Monthly Archives: August 2015

Here Be Dragons: The Promontory of Sagres, Portugal

lighthouse & cliffsAt times, we’ll hear the comment that we, two retired baby boomers with itchy feet and pursuing our travel dreams, are adventurous. And maybe for our time and (especially for our age!) we have the spirit of adventure since we’ve left the comfortable and familiar environs of a middle-class existence in the US to see more of the world, one continent at a time. We carry with us our laptops that link us instantaneously (or so we’d like) to information regarding bus, train and flight routes, weather, lodging and even recommendations for the best places to eat. But as we stood on the promontory of Sagres Point, near the southwesterly tip of continental Europe, we felt we were at the edge of the earth. As the ferocious winds buffeted us and we gazed at waves below us crashing into the sheer cliffs we couldn’t help but talk about the adventurers. Men who set off, in the times of “Here be dragons,” into the great unknown with sketchy maps, meager food and water supplies and a great curiosity as to what lay beyond as well as dreams of finding their fortunes.

When Portugal was in the ascendancy in the late middle ages it was in large part due to the efforts of their royal leader, Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460). Recognizing the historic and logistic positioning of the promontory as a demarcation of the known and unknown worlds – Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian and Roman captains had all stopped at this boundary – Henry capitalized on its deficiencies. The area was sparsely populated due to the continual ravaging of pirate hoards; Henry recolonized the land and built protective forts. He brought in people so there were families to raise crops to feed the growing population. He mobilized craftsmen to work the timbers and metals which he imported to maintain the fleet of discovery and there were the skilled cartographers who worked with the returning captains and crews to update, clarify and expand the accuracy of mapmaking.

Commemorating the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry's death and The Great Age of Discovery

Commemorating the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry’s death and The Great Age of Discovery, Lagos

Henry’s exploratory crews benefited from the improved design and performance of the caravel sailing ships. These boats, of greater antiquity, were given more masts, a broader beam and a mix of square and lanteen sails that handled well, sailing into the wind. The fast, nimble and responsive ships were designed to meet the challenges of discovering and mapping the off-shore islands of the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries and later, the coast of Africa and eventually, the Indian Ocean. In the process the astrolabe, sun-dial and mariner’s compass were improved and refined. Each new expedition of seafarers went forth armed with revised knowledge and techniques brought back by the previous crews. It is the simple truth that Prince Henry put his country on the path to the pinnacle of exploratory prowess in his lifetime.walls and entrance to fort - Promontorio de Sagressentry box - Promontorio de SagresAnd that path led directly to the Fortaleza de Sagres, a central fortress in what came to be a string of coastal defenses against privateers from the Moorish lands of North Africa and, in time, other European nations. As we approached the fort we spied from a distance the curtain wall that served as protection from a land based attack. The remainder of the fortifications outside of the walls were in gun batteries, and a lone, remaining sentry box, on the eastern shore battery.

The guns overlooked sheer drops into the wildly rolling waves of the sea. The armaments were protection for commercial watercraft, fishing vessels and explorers’ ships which could find shelter in the leeward bay under the guns. Those cannons facing out to the south and west could harass the invaders and keep them at bay.Promontorium de SagresInside the gate of the fort is an enormous design of rocks and cobblestones arranged in a pattern which some believe to be a mariner’s compass while others think it’s a sundial. Called the Rosa dos Ventos theChurch of Santa Maria -Promontorium de Sagres  outline was excavated in 1921. And again, opinions differ as some think the stonework may date from Prince Henry’s time, while others guess that the 16th century is more likely. The precinct’s oldest buildings include a cistern tower to the east (for always there was a need for water), a house, and the small, whitewashed, 16th-century church, La Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Graça , a simple barrel-vaulted structure with a gilded 17th-century altarpiece. A magazine, a more recent addition, for storing shot and powder stands prudently off eschewing neighbors in the event of mishap.

