Saturday, August 10, 2002

An explorer's leap of faith

An explorer's leap of faith

There must be something out there, thought Henry the Navigator as he gazed out to sea from the tip of Portugal in the 15th century. His determination to discover new lands led to the birth of a great empire,

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 10 August 2002

The End of the World is an odd place to start a journey. But that's exactly what the Portuguese always called it: O fim do mundo. It's the last corner of mainland Europe, the last cliff of the last headland of the last cape; the last place you would run to, the last place you could hide, before falling off the edge of the continent. It was Henry the Navigator who first concluded that there might be something beyond this edge. God knows what he had in mind. As far as I can see, this is the end of the world. A steely hot sea surrounds me on all sides. I'm squinting, but there's definitely no land in sight to tempt me over that horizon, no kingdoms rich in gold, no spice islands, no fragrant coasts. 

Madeira, the Azores, Cape Verde and Brazil are allegedly down there, but I can't see them. From where I stand, by the lighthouse, all I can see, a thousand feet below me, are a few swallows swooping about, and what looks like a giant head and shoulders in stone, being slowly pulverised by boiling waves that have thundered here from beyond the equator. Was it perhaps the land around here that inspired Henry? The Cabo de Sao Vicente, this wind-blasted, desolate, naked piece of maquis: a hustle-free world, perfect for surveying, and for dreaming up grand designs?

It might have been back then. The problem about the End of the World today is that it is packed with foreign tourists. This is the Algarve after all. We Dutch, we English, we French, we Germans, we Italians and we Spanish: we are all here, hoping for desolation, hoping for a glimpse of the curiosity and daring that drove Henry the Navigator to look for new worlds.

But now we all seem disappointed. Apart from tourists and stray surfers there is nothing here except nothingness. People are straining to imagine the smell of spices and the creak of rigging and the beat of exotic drums; but instead we see buses and revving cars, trying to manoeuvre on the gravel behind the lighthouse, while a hot-dog stall proclaims, in large letters, the "last sausage before America".

We were never meant to be thinking about sausages here. No doubt we have all seen the statues of the seated, inquisitive Henry, wrapped in a turban-like hat, that dot the Algarve. He was one of the great men of the European Renaissance. He was born before the end of the 14th century, in an age when the English were still in chain-mail suits. His father was the King of Portugal, but he himself showed little interest in the life of the court. Instead he had a vision to enact.

Because it was somewhere here at the Fim do Mundo that Henry, nearly 600 years ago, gathered his knights and priests and shipwrights and geographers and navigators and cartographers, and set them to work to plan the exploration of the world.

Don't be conned by the appended title of Navigator. Henry was no traveller. But he was the most single-minded patron of travel who ever lived. And from right here beneath my feet, his sailors used to sail off down the coast of Africa, with their portable altars and stone crosses, bobbing and floating past the lands of the Moors, on to the river Senegal, the river Gambia and the Cape Verde Islands. By the time of Henry the Navigator's death, a rather less impressive Henry (the Sixth) was still on the throne of England. But Portuguese seafarers had reached Sierra Leone, and possibly the Ivory Coast, scratching inscriptions on the rocks as they went. Under Henry's auspices, the sailing vessel known as the Portuguese caravel had been devised, and the sciences of cartography, navigation, and maritime commerce vastly stimulated.

You'd never guess it now. These terminal cliffs and headlands do not look as though they have made any kind of contribution to European civilisation. In the solar blitz of afternoon, when the Dutch and the Germans and the Italians have retired to umbrellas on the beach, I retreat to the tiny town of Sagres: the last place in the world but one. The wind rustles through bamboos and prickly pear bushes. I sit in a silent, hot bar, beside two drunks, watching TV; the pistachio-chewing bartender, who seems to be on the point of tears, in regret for his paunch, does not seem blessed by the spirit of Henry the Navigator. I suspect that very little has happened here, beyond the buzzing of flies, since the discovery of Brazil.

Before leaving Sagres, there's only one thing I need to see: the fortress on the edge of town. From the outside, looms a massive, silent wall of white, hot stone. Inside, on another of the headlands once occupied by Henry and his world-conquerors, I wander the scrub, sniffing the thyme and wild garlic. On these pathways (I am told) Henry contemplated the exploration of Africa and the sea route to India; he considered the means by which Christian Europe would gradually outflank the power of Islam; he took the first steps in the 500-year-long journey that would eventually lead to the Europeanisation of virtually the entire planet. Today, it's me and the Germans, wandering around in the heat, looking for things to do.

