Ah, what a day in Belém district this was! We started with a little elevenses (a mid morning snack) at Versailles Belém, followed by a trip to the Museu Nacional dos Coches (The National Coach Museum) and a tour by horse and carriage. We finished with a late lunch at Rui dos Pregos.
Pastelaria Versailles Belém
Versailles is an iconic pastelaria (patisserie) established in Lisbon in 1922. The original Versailles still stands in Avenida da República – a beautiful mix of art nouveau and Versailles Palace inspiration. The tasty pastries are themselves a work of art.
The Belém branch opened earlier this year and is not quite as pretty. In fact, it’s rather bland, but I tell you, the pastries are still a-m-a-z-i-n-g. Even better is the staff. Liliana and Sandra looked after us so well. They were incredibly kind, patient and playful with my two girls, specially the youngest who seems to have fire on her backside and is unable to stay still.
Liliana and Sandra were wonderful. They offered the girls a couple of heart shaped biscuits (called ‘sortido’ in Portugal) and a little slice of Portuguese Christmas cake for the elders – my mum and I. We ordered a strawberry tart and a douchese. Despite all the banter and smiles, it was time to say Adeus (Goodbye in Portuguese) and get on with the programme and visit Museum dos Coches as planned.
Museum Nacional dos Coches (National Coach Museum)
The new home of this old museum houses a fine collection of coaches and carriages from the 16th century onwards – the largest and most valuable collection of its type in the world.
I’m not a fan of the new building, which reminds me of Brutalistic style, one of the architecture I’m least fond of. I’ve not explored the entire site but the front entrance is not welcoming. Inside, we enter a huge lift that takes us to what looks like a hangar for coaches. I would have preferred an atmosphere that takes us back to the different periods the exhibits belong to. To be fair there were a couple sections of the museum with projections on the wall that provided historical context but, personally, I would prefer to have more around me to take me back to that time, not just white walls and a 20th century office-like ceiling. Apparently the museum was designed as it was precisely so that the coaches could shine in their own right, and most reviews of it offer high praise, so there you go, I could be wrong, but it’s my opinion.
I felt there was also a lack of educational information. The exhibits had information next to it to indicate the century and a brief story of those coaches in particular. There were also some interactive ‘kiosks’ offering the following in Portuguese, English, French and Spanish:
Virtual visit (we could see the coach it pertained to in 360 degrees, so for example, the seats and ceiling inside it)
- Historical background
- Technical description
- Ambience of the period
- Once upon a time – a children friendly story which my eldest loved to explore
This would have been great if
- It was available for all exhibits
- Was an added bonus above other information provided on walls or boards. As it is, it can only be used by a person at a time
- Have audio. My little girl wanted to explore the Kiosk herself but couldn’t read it. It doesn’t feel quite as interactive and helpful if you can’t read or listen to it.
The other thing I was slightly disappointed with was the lack of resources for children. A colour in map or treasure hunt would be lovely to keep the children engaged. This type of museum lends itself to playful activities around the users of these historical pieces – Kings and Queens, diplomats, clergy. There is an interesting activity on Sundays but that’s all.
The museum opened in 1905. The original location of a richly-decorated 18th-century royal riding school, belonging to the Belem Palace, just across the road is still part of the Museum. We didn’t visit it on this occasion.
Having said all the above, it was still good to visit such a unique museum. It was interesting to see history reflected in the coaches: the earlier coaches covered in gold from the colonies, then more sombre ones and eventually the predecessors of cars, and postal service carriages. We spent around 2 hours in the museum, more than I thought the girls could handle. So all in all, a good result.
Horse and carriage
In Belem there are a few horses and carriages for tourists. At the entrance of the museum there was a lady called Gabriela with hers. Being an Alfacinha (Lisbon born and bred) I never even considered doing such a touristy thing. However, now that I’m on a mission to make my girls as Portuguese as they are British, and we were visiting the coach museum, it made sense to. It was also, I think, a bargain: if you have museum tickets, it only costs £5 per adult (full price would be £8.50) and children under 3 don’t pay.
Gabriela was so wonderful. If you do something like this please make sure you do it with her, she was so attentive to the girls, she made it a real treat! Sophia was riding next to her, Amelia tried but she was not so keen and went at the back with me. It was a really nice experience, mainly because of Gabriela and I guess the excitement of the girls to feel like princesses being carried around. Fandanga, the mare, did a fine, fine job. Fandango is a folk dance from Ribatejo, a region of Portugal known for its fine horses.
The route is short and includes the Palacio de Bel, Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, Planetario, Centro Cultural de Belém and Padrao dos Descobrimentos.
And with that, our tummies started rumbling.
Rui dos Pregos
We were dropped off by carriage, as you do, opposite the Presidential Palace, and walked across the road to go to one of the many lovely independent restaurants in the area. There is a strip next to Mosteiro do Jeronimos that appears to be very touristy – as in, set up to appeal for tourists. If you are looking for a more authentic experience, walk further east. From the Museum and the Versailles Belém onwards, you will find small restaurants that locals go to. They may not be as fancy, but they are top quality and budget friendly.
We could have gone to any but chose Rui dos Pregos, a great decision. I love sea food and we had a lovely Sapateira (a type of crab) with a super cold Portuguese beer (heaven!). The girls had a prego, a thin and tender beef steak fried in garlic and served sandwiched in a soft Portuguese bun.
The people who we had the pleasure of being served by were so exceedingly nice, welcoming and clearly so genuine, that they all helped make the day extra special. Plus, it was a lovely sunshiny day, just a week before Christmas. The girls had a fabulous day, and so did we. What’s not to like?
For another time…
The other attractions in Belém such as Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, Centro Cultural de Belém , Padrao dos Descobrimentos, and the Planetarium, which currently has an exhibition about the Vikings until the 4th of February 2018. I’ve been to most of these, a long, long time ago, and look forward to revisiting them with my children as they grow up.