Vltavinu), the Regional Museum and the Torture Museum. There are many other little museums around town worth visiting. Nearby, hikers enjoy climbing the 1,084 meter high Mount Klet’ and guided tours of the Graphite Mine.

Český Krumlov is the second most popular tourist destination in the Czech Republic. I have been to this medieval town numerous times with my tour groups and I am always excited to include it in my itineraries.

Explore Europe With Us

Azorcan Global Sport, School and Sightseeing Tours have taken thousands to Europe on their custom group tours since 1994. Visit azorcan.net to see all our custom tour possibilities for your group of 26 or more. Individuals can join our “open” signature sport, sightseeing and sport fan tours including our popular Canada hockey fan tours to the World Juniors. At azorcan.net/media you can read our newsletters and listen to our podcasts.

Images compliments of Paul Almeida and Azorcan Tours.

Click below to read Paul’s sobering story about Canada’s role in WWI.

 

My European Favourites – Canada in WWI Belgium

 

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Hey Edmonton, look what’s living under our sidewalks!

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Written by Darrel G. Babuk, MRAIC

Many of Edmonton’s buildings had sidewalk vaults.

Not sure why.  Usually, sidewalk vaults were found in cities where hilly streets got flattened out or raised – like New York City, Vancouver or Victoria. In flattening out and raising the roadway, the sidewalks were rarely raised.

To get a sidewalk in front of their building, building owners would extend the basements of their buildings out to the roadway, and the roof of the basement extending beyond the building became a public sidewalk.

Here in Edmonton, the Gibson Block and the McLeod Block still have sidewalk vaults; the roof over the portion of their basements that extend beyond the building is the public sidewalk. Other Edmonton buildings, like the Jasper Block and the Kelly Ramsey Block also had sidewalk vaults.

Back in the day, when the idea of working in an office was still a novelty, retail space commanded a much higher rent than did office space.  Many times, retail spaces would be located on the second, even third floor.

Retail space in a basement, just one flight of stairs from the sidewalk, made sense. The Gibson Block still has a stair going from the sidewalk to the basement, where the Georgia Baths used to be.

But, aren’t basements dark? To bring light into basement sidewalk vaults, glass sidewalk prisms were embedded into the sidewalks.

photo by Darrel G. Babuk

Victoria still has sidewalk prisms, the purplish glass blocks on the sidewalks on Government Street.  Seattle still has sidewalk prisms, they even offer tours of the sidewalk vaults underneath the sidewalk prisms.

Edmonton’s Jasper Block not only had sidewalk prisms, the interior hallways had glass prism floors so that natural sunlight would filter through the third and second floors down to the ground floor!

Not sure why.  Usually, sidewalk vaults were found in cities where hilly streets were regraded to be flat – like New York City, Vancouver or Victoria. In flattening out and raising the roadway; while the actual street was raised, the sidewalks weren’t. If you know, send me a note!

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Boreas Architecture & Civic Design puts to use our years of highly unique and specialized experience to identify the essentials, understand them and create a plan of action to re-image historical buildings: to maintain the dignity of their original design with a sustainable new purpose in the community. Click for more information.

This article was originally published on March 31, 2019.

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