And that's the trouble about this place. You can't help asking yourself the question: what has Portugal done with itself in the centuries since Henry the Navigator set his ball of exploration rolling?
It worries me that the essence of this country may have disappeared off the edge of the Fim do Mundo several centuries ago. But there is only one way to check. I'll have to leave behind the tourist coaches and surfers and sausages of the Algarve, and head for Lisbon. It is up there, I already know, that Henry's explorations ­ within decades of his death ­ came to their brief fruition. Belem, on the outskirts of the capital, in the mouth of the river Tejo, became the launching point for Portugal's greatest voyages of discovery. If the key to modern Portugal survives anywhere, perhaps I will find it there. These days it's only a few hours by bus. When I get there, I notice that Belem is a step up in class from the Fim do Mundo. In caf├ęs, later, I will eat the quintessential produce of the Portuguese voyages of exploration, dried salt cod from the north Atlantic, peppercorns from Malacca and potatoes from America. And I try to recall those few miraculous years around the dawn of the 16th century, when half the planet was discovered from here, from the first rounding of southern Africa, to the establishment of the sea route to India, to the discoveries of Brazil and the Spice Islands (which is to ignore the voyages of Christopher Columbus, whom the Portuguese king turned down for a job).
Lisbon, back then, became the richest place in Europe, if not the world. Within two decades of Vasco da Gama's epic first voyage to India, the Portuguese held and dominated all the most important sea routes and trading networks of the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the South China seas. For those who find this hard to believe in the 21st century, I've just noticed some of the evidence: in one of the great monuments of the European Renaissance, the fabulous monastery of the Jeronimos.

But the monastery, with its exotic cloisters and oriental stonework, only confirms my suspicion, that to be Portuguese is neither more nor less than to dream of other lands. Compulsory reading for Portuguese schoolchildren over the past 400 years has been The Lusiads by Luis Vaz de Camoes, the first European artist to cross the equator and to experience the non-European worlds of Africa and India. Portugal's favourite epic poem culminates in a guided tour of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India, China and Japan, with the Americas and Antarctica thrown in for good measure. If The Lusiads were my national poem, I would love it too.

A ship's hooter disturbs the morning calm; ferries and speedboats will soon be crowding the river. Right now the tourist industry of Belem is setting up stall: girls are putting out tiles and cheese boards and trays and keyrings and pieces of lacy cloth. The vendors are Angolan, Mozambican, Brazilian. After reading The Lusiads, it is easier to see that contemporary Portugal is little more than a distant reflection of its own lost empire.

I crane my neck to stare to the west, past the mocked-up fortress of the ornamental Torre de Belem, towards the mouth of the river, towards the sea. From here, heroes in tiny ships were glad to point their prows into the wind. In the distance, I can just see the seductive crash of breakers.

Moments later, still on the waterfront, I find myself walking across a map of Portugal's maritime empire in pink marble, highlighting her colonial possessions in the Americas, Africa and Asia. Above me, in the sunshine, looms the "monument to the explorers", erected in 1960, on the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator's death. Kings and missionaries and kneeling princes and artists and scientists are depicted ascending a slab in Henry's wake.

What does this procession of Portuguese imperialists mean? It is in fact a monument of fascism. It is also slightly grimy and dated, like a 1960s housing project, overlooking the far bank of the Tejo, with its power plants and rotted silos and rusty freighters. And yet the Portuguese seem proud of it. A Picasso lookalike, without a shirt, has come wobbling up on a bicycle. Others follow, on foot, in sunglasses and pale jackets. These, it occurs to me, are the descendants of those left behind by the explorers; the ones who never learnt the use of quadrants, globes, charts, astrolabes, anchors or swords. Somehow I pity them for it. But I can also see that displays of colonial pride are perfectly inoffensive, when the empire in question is so palpably in ruins.

Travellers' guide

Getting there: plenty of flights operate between the UK and Faro, the closest airport to the "end of the world". Fares over the August bank holiday are likely to be high. Going out on Thursday, 22 August, returning on Tuesday, 27 August, Go (0870 60 76543, is quoting £203 return from Stansted and £283 from East Midlands. From Faro, you can take a train to the end of the line at Lagos, and buses west from there. To Lisbon, British Airways (0845 77 333 77, and TAP Air Portugal (, 08457 581 566) fly from both Heathrow and Gatwick. Fares for travel over the August bank holiday start at £270 return with TAP Air Portugal, and £210 with British Airways if you return on Monday 26 August. On the same dates, Portugalia (08707 550 025, flies from Manchester with a fare of £270. Several buses serve Lisbon airport, including the minibus shuttles (numbers 44/45) that run every 20 minutes to the centre of town.

More information: Portuguese National Tourist Office, 22/25a Sackville Street, London W1S 3LY (; don't call the premium-rate number, 09063 640610 (60p a minute) unless you want to spend a fortune on not-very-useful information.