If one were to look up history, especially during the 1500s one might come across many Portuguese names. Have you wondered why? That’s because the strip of a country on the edge of the Iberian peninsula was the launching point of many a voyage of discovery.
But it was such a shame that we only spent a couple of days blazing through the country. So this little essay is more of a lament than a story. For it tells of how much we missed, because we took a coach tour instead of exploring independently. But how can you blame us? This was more than 17 years ago, at an age of information asymmetry as we call it. Simply, it meant that information wasn’t available in one’s fingertips such as today (literally right?) where a few clicks might lead to overload.
Was it Lisbon or Lisboa?
Ok. We had 2 nights in the city. But the first was late in the day as we drove over from Seville. What was nice though was the fact that at least we drove over the Abril bridge in the beautiful evening. That was the consolation considering we were not asleep as the coach rambled across.
Lisbon was founded by the sea-faring Phoenicians probably already from around 1200 BC. Falling into Roman hands, it was eventually occupied by the Moors. Like much of Spain, the city and country was under Moorish sway for well over 400 years. The city was “liberated” in 1147 by an army of crusaders on the way to the Holy land. With that, traces of Moorish presence all but disappeared.
You probably also know that this city was the launching pad of Portugal’s maritime expansion. The fleets of Vasco da Gama left the port of Lisbon and “discovered” the East Indies while the ones towards south America eventually netted for Portugal a large colony known today as the country of Brazil. It is amazing that the tiny nation would achieve dominance over the seas so far away as China and Japan nearly 600 years ago.
First stop on our city tour – tower of Belem that was originally built to defend the city. It is interesting that this tower that doesn’t look very large was the scene of a number gun battles. It almost looked too slender and gentle to be a fortification don’t you think? Today it is also featured as a symbol of the country and also a UNESCO heritage site.
Nearby is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos – a monument built to commemorate the maritime discoveries of Portugal. On it would be sculptures of the early navigators, and just so you’d know; they are not the same on either side. In all, there is said to be 33 people represented on both profile sides. You might not see it, but we were standing on the giant compass rose and mappa mundi behind the monument. Drone photographers might get a better view of the pattern of the compass that we were standing on.
Across the road is the Jeronimos monastery – where all the major mariners of Portugal are buried. In addition, there was a museum dedicated to archiving the various achievements of Portugal in the field of maritime (15th –16th century) exploration. The tomb of Vasco da Gama was a central feature for us, as this man was the true “discoverer” of India, as opposed to the voyagers who reached the Americas and mistakenly thought they had done the same. That’s probably why they still call the natives in the Americas “Indians”.
All three places were literally within walking distance to each other in this part of town. And so we spent the better part of an afternoon in Lisbon seeing these vital sites. Unfortunately it also meant we skipped out on a couple of others, such as the aqueduct and the Sao Jorge castle. Plus we did not get to wander the streets of the city, which we truly wish to return for. Any recommendations?
The western most point of Europe
On the second day we were in Portugal, we went to the resort towns of Estoril, Cascais and Sintra – all hugging the coast and facing the North Atlantic. We made a quick stop at Sintra where we saw the Castle of the Moors on the hilltop from a distance. Constructed during the period of Moorish domination this fortification apparently did not see much action, and disintegrated over the centuries.
We then drove on to have a sea-food lunch at Cascais, the resort of choice of Portuguese royalty in the 19th century. Considered a wealthy enclave, the town is said to be surrounded by landed estates of the country’s elite. We had baked cod and paella in Portuguese style (ie lots of seafood). And in the cold of winter it tasted fantastic especially in the company of many others.
The center of Cascais is a mosaic covered street and made for an excellent photo stop, plus they sold fishermen knitted sweaters that supposedly kept the men warm even if it got wet. Today the pair we bought is still in the cupboard…because we are tropical islanders… wonder why we ever would want to buy them.
Fully fed and suitably warmed up, we headed out to Cape Roca to see the western most point of Europe. Now we did not get to the plaque which “proved” that we were at 38°47’N°9’30W – or the point where all of Europe is to our east. And Suan was a little busy battling with the winds coming in from the Atlantic and keeping a calm composure for the photo. Imagine the people of 600+ years ago. Looking at the Ocean that does not seem to end except in the far distant horizon, where perhaps the water falls off a cliff. It probably did look like the edge of the world. The windswept nature of the location would have also helped enhance that feeling too.
It would thus be a miracle if the people of those days to believe, to be entrepreneurial and sail out there to find land. The fabled and exotic riches of India and China supposedly lies beyond the horizon. Back in a time when many still believe the world to be flat, can you imagine the bravery of the men who set forth? But what if we told you that we are embarking to a place where
A place where a miracle actually occurred?
Leaving Lisbon we stopped over at Fatima, where 3 local children are said to have witnessed “miracles” or apparitions with sightings of angels and the virgin Mary. This occurred in 1917 and in October of that year apparently a significant event occurred near today’s pilgrimage center – the sanctuary of our lady of Fatima. Today the pilgrimages continue, with near million or more crowds coming to this site during specific days in May and October.
What was this all about?
One can now read a wealth of biographies written by one of the girls on this entire episode. Whether one believes in these events is not the point, but the fact that it had been recognized by the Catholic church as worthy of belief. Actually this was not something widely known outside of the country, but with the internet and tourism, Fatima became a stop for travelers seeking to see what brings so many people to devotion every year.
From Fatima, it was time to leave Portugal and return to Spain (here). Unfortunately for us, our days in Portugal was fraught with wind and rain. It was winter, so this cannot be unexpected. Perhaps when we get to return it will be in summer and where we can do a road trip up and down the country.
We spent just three days in Portugal in January of 2000!