28th April 2018
Have you ever wondered why all the exterior walls of the Palácio de Belém are painted pink? This was the question put to fourteen IWP members and two associates by our guide, Daniela, after welcoming us and then revealing that it was the cheapest colour of paint! Dating from the 16th century and the reign of D. Manuel I de Portugal, she explained that it became the official palace of the president from the start of the republic in 1910. However, the last president to reside, as well as work in the palace, was Ramalho Eanes (1976-1986), all his successors preferring to live in their own homes.
From the external staircase, we entered the fountain room, which had originally functioned as a hall. Nowadays it’s where the president and heads of state speak to the press, following an audience. Eleven curtained doors access the rest of the palace.
Proceeding into the dining room, the location of the first museum housing state gifts, we learned that in the 18th century nobility ate anywhere, summoning servants to bring meals to whichever room in which they felt inclined to dine. We admired the parquet floor of Brazilian wood with its geometrical design replicated in the hand-woven carpet from Póvoa de Varzim. Nowadays, banquets are hosted in the palaces of Ajuda, Queluz and Cascais Cidadela.
Next was the golden room, with its ceiling designs incorporating gold leaf, in addition to golden wall fabric, furniture and flooring, and from which we accessed the windowless palace chapel, created in the 19th century. Dominated by its altar from 1670, it is no longer used for worship but now serves as an art gallery instead, in which hang eight of Paula Rego’s paintings.
The empire room sports the highest ceiling within the palace, whose fresco pays homage to Rei Dom João VI. Three stunning, brightly-coloured tapestries, woven on hand looms in Portalegre in 1945, dominate one wall. This area now functions as a waiting room.
The ambassadors’ room, with its imposing chandelier, is where countries representatives present their credentials and the president confers honours upon recipients. It was previously the dressing room of Dom Carlos and Dona Amélia.
In the official office of the president, Daniela explained that each incoming president normally selects his own furniture and décor but not so with Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who has left things unchanged. This room had once been Dona Amélia’s bedroom, in which her son was born.
We admired the view from the terrace overlooking the gardens whose tiles depicting the labours of Hercules, Daniela admitted, are neither the best of their generation nor was their restoration considered the best. Within the box gardens of French-inspired geometrical and symmetrical designs, our guide told us the president enjoys a peaceful, light lunch of bread, cheese and pineapple juice. The original gardens had been removed following the earthquake of 1755 for the royal family to spend the winter in tents on the site, in fear that the palace would succumb should there be another earthquake. Fortunately, there wasn’t a subsequent one, the palace surviving with only cracks in some walls.
In the gardens, below the palace terrace, Dona Maria I had built a recess offering an escape from the intense summer heat, its water fountain complementing its air of freshness. On the outer periphery of the gardens Daniela indicated a table at which the queen had enjoyed picnics with her children. From here we observed the adjacent cavalry stables.
In a smaller garden adjoining the tropical botanical gardens, we admired the separate beds of yellow and red roses. In commemoration of the declaration of the republic, an acer was planted here. Climbing stairs to a higher level, we visited the waterfall gardens, with an impressive statue of Hercules fighting the Hydra. On both sides of the waterfall were small palaces which Dona Maria I had built to house her collection of exotic birds.
Finally the Arrábida wing, which had been occupied as the president’s residence until 1986, and now stands unused. Daniela explained that the large windows on an upper floor had been installed for Dom Carlos I, a keen painter, who had used the location as his atélier.
Before departing, participants availed themselves of the opportunity to view state gifts in the Palace Museum, which is well worth a visit. Attractively displayed in a modern building, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, the exhibits are clearly labelled in both Portuguese and English.
Daniela was thanked for her excellent and informative tour. Members expressed their appreciation to Beverley and Jill for organising this visit before those who were available headed across the street to a French restaurant for what was a most enjoyable lunch.