Out to Belem for custard tarts

On our third day in Portugal, we headed out to Belem, a Lisbon neighbourhood known as the home of the best Portuguese custard tarts. Although city buses head out to Belem, we opted for the tram which leaves from Lisbon’s main square and takes 20 minutes or so ride to reach Belem’s Jeronimos Monastery tram stop,  which is right by Pasteis de Belem, the holy grail of custard tarts.

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Our tram didn’t look this one, but many of them still have an aura of nostalgia about them. We saw this one while waiting for our tram to Belem.

At the famed pastry shop, we debated whether to get the tarts to go or eat-in, and our decision was helped by the fact that the shop is humongous, probably seating upwards of 400.  Unless you’re in a hurry, relax and enjoy your tarts inside.

We were seated in the garden which was lovely, and while the service was slow, the custards were utterly delightful. At this point in the trip, we had already sampled the tarts at various cafes, and I was already a fan of the tarts at Fábrica de Nata in main Lisbon – they have a menu featuring a tart and glass of port, a real treat – but the Belem custard tarts were really, truly something altogether different.

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Pasteis de Belem is easy to spot if not for its blue awning, then the gaggles of people standing nearby

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The iconic Pasteis de Belem

For starters, the tarts at Pasteis de Belem were fresh out the oven, and still warm to the touch. They had a much flakier crust than elsewhere while the custard taste was also much lighter and less egg-y, making for the perfect combo. Cans of powdered sugar and cinnamon were placed at every table, and many people sprinkle the tarts with a heavy helping of both. We did the same, yet I’d say the tarts are best on their own, without the added flavor.

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Fresh tarts before getting sprinkled with powdered sugar & cinnamon

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Employees preparing thousands of tarts

Right next to the pastry shop is Jeronimos Monastery, an imposing structure dating back to 1500, and an UNESCO World Heritage site. Although we opted not to go in and pay the entrance fee, it was still impressive to see from the outside. In fact, this picture captures just the entrance, although the structure is much larger and longer, taking up more than several city blocks.

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The famous Jeronimos Monastery

Although the monastery is likely the number one sightseeing attraction in Belem, I was most interested in the Monument to the Discoveries, a structure which I had studied in  a college course on Portuguese, Spanish & Italian literature under fascism, and prior to coming to Lisbon, it was about the only thing I associated with the city (the statue, not fascism).

I was more than a little bummed to find it under restoration when we visited, but it was still magnificent, with the early explorers and navigators leaning out to sea.

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A straight on view of the monument

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The monument’s Eastern profile

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It’s not possible to tell from the pictures, but the monument is indeed right on the bank of the Tagus River, which connects to the Atlantic Ocean

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For Americans, the most familiar name would likely be Vasco de Gama, third from right.

Walking a bit further along the embankment, we came to the Belem Tower, a structure Wikipedia tells me was built in the early 16th century to be both a defence system at the river’s entrance, as well as a ceremonial gate to Lisbon. Like the monastery, it too is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Like any spontaneous traveler, however, I had failed to read up on the sites ahead of our trip, so didn’t know any of these details at the time, but what I did know was that it was an absolutely lovely structure, with intricate architectural details, and like the Monument to the Discoveries, faced out to sea, something of an ode to Portugal’s maritime past.

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Approaching the tower along the river embankment

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A regal tower against a clear blue sky

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A look at the tower from the opposite side

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The sailboats give a sense of the scale of the tower

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Gurkan, husband and travel partner, looks toward the ocean

We spent not more than a couple hours in Belem, but were able to take in the main sites – the Monument to the Discoveries and the Tower of Belem – as well as try the famed custard tarts. In addition to the Jeronimos Monastery, Belem is also home to several museums, so one could easily spend much, much longer in this Lisbon district.

Day 1 & 2 in Lisbon coming soon…

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