The Jerónimos Monastery
Although Portugal is a tiny country, by our standards, it holds a great bookmark in the story of western civilization. In large part due to the stories of those men who connected the world by braving the uncharted seas.
Our first morning in Portugal was greeted by low hanging coastal clouds that would soon give way to beautiful sunny skies. Our first stop was the magnificent Jerónimos Monastery standing stately near the Targus River. It is also the final resting place of Portugal’s favorite son, Vasco Da Gama.
The church, the monastery and the Tower of Belem which all stand in close proximity are symbols of the age of discovery for Portugal. Today they comprise a complex that has been declared a UNESCO heritage site. The monastery replaced a smaller church on the site and construction began in 1501 taking nearly 100 years to build. Over the years it has suffered from earthquakes and aging. Starting in the early 1900’s a series of renovations took place leaving the grounds and the monastery in pristine condition for the millions of tourist who visit each year.
As we walked into the hushed, darkened interior of the monastery church, there in stately remain were the great explorers of Portugal. The center stage was left for the most successful, Vasco Da Gama, the explorer who opened the sea route to the Spice Islands bringing unprecedented wealth to the tiny monarchy. Vasco Da Gama was born around 1460-1469 (?) and was the third of five sons. He studied math and navigation. His expedition was one that was preceded by other Portuguese sailors who believed there was a sea route to India and its wealth. Sponsored by the monarchy, on July 8, 1497, Da Gama set sail east around Cape Horn and eventually made his way to Calcutta, India. The journey home was extremely harrowing as they were caught in a late summer monsoon in the Indian Ocean. It cost Da Gama over half his men and one ship. But eventually, he returned home a hero on July 10, 1499. Although the spice trade was a major boom for the royal treasury, Da Gama’s landings on the east side of Africa, especially Kenya and the port of Mombasa, proved to be a wealth of timber, supplies and a freshwater port for repairs before the journey across the Indian Ocean.
Before entering we were told that the church would soon be closing as it was All Soul’s Day, a Catholic holy day, and Mass would begin at 11. Yet, into the quiet spaces the sound of beautiful voices began to echo. It was the Royal Navy choir rehearsing for the Mass that was soon to follow. In that moment it felt as if the Navy had come to celebrate her own, those who had given life and birth to the adventure and the stories of Portugal’s’ history on the high seas.