The Worst of Humanity at Belém Tower, Lisbon

Belém Tower in Lisbon, Portugal, is really quite pretty to look at. Here’s a photo:


Unfortunately, that is all the positivity you’re getting out of me for this post because what’s inside that tower is not pretty. Don’t get me wrong, physically it’s fine. There’s stone and wood and some pleasant views. What isn’t pretty to look at inside Belém Tower is the people. And again, physically most of the people inside have two eyes, a nose, and an adequate amount of teeth. The ugliness is in either people’s behavior or their stupidity, I haven’t yet decided which.

For some context, some of the reviews of Belém Tower in Google Maps mention a terrible organizational system in how visitors are allowed into and out of the tower’s single staircase. Please note that such reviews are blaming the system itself for being stupid. And because this system was mentioned in a sizable number of reviews, we went in bracing for the worst. Probably some idiot designer did something wrong and created chaos. Which would be understandable: people make mistakes, accidents happen, etc.

However, I’ll describe the system so you can decide for yourself whether the system is inherently flawed. The tower has one spiral staircase for visitors to go up and come back down. There are four floors to stop and admire the views and look at the historical plaques. On each floor, above the entrance to the staircase, is a timer and two arrows, one pointing up and one pointing down, highlighted in green depending on whether visitors are allowed to ascend or descend at that time. After three minutes, there is thirty seconds of beeping to warn visitors that the direction is about to change. After that beeping, the highlighted arrow changes and the opposite direction begins. Three minutes later, more beeping, and then the direction changes again. Rinse and repeat for eternity.

What I described above is not complicated. In essence it’s simply this:

green = go

red = stop

beeping = get the hell out of the way as soon as possible

How many of these people do you think understand this system?

This system should be effective. It should work. Instead, a visit to Belém Tower goes something like this…

You wait patiently for three minutes at the bottom for the arrow to go green. You start climbing. One minute later, with two minutes still remaining for people to go up, down comes a family of six, followed by many other people, all of whom also have no idea how this system works or are just following the leader. You retreat half a turn and step off at the first floor. A flood of people make it to the bottom while the arrow above their heads still points upwards. Many people look at them confused or annoyed.

Fast forward however much time you think it might take to make it to the top of four floors of this tower, then you take some nice photos from the top. A few minutes later you’re making your way back down. Green arrow, three minutes, go. One flight is fine. Somehow even the second flight continues without a hitch. Then disaster. A French couple. What the hell are they doing? They’re pressing themselves against the wall and smiling as if suggesting that it’s a travesty that this very narrow spiral staircase isn’t being used simultaneously by people going up and down. No, Guillermo, two inches on the inside part of each stair is not enough to make this workable. Common sense would dictate that, but let’s do it your way, which is going to end in at least one broken neck by the end of the day. Sure, whatever, I’m cool, a little unnecessary danger caused by other people’s recklessness is just what my vacation needed right now.

Somehow a dozen people climb past the French couple without incident, albeit very slowly so we’re out of time and people have started coming up from the bottom. Now we look like the bad guys to the people coming up even though it was all Guillermo’s fault. And the cycle of chaos continues, unable to resolve itself.

What I’m not sure about is whether people are stupid enough to not understand green is go, red is stop, or if people disobey the rules because they think the physics of a spiral staircase don’t apply to them and they can do whatever they please. And honestly, does it matter? Humanity is terrible whichever way you look at it, so I’m going to go look at videos of cute animals to soothe my weary soul.



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