It’s perhaps no surprise that one of the most notable museums in Lisbon is all about Portugal’s seafaring heritage. The Museu da Marinha ("Navy Museum") celebrates the country’s nautical, go-getting past, with an eclectic display of rare and valuable artifacts, exhibits that include navigational charts and instruments, period furniture and paintings, a royal barge and several examples of early fishing boats. There’s even the odd seaplane thrown in for good measure!
But it’s the fabulously detailed scale model ships displayed throughout the museum that really define the collection, and Portugal’s legacy as a sea power to be reckoned with. These miniature replicas are so meticulously crafted that it’s a wonder a Lilliputian crew, all long hair and beards, don’t suddenly appear on deck with orders to "Heave to!" so they can all be admired close up.
The museum is suitably housed in the west wing of the Jerónimos monastery in Belem, hallowed turf indeed. It was in this locale that intrepid fifteenth-century mariners gathered for mass in a chapel built by Henry the Navigator (1394–1460) before embarking on long and often dangerous voyages to lands yet to be discovered. And it’s a statue of the austere and pious Henry, flanked by other illustrious personalities of the age, that greet visitors as they embark on their own voyage of discovery. Discoveries Hall in the Museu da Marinha — Photo courtesy of Museu da Marinha
The museum experience sets sail in the Discoveries Hall, a grand and noble salon that illustrates Portugal’s extraordinary prowess in shipbuilding from the mid-fifteenth century, and ably charts the nation’s trail-blazing period of conquest and exploration.
The boat of the moment is the caravel, a sturdy, somewhat bulbous vessel ideally suited to a wild, rolling ocean and which carried the first wave of navigators as far as the southern tip of Africa. Ultimately, these beetle-shaped boats, distinguished by the crimson Cross of the Order of Christ on their sails, would reach India in 1498, China in 1513 and, thirty years later, Japan. Muse over these astonishing feats of navigation as you wander the hall and admire the showcased models and accompanying charts and maps that depict the world as it was known then.
The exhibits are arranged chronologically, with each hall dedicated to a particular century, time line or theme. In the Eighteenth Century Hall, for example, the focus is on Portuguese naval history. Here, the must-see attraction is the replica of the frigate D. Fernando II e Glória. Built in Goa in 1843, she was the last ship to sail the India Run. Again, the dexterity of the model maker is remarkable.
The Royal Cabin Room is a real eye-opener. Here, visitors can marvel at the plush, wood-paneled cabins used by King Carlos and Queen Amélia, preserved and refurbished for posterity after the royal yacht Amélia was dismantled in 1938. The polished silverware, porcelain and crystal wouldn’t look out of place in a mansion house or palace.
Decorative art from the Far East adorns the Oriental Room on the first floor, and it’s worth lingering in this modest chamber to absorb the exhibition of chairs and writing desks, Chinese porcelain vases, ancient weaponry and other collectibles.
The Samurai warriors, however, steal the show! Set away from the main building across the concourse is the contemporary-styled Barge Pavilion, so named because it houses a number of barges built for the Portuguese royal family. The prize for best looks goes to the royal brig built in 1780 for Maria I. Its gilded stern positively glows! Several galiots – shallow-draught ketches – make up the numbers. Three seaplanes (one of which is the Santa Clara) made the first crossing of the South Atlantic in 1922 and help end the tour on a visual high.