From the first moment on this one was special!
And I am not talking about the visit, but my whole experience with the Museum of the Presidency of the Republic.
Only days before I went to the museum I had sent an email. It was part of my campaign to inform all museums about my quest and offering a partnership. Bruno from the communications team answered super quickly and we arranged a visit for the next day. Everything was happening so fast. And my first invite was only one day away!
Of course, I was excited. I had waited for this for a while already. But I was also nervous. What did I have to expect from it? How should I prepare?
Well, I wrote up some questions. Nothing super specific, after all I didn’t know the museum yet, and thought, the rest will come up during the visit. And so I went to Belem, met Bruno and had an incredible experience.
The Museum of the Presidency actually has two parts. An exhibition and the Belem Palace, the president’s official residence. The former, honestly, was not very special. It was small and didn’t offer much. Especially for foreigners, as most related to the history of the Portuguese Republic. Although it didn’t really go deep, I did learn quite a bit about it from Bruno, but more on that later. Most space on the walls was dedicated to the country’s presidents. Before I only knew the current one, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, because he is on TV all the time or my friends meet him somewhere around Lisbon.
Besides the portraits the museum exhibited state gifts, given to the presidents by guests from abroad. They were beautiful pieces, no questions, and I even found one from Germany, but there was no backstory connected to them unfortunately.
Suddenly I walked into an almost black room. It was all about the Palace, summarizing its history, showing some videos and a 3D model of the building. The rest of the museum was already not lit very well, without any natural light. Why this room had to be so extremely dark didn’t make sense to me. Regardless of the poor light conditions, it was still nice to see the dimensions of the compound, especially after the visit when I could relate to the building better and understand where I had been.
Apart from bad lighting and little information, the museum’s design was surprisingly modern and appealing. The atmosphere was in line with the palace and the state gifts. I really liked the idea of the red and green lighting, which represented the national colours.
Bruno mentioned that a revision of the museum was in the making, planning to use technology to adapt to our modern lifestyles and become more attractive to visitors. The focus will be more on the history of the republic, giving both Portuguese and foreigners an interesting experience. I am definitely looking forward to it and will come back as soon as it opens.
In general, the museum does quite well, which is due to two reasons. Firstly, it is not part of the group of national museums and operates under the budget of the President of the Republic. Therefore all the monetary issues I discussed in other articles do not concern this museum. Secondly, it is located in the area of Belem, where popular sights like Torre de Belem, the Jeronimos Monastery and the National Coach Museum are. Hence the Museum of the Presidency benefits from tourist streams passing by and having a look.
While there are passersby, some elderly locals interested in history and families, many visitors come specifically for the palace, often unaware that tours are only offered on Saturdays.
Alright, I referred to the Belem Palace several times now, so here it finally is!
Be a fan of pink or not, it’s a beautiful building!
You might start laughing, or have some other sort of reaction, once you hear why it was painted in this colour. I most definitely had to supress some heavy laughter when Bruno revealed that pink was just the cheapest colour. There are quite a few other important pink buildings such as the Costume Museum. Xenia and Elsa, who gave me a tour there, could, however, not confirm if it was for the same reason. I will keep investigating!
The Belem Palace has quite a long history and is therefore strongly connected with Lisbon’s and Portugal’s past. Even ties with other places around the city came up again and again. I loved it! Since I get around almost exclusively on my bike, I know the city better than most people. Yes, yes the hills, I know. But it’s really not that bad and remember, once you’re up you get to go down again.
When Bruno told us these stories, I just enjoyed making all the connections between the different buildings, understanding the city better and better.
This time I will try to keep the history lesson short though, as you will learn all about it during the tour.
The links of the building even go beyond Lisbon all the way to Mafra, a city some 40 kilometers north west, known for it’s palace and convent. Well, originally Mafra Palace was supposed to be in Belem right where the president’s residence is today.
Of course, we didn’t get past the earthquake during our tour. And the story Bruno had to tell was highly amusing. As a regular reader you already know that Lisbon was widely destroyed in 1755. All of Lisbon? No! A little town along the river to the west was spared. Just the place where the royal family was. Afraid of further shocks they decided to live in a tent not far from Belem Palace. The tent turned into a hut and quickly 40 years had passed when a fire burned down the wooden structure. Maybe it was sentimentality, but probably they just liked the spot so much that they decided to build a palace on the ashes of their provisional residence. That palace is now known as Ajuda Palace and another very beautiful sight in Lisbon.
In a previous article I explained that Belem looked much different in the past. Until the end of the 19th century there was no railway, no ferry terminal, no Coach Museum and no park in front of the palace. Instead there was only water and the palace was accessed by boat.
Standing out there on the terrace looking over the area in front of it and trying to imagine all that being water, was a little weird. What I saw was how I knew Belem. Until two weeks ago. Amazing how much the face of a town can change within just 130 years.
What role does the president play in Portugal? How does the palace look on the inside? And what does it have to do with wild, exotic animals? All that and more in Part 2!