wall of cistern tower - Promontorio de Sagres

wall of cistern tower – Promontorio de Sagres

The Forteleza, begun by Portugal’s Prince, was altered, expanded upon and finally completed in the 18th century. It may be billed as the star of the promontory – the physical manifestation of Henry the Navigator’s designs for his fledgling nation. But in reality, the commanding presence at the site was the fissured, eroded land; the hardy low-lying vegetation that clung valiantly to life on the windswept escarpment; the gulls, terns, frigate birds and albatross that circled, rose and plummeted on the currents; the wind that swept up and over the land, bending people and plants to its will.outbuilding - Promontorio de Sagresfisherman on cliffsThese and the fishermen. For the people here have always been part of the sea and land. Here, at land’s end, at the edge of the once known world the men still gather to seek their sustenance. They fish for what the sea will offer that day such as bream, cuttlefish or sea bass. They challenge the wind’s wrath by moving about on these sheer precipices, precariously balanced and certainly we were relieved to see that none were carried off as we cautiously stood far back from the cliffs to keep our feet firmly planted on terra firma.fisherman on cliffs - Promontorio de SagresWe were enthralled. There was a tremendous power in the invisible hand of the wind as it pushed and swept around us and across the promontory accompanied by the background roar of the waves. You can see immediately why the ancients would have believed this to be the edge of the world and that beyond, dragons might indeed wait to prey on the foolhardy and unwary. It was with some reluctance that we left the site at the promontory of Sagres for it turned out to be one of the highlights of our time in Portugal.

By Richard and Anita

Simple Pleasures in Southern Portugal: The Algarve Region

beaches and housesMention that you’re planning a visit to the Algarve Region of Portugal to most Europeans and they’ll nod knowingly and remark upon its reputation for having some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe.streets of Alvor   Mention that you’ll be going in the months of June and July to a native Portuguese and they’ll comment on the rates which increase two to threefold during the high season as well as the influx of people from all over Europe which triples the off-season population of approximately 500,000 permanent residents.  In Portugal itself, the coastline is THE most popular holiday destination and it’s estimated that up to ten million people (Portuguese as well as millions of foreign visitors) vacation in the Algarve Region annually.  It’s difficult to find affordable accommodations in June, harder in July as rates do a quick upward tick and by August, the pinnacle of the tourist season, it’s almost impossible.

But, since we had to be somewhere in Europe during the early summer months and we’d read enough about the Algarve to pique our interest, we grinned bravely while looking at the rental bill, gulped a bit as we handed over our money and landed in the municipality of Albufeira, almost dead in the center of the Algarve coast.

We never quite got the pronunciation of the sleepy little parish where we stayed, Ferreiras (Fer-RARE-as) correct but we developed a real affection for this wide-spot-in-the-road of 6400 souls (we weren’t quite sure where they all were) with a round-about that sorted people into four different quadrants and a charming railroad station (circa 1918) from which we shuttled east and west across the southern coast every few days to view a different destination.  Located about 3 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the surrounding countryside of Ferreiras is mainly agricultural with almond, fig, olive and carob trees.  Gorgeously juicy oranges were abundant in the orchards and a bagful, sold at the side of the road, could cost as little as a Euro alongside some of the biggest lemons we’d ever seen.

countryside near Ferrieras

countryside near Ferrieras

Since we were in the middle of the Algarve Region we were never at a loss to find a place to visit among the fifty plus parishes, villages and little towns dotting the coast and interior like undiscovered pearls with their Roman ruins and ancient bridges still being used to this day, castles, mosques built by the Moors, centuries old churches and walled cities.  And of course, the Algarve’s hundreds of beaches, gracing the approximately one-hundred mile coast with their fine white and golden sands and coves, clear waters in vivid shades of turquoise and aquamarine, stunning rock formations and limestone bluffs that ranged from worn smooth and subtly colored to rugged precipices pocked with caves and hidden grottoes accessible only by water.beachfront

A favorite day trip of ours by bus and only 4 kilometers away was the municipality of Albufeira, famed for its red-white and blue, street scenebeaches and one of the most popular coastal destinations in southern Portugal since the 1970’s.  Originally it was a fortified Roman city, later occupied by the Moors (who gave the city its present name) for several centuries and then a quiet fishing village for hundreds of years.  The heart of Albufeira is its old historic town with dazzling whitewashed buildings silhouetted against an intensely blue sky and mazes of steep and winding, narrow streets leading down to the sea.  Alongside the cobbled streets are cafes, shops, bars and bistros and a central square, Largo Duarte Pacheco.  Spreading out from the old town are tourist accommodations for every budget including ultra-posh resorts, five-star hotels and residential homes and condos as well as a recently built marina.overlooking streets and shops

Several outings to Albufeira to wander its charming streets, visit its beaches and people watch at the outside cafes were always topped with meals of local dishes like razor clams and rice, freshly caught fish such as grilledwind vane sardines and sea bass, roasted piri-piri chicken, spicy from the peppery sauce and the mouth-watering seafood dish we ordered whenever we saw it on the menu, cooked in a large copper pot, called Cataplana.

