let us now praise great men

There was a time when most of the known world fell under the influence of the crowns of Spain and Portugal.  From the early 15th century through to the 17th, these two countries engaged in a rivalrous exploration, establishing contact with Africa, Asia, and the Americas, while mapping the globe. It was the Age of Discovery, also know as the Age of Exploration; a bridge from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, fueled by great men performing feats of derring-do. To prevent a conflict  the two countries entered into a formal treaty that essentially divided the world in half, giving each exclusive rights to their newly discovered lands. When Columbus sailed west towards the New World, Vasco da Gama headed east, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and finding a route to India, the Spice Islands, and ultimately China.  Spheres of influence overlapped once Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe, however, and suddenly the English, French, and Dutch woke up to the fact there was a lot of money to be made on the road – to use an old theatrical phrase.  But that takes nothing away from Portugal, whose sailors went beyond the limits of human imagination at a time when the sea was dominated by little more than myths and mystery.  It’s with that in mind that the Monument to the Discoveries was erected along the Tagus River for the Portuguese World’s Fair in 1940.  A 170-foot high slab of concrete carved in the shape of a ship’s prow, at the tip is Henry the Navigator – sponsor of Bartolomeu Dias’ 1460 exploration of sub-Saharan Africa – flanked by 33 other explorers, cartographers, and scientists of the time. (It’s not nearly as Soviet as it sounds.) An enormous world map mosaic occupies the front plaza and outlines the routes of various Portuguese explorers. Oh and yes, you can go to the top of the monument and take in the view, too.

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cabo da roca

The area around Sintra is blessed with great public transportation – thankfully, since I don’t drive.  From the center of town I was able to catch a bus out to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of both mainland Portugal and continental Europe. There’s not much here, save a lighthouse, a cafe, and a gift shop that sells official looking diplomas certifying your visit to what 16th century Portuguese poet Luis de Camões described as the point “where the land ends and the sea begins.” (Yes, thank you – I bought one.) And of course, there’s the ocean:  in every direction and as far as the eye can see.  Staring out at the water it’s quite easy to imagine how people once believed the world was flat.  Or that there couldn’t possibly be anything out beyond the great expanse of water.  During the great age of Portuguese discoveries the Cape was known as the Rock of Lisbon – the sheer rock face rises dramatically out of the Atlantic Ocean – and served as a landmark for Vasco de Gama returning from India, and Ferