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

54 comments

  • 1st: what you’re doing is amazing and we ALL should do the same!
    2nd: found your page searching random things about Sagres, and you’ve made a nice resume about the history from my place
    3rd: https://www.facebook.com/viladesagres that’s my facebook page in case you wanna follow the daily pictures i post 😉

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  • Oh so beautiful, Richard and Anita! I just love the pure simplicity of it. Being somewhat of a minimalist at heart, your photos of the pure blue and clean white truly grab me. Gorgeous! Can’t wait to go back. Do you know how long you’ll be wandering in Portugal, or is it open-ended? 🙂 ~Terri

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    • Thanks, Terri for your lovely words! It’s funny you should ask how long we’ll be in Portugal as we are in the waiting phase of applying and hoping for approval for a long term visa for Portugal. We fell in love with the country and hope to spend a long time getting to know the country and its people. And be sure to let us know when you return!

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  • http://www.santafetravelers.com

    Promontorio de Sagres looks wonderful. I love promontories- for me there’s nothing like looking out at the vast ocean.

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    • We so agree! We find ourselves constantly drawn back to the coasts of whatever body of water we’re near and plan our travel so as never to be too far away from an ocean or lake. The Caribbean seas are soothing and tranquil but I love the exhilaration of the wild and windy coasts, with the waves pounding against the rocks and looking out to the horizon – breathtaking!

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  • What a wonderful discovery!
    I have long wanted to visit Portugal and, now, through you, I have. Thank you.

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  • What a wonderful post. I love the historical background. Travellers of this time definitely were incredible adventurers. You now have me intrigued and we’re planning to see if we can include Sagres our itinerary for next year’s visit.

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  • If you think about it, our space and undersea explorers of the 21st century have inherited the Portuguese willingness to sail out beyond the map to where “there be dragons”—-except, of course, with the benefit of advanced telecommunications. We never made it to Sagres during our visit to Portugal, but I was fascinated by the maritime history museum in Lisbon. Your description of the wind and bluffs reminds me some of our experience at Cape Point in South Africa.

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    • We were fascinated to watch a documentary a few weeks ago about the current project to map our oceans and you’re right, there’s much to be discovered yet! We’ll be returning to Portugal later this year and will hopefully be spending some time in Lisbon with one of our first stops being the Maritime History Museum. Thanks for your recommendation!

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  • great writing and a beautiful description and pictures. I would say that one picture is of a compass , which due to the tip of the earth, ever 10 years it changes 1/2 of a degree so they should be able to tell exactly when it was made by how many degrees it is off hahha At the Airport, I had a survey crew map out with pins every 10 years what was called a compass rose so planes could line up on it and adjust their compasses (small planes don’t have all the fancy stuff commercial ones do hahaha) One of the reference points on this old compass would have to delineate magnetic north or true north and it is probably either long gone, got missplaced digging it up, or they just knew which point was what at the time

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    • Thanks, Tom for your comment about the Rosa dos Ventos. It’s really interesting that the small planes at the Missoula airport were using a version of the Compass Rose to calibrate their compasses as late as a few years ago and that the method dates back so many centuries! One thing we loved about our time in Spain and Portugal was the feeling that history was not so long ago – Can’t wait to return!

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  • We have loved our times in Portugal, and look forward to returning soon for a longer stay. Your description of seaside bluster certainly reinforces our desire to experience the rocky promontories of Sagres on our next trip to the “edge of the earth”!

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  • Your writing has me shaking my head and wondering why I haven’t been to Portugal. I have to admit that you had me at “Here Be Dragons” but I really enjoyed the history you’ve provided it entices me to get to Sagres sooner than later. Thanks!

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    • Portugal has us hooked and we think you’ll find it well worth your time for a, hopefully, long visit to see its many facets. We’re admittedly history geeks and we’re fascinated with its history that stretches back for centuries. It’s not too difficult to find ruins and structures from the Romans and Moors. And we haven’t even mentioned the food, the people, the countryside … !

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  • Great entry and beautiful pictures. I particularly like the compass or sundial. Looks like another beautiful area. Thanks for sharing.
    Suzi

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  • It intrigues me too that people sailed in ships far enough away into the ocean to not be able to see land anymore. They had no communication technology, so they had absolutely no help if they hit a storm, for example. Such bravery. Or foolhardiness. You’ve described Sagres, Portugal beautifully!

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    • We’d be the first to say our adventurous streak is pretty tame! Richard has at least some sense of direction but I rely on my handy little compass and whatever map I have in hand or our GPS until I figure my way around a new place. And the idea of no communication to receive reliable information and directions (or dragon advisories!) is really hard to envision. Whatever their motivation these early explorers have earned their places in history.

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  • The limitless curiosity of man and his fearless search for answers into the unknown find no better expression than in this piece of land in southwest Portugal. Thanks for a wonderful article on Sagres!

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  • Thanks for a lovely story this morning. Here be Dragons – the title demanded attention and I wasn’t disappointed. Loved the snippets of history and being transported back to life back then – yes, how hard it must have been.