We may have hesitated initially at paying the inflated rates for accommodations during the summer season but the Algarve Region has us convinced that the Portuguese know how to celebrate the simple pleasures of life.  Everywhere we went we were welcomed by people who smiled and spoke a few words of English during a transaction or tried to help us with our mangled Portuguese pronunciations.  And the beautiful countryside, beaches, historic landmarks and an abundance of fresh food beautifully prepared were always near by.  We’re convinced that the Algarve Region lives up to all the hype and acclaim and is well-worth a visit at any time of the year.

clock tower & wandering streets

Clock tower with filigreed iron support and bell on Rua Bernardino de Sousa, Albufeira

Next post:  More on the Algarve from Sagres.

By Anita and Richard

 

Pillars of the Earth: La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada FamiliaOver twenty years ago we voraciously devoured the Ken Follett historical novel “Pillars of the Earth,” a huge volume about a 12th century stonemason who dreams of building a massive cathedral unlike anything seen before.  Tom Builder begins his life’s work knowing that it will not be completed in his lifetime but trusting that it will be finished.  And we couldn’t help but compare this fictional character to the real life Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi, who collaborated with the Catholic Church to design and oversee the construction of La Sagrada Familia, the most iconic structure in Barcelona.  Begun in 1882 and still under construction today, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was consecrated as a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 and is Barcelona’s number one tourist site, welcoming over 3,000,000 visitors a year.La Sagrada Familia

Outside, the cranes tower over the basilica’s spires, plastic sheeting covers parts of the exterior and everywhere, throngs of people stand:  in long lines behind the gates, shorter lines awaiting admittance with their e-tickets, s-curved lines at the stands for audio headsets and lines awaiting entrance into the church itself.La Sagrada FamiliaThose not in lines gather alongside the walls with their heads tipped back and looking up, up, up, examining the carvings and sculptures, stories in stone, cameras clicking.La Sagrada Familia

And inside … We join the throng of people surging into the central nave and extricate ourselves as quickly as possible to stand quietly for a few moments trying to absorb the vast space. Organ music swells in the background and reverberates around us, voices are muted and there is the sound of shuffling feet.  We are awestruck.La Sagrada Familia

Above us the giant, tree-like pillars reach from earth to heaven, branches touching and supporting the spectacular vaulted ceiling.  Light filters in from enormous panels of stained glass through the branches and pillars of granite, basalt, porphyry and Montjuïc stone. The noise from the crowd fades and we are in nature’s hallowed forest.La Sagrada Familia

Much has been written of La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudí’s final work and all-consuming obsession. Gaudi, like the fictionalized stonemason of “Pillars of The Earth” was well aware that he would never live to see his life’s work completed and is said to have remarked, “My client is not in a hurry.”  At the time of his death in 1926 the church was approximately twenty percent completed and construction was expected to last for a few more centuries in a time when all stone was carved by hand.La Sagrada Familia

With advances in technology, machines to shape and tool the stone and computer-aided design, the hope is to finish the basilica in 2026, a century after Gaudi’s death. Private benefactors sponsored the initial construction and Gaudi contributed his own money as well. At present the money received from ticket sales as well as donations from Friends of La Sagrada Família fund the continuing work at the site.La Sagrada Familia

Perhaps a highlight of our almost two-hour visit was the organ recital at noon of Ave Maria.  We were totally moved as we stood in the sublime surroundings of the central nave.  For people who profess no religious affiliations or interest we seem to find ourselves in churches and cathedrals rather often during the course of our travels.  Churches are often the place where a city displays its best architecture and art and the structure becomes linked with both a city’s history and identity.  This most certainly is true as La Sagrada Familia has become Barcelona’s signature emblem.

By Anita and Richard