Here Be Dragons: The Promontory of Sagres, Portugal
At 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.
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.And 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.Inside 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 the 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.
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.These 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.We 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