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    • We’re so glad you enjoyed the post, Johanna! Sometimes a title is all it takes for us to figure out the direction a post is going to take and the history of Sagres as well as Prince Henry’s biography gave us plenty to work with. It is easy to imagine, though what a demanding journey and gruesome end some of these sailors experienced!

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  • We are so pampered during the age we live in. It is incomprehensible to me how these explorers managed to accomplish what they did. I loved the history lesson as well as the imagery. Wonderful job.

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    • Oh you’re so right about how pampered we are even though we travel on the budget side! We have a difficult time understanding the courage (or foolhardiness!) of those who dared to venture forth, be it the European explorers, the Asian adventurers or our own ancestors in the US venturing westward into the great unknown. Give us a map, some guidebooks and online info, though and we’re ready to go!

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  • I just took a river cruise on the Douro, but we went north. We didn’t visit Sagres. It does look beautiful and will have to consider stopping by during my next trip to Portugal. I really fell in love with the countryside.

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    • Your account of the river cruise was terrific as were your photos and we need to put that area of Portugal on our must see list to visit when we return to this fascinating country. And you’re right – we also fell in love with the countryside which is beautiful and makes us feel like we’ve stepped back in time.

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  • I haven’t been to Sagres but I can see why it must have felt like the “edge of the earth”. What a fascinating history it has.

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  • Hi Anita and Richard – you know I’m a big fan, but this post is truly a masterpiece of writing. Transported I was, looking out at the vast beyond with you and feeling fragile in the face of the powerful wind bursts. I think this may be your best post. Ever. Well done!

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  • What a wonderful post! It beckons me back to Portugal. Until we recently visited, I never realized it had such a rich history of conquering and being conquered~

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  • It’s amazing what a difference Henry the Navigator made, not only to Sagres but the wider world. It’s such an evocative place and I just love that map with the dragon and weird sea creatures. My husband would love it!

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    • It really is astounding to think of the great explorers taking off with rudimentary maps that show the edge of the earth or monsters, navigating by the stars in small ships powered only by sails. The meager supplies of foodstuffs and fresh water as well as the fact that so few of these people possessed any kind of education and were so totally ignorant of what might await them must have made what seems daunting now so much more then!

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  • This place has a fascinating history. I wonder what it must have been like back in its heyday when it was actively in use. I agree that traveling today is so much connected and informed than back then when people really thought that they might encounter dragons.

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    • It’s fun to imagine what this place looked like then and the people working and carrying on with their daily lives. And then we can connect online to read about the history, view the maps, speculate on what they ate and wore as well as how they entertained themselves during any leisure time. We definitely are traveling at the best of all times!

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  • So well-written again. I am never able to get down to the details of history and weave it into the present moment. I simply make a broad overview of the past. You do such a good job. Hope to be in Sagres, Portugal next year!

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  • Scary to think it must have been 20 years since I’ve last visited and it looks like things have not changed dramatically in the region from tourism outside of the beach areas. Loved the intro paragraph and history Anita.

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    • Thanks Noel and we’re glad you liked our intro! We tried to put ourselves in the shoes of the explorers during the great “Age of Discovery” and I’m afraid our spirit of adventure is sorely lacking! So much of Portugal’s history seemed to permeate into the present so that it’s easy to try and picture ourselves in each era as we learned more about the events and people. I imagine that when you make a return visit you’ll find that time moves slowly in this country and that the updates aren’t too many!

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  • Anita, in our last 3 discussions about where to go next, Portugal has been on the list. We’ve been before but that was years ago, and we’re anxious to go back. The villages in your post look charming, and they give us some ideas. The Algarve probably calms considerably in early spring and autumn, so that’s when we usually plan to be in Europe. We’re off to the Balkans in a few days, so maybe we’ll make Portugal next year. And BTW, thanks for the historical overview. ~James

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    • There seems to be a timelessness about Portugal and I can’t imagine that it has changed that much since you were here last. Things seem to be a bit simpler and exploring the little villages with their narrow roads and whitewashed buildings was a treat. We’ve been told that the Algarve is much quieter after the hectic high season of June-July-August and we’re looking forward to some quieter time for more exploring when we return there later this year. Maybe our paths will cross!

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  • loved these photos

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  • Loved having a sneak preview! Again so interesting!!

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  • Very interesting photos and information about the “edge of the world” in Portugal. I enjoyed reading the history and can only imagine what courage it took for the adventurers of old to set off into the unknown.

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    • As we’ve traveled over the years I’ve tried to imagine those hardy adventurers taking off for lands unknown including many who arrived in the US and Canada with few provisions and no practical skills for survival. You’re right about the courage it must have taken (and maybe sheer ignorance or desperation!) and I know, without a doubt, that we would lack the “right stuff” for such an adventure…

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  • Thanks for filling in a bit of history – these old forts always fill me with awe thinking about the amount of work and people it took to get them built.

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    • Unfortunately there isn’t too much left except a few buildings and the massive wall due to at least one attack by no other than England’s pirate, Sir Frances Drake and the massive earthquake of 1755. It is daunting to think of the work and time involved transporting the supplies and building a fort of this size with few tools and sheer determination!

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