Presidential Palace of Belém [Video]
An exclusive tour of the historic gardens
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Recently, we were invited to go with the Lisbon Social & Cultural Club on an exclusive tour of the historic gardens within the walls of the Presidential Palace of Belém. The video above is an overview of our tour.
Commonly known as Belém Palace, this distinctive pink structure sits atop a small hill overlooking the Tagus River and is the official residence of the President of the Republic, also serving as the office for official business and functions. It has been known as the official presidential residence since the formation of the Republic when Portugal’s first president was elected in 1910, ending the 500-year reign of Portugal by the monarchy.
The core of the Palace was built in the mid-1500’s as a residence by Dom Manuel de Portugal, a Renaissance diplomat and poet, who leased the land to build the Palace from the monks of the Order of St. Jerome (more commonly known today as Jeronimos Monastery and Church). The Palace was purchased in 1726 by Dom Joao V. The residence was called Quinta de Bélem, and throughout the remainder of the monarchy was used sometimes as a summer home or sometimes as a main residence. The Palace survived the devastating Great Earthquake of 1755, protecting the royal family from harm.
In 2007, the building was classified as a national monument. The Palace is constructed in an L-shape with five main buildings and formal gardens. One of the smaller palaces in Portugal, the current appearance of the structure is a result of renovations made in the late 1800’s.
From 1910 to 1928, nearly all the presidents chose to reside in the Palace. However, they were required to pay a monthly rent. In 1928, the requirement was abolished. In more modern times, most presidents have chosen to reside in their own homes, keeping the Palace for official business and functions, including the current president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who resides in Cascais.
When the president is in the Palace, a green flag imprinted with the Portuguese national arms is raised on the main façade. When the president is not in the Palace, the flag is lowered. During our garden tour, the president was not on the premise.
The tour of the gardens
Guards in traditional uniforms stand like sentries at the Palace entrance which leads to the gardens and the building, while to the left is the Museum of the Presidency (open to the public).
Due to Covid-19, there were no public tours of the interior of the Palace allowed during the time of our visit, even by appointment. Our group of about 30 people were allowed inside the Palace walls after passing through the gated and guarded entrance leading to the gardens and Palace. We were given visitor badges and had to pass through a security scanner.
Our tour guides were Palace employees Marta and Miguel, who conducted the tour in English (tours are generally in Portuguese). Our guides escorted us to the front cobbled stone courtyard where we stood at the entrance to the Palace.
Our tour was in early spring, so many of the garden plants were trimmed down and not yet in full bloom.
Along one side of the courtyard are cages that were used during the monarchy to keep exotic animals including lions, tigers, panthers, bears, leopards, and wolves. Many of these creatures did not survive in confinement and out of their natural habitat. During the 1700’s an elephant, horses and zebras were housed in the Palace stables. The cages are now used for storage.
The Great Garden
There are gardens throughout the Palace grounds with the most prominent being the Great Garden, also known as the Afonso de Albuquerque Garden in front of the Palace overlooking the Tagus River. The gardens are a tribute to the Portuguese viceroy of India.
During the reign of the monarchy, the river shoreline was very close to the Palace. Over time, with the modernization of the city, the river’s edge was moved through both man made and nature away from the Palace by a few hundred meters south.
The royal family arrived in boats and proceeded up narrow staircases to the garden. A stone table still sits overlooking the river and was used as a dining table for royal family gatherings.
A refresh room is under the Palace. Made of stone, it was used to cool off from the warm weather and sun. The frescoes on the walls relate to the sea.
The boxwood hedges create intricate designs, more easily seen in an aerial view.
The Waterfall Garden
Queen Maria, I had this impressive garden built in the late 1700’s. It was home to a collection of about 500 exotic birds, mainly from South America. In the center is a massive sculpture of Hercules by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Gaggini II. Water cascades down and over the statue. Turtles and fish swim in the pool that catches the water. On either side there are sculptures with fountains. Mesh covered the alcoves so the birds could not escape.
Palace Botanical and Rose Garden
Created more recently in the 20th century, the Rose Garden features three sections of roses – one for yellow roses, one for red roses, and one for multi-colored roses. The yellow and red roses, along with the green boxwood hedge, symbolize the colors of the Portuguese flag.
Along the perimeter of the rose garden, there are tropical garden plants. Statutes are scattered throughout the gardens.
The gardens would have been more colorful and lush if we had taken this tour when everything was in full bloom, but it was still amazing! The complexity of the gardens, the elaborate statues, the refresh room, the animal cages, can all take a visitor back in time. It was evident that our tour guides are proud of the historical nature of the Palace and gardens, and it was a privilege to be able to view it first-hand.
For more information on tours visit the Presidential Palace Museum website: https://www.museu.presidencia.pt/pt/destaques/visitas-ao-palacio-de-belem-suspensas/
Until next time…