Torre de Belém ...... Considering it is 500 years old, Belém Tower is in amazingly good condition. Built between 1515 - 1521, the fortress was used to protect Lisbon's harbor. As Portuguese sailors set out to find new trade routes around the globe, the Belém Tower was one of their lasts memories as they left home.

The tower's architect, Francisco de Arruda, worked for a while in Morocco. Perhaps that explains why the tower has a Moorish feel to it. The fortress is really a mix of several styles. The watchtowers are Moorish. A Venetian style mezzanine faces the river. Below the terrace lies a Gothic style interior that was once used as a prison.

As beautiful as it all was, Arruda never considered the fact that 500 years later the place would be a tourist attraction for thousands of guests. There was only one, narrow, spiral staircase leading to the top of the tower. Of course, everyone who visits the place wants to see the view from above. It was quite a balancing act on narrow steps as people navigated their way up and down those steps at the same time.

A little bit of trivia about one of my favorite artists made my visit to the tower complete. In 1513 a rhinoceros named Ganda arrived in Lisbon having survived the trip from India. It was the first rhino in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire. Obviously, it created quite a stir. While the Belém Tower was being built, it was decided to make the Gargoyles around the tower that looked like rhinos. King Manuel I of Portugal decided to send the rhino on to Pope Leo X as a gift. Unfortunately, there was a sudden storm arose off the coast of Italy and the ship sank. Poor Ganda was chained and secured on deck, so he went down with the ship. The story goes that the body was recovered and stuffed with straw. However, that may have been beyond 16th century taxidermy skills. Regardless, a description of the rhino and a brief sketch made its way to Germany. Albrecht Durer used this information to make his world famous wood carving of a rhino, even though he'd actually never seen one. The next rhino didn't make it to Europe until 1579.


Albrecht Durer's Rhino from 1515
Rhino Gargoyle
Copyright 2009 by Phillip Martin All rights reserved.