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
in the 15th century. His determination to discover new lands led to the birth
of a great empire, Portugal
By Jeremy Atiyah
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
A ship's hooter disturbs the morning calm; ferries and speedboats will soon be crowding the river. Right now the tourist industry of
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
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.
Getting there: plenty of flights operate between the
More information: Portuguese National Tourist Office, 22/25a