LISBON'S striking urban design is often compared to that of Paris. It is truly a city of squares and monuments, which was redesigned and rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1755. A visitor could plan a tour going from square to square on Lisbon's beautifully laid-out streets, bordered by mosaic sidewalks. Among the more dramatic of the city's sculptures is the Monument to the Discoveries, situated in the Bel'em section of the city. It juts out over the bank of the Tagus River like the prow of a boat, as a testimony to the country's early supremacy on the seas and its strong seafaring tradition. The wide Tagus flows into the Atlantic Ocean nearby and has long been used as a channel by seagoing vessels. My husband and I visited Lisbon last October, during the week of the anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America. Back home, the United States was having a holiday. The coincidence in the timing made history come alive in this gloriously sunny place.
Standing on the prow of the Monument to the Discoveries is Prince Henry the Navigator, holding a small replica of a sailing vessel. Behind him and descending on both sides of the huge monolith are figures of famous Portuguese and Spanish explorers including Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus; famous mapmakers; and astronomers who followed Henry's inspiration not only to explore the world but to chart it. Surrounding the statue on the flat square in back is an inlaid mosaic map depicting the enormous scope of Portugal's discoveries.
It's quite natural to find a naval museum, the Museu da Marinha, close by, dedicated to the history of the sea. The museum is housed in a building adjoining the Jer'onimos Monastery, one of Lisbon's most ornamental architectural wonders and home to some Europe's most beautiful cloisters. The delicate sun-bleached cloister walls look almost like white lace. The Manueline architectural style bridges the gap between Gothic and Renaissance styles and features ornate columns incorporating designs from the sea - shells, twisted rope, and other marine motifs.
Inside the Marine Museum one can visit 10 galleries and see displays of early maps and models of every type of sailing vessel, from those of early times to present-day merchant marine ships and submarines. The galleries are so full of objects that it's hard to take everything in. But there is a freshness to the presentation in well-lit rooms.
We thought the relics of the 15th and 16th centuries were most interesting, as this was when the famous discoverers were venturing into the New World and returning to claim their finds for Portugal and Spain.
Glass cases display large scale models of the better-known types of ships. There's a square-sailed caravel with four masts and a Portuguese nau with square sails, used by da Gama in discovering the sea route to India in 1498. Along the walls are charts showing sea routes taken by the ships, while navigational instruments are shown behind glass.
Visitors with an interest in naval warfare during World Wars I and II will find a sizable collection of models, some quite large, of more recent ships used by the Portuguese Navy.
Others might be be impressed with the extensive collection of miniature models, extremely accurate in detail, which fill at least two galleries.
These models came from an important private collection given to the museum in 1948 by Henrique Maufray de Seixas. One portion of the deSeixas collection is a room with models of every kind of fishing boat used along the Portuguese coast. Some boats are long and flat, while others sit high in the water with high sterns. Some evolved from early boats of Mesopotamian origins.
A final gallery features unusual glassed-in displays of two large cabins from the yacht Amelia, which belonged to the last reigning monarchs of Portugal, King D. Carlos and Queen D. Amelia. Built around the turn of the century, it was equipped for oceanographic study, one of the king's interests.
The carefully laid out built-ins could serve as a prototype design for a modern mobile home or yacht - except that these fittings were made of heavy, mellowed oak paneling. Every inch of the living room was filled. From corner to corner are a double bed, closet, dressing table, bookshelves, a knee-hole desk, and a sofa. One wall includes a fireplace complete with brass andirons and coal scuttle.
All of this splendor, however, ended when Portugal became a republic in 1910. The yacht Amelia was stripped and converted into a dispatch boat called the Cinco de Outubro (Fifth of October, Portugal's Independence Day).
Outside the Marine Museum in the expansive courtyard are various full-size wooden fishing boats. These are sturdy examples of boats still used along the coast - attesting to the continuing tradition of the Portuguese on the seas.
The Marine Museum, on Praca do Imperio, Bel'em, is open daily except Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. A simple guide to the museum, in three languages, along with post cards, books, and replicas of museum charts, can be bought in the museum foyer. Next door is the Portuguese Naval Academy, where crisply uniformed students can be seen at leisure and on duty in the buildings, one of which has a planetarium with daily showings.
Sonia W. Thomas is the Monitor's travel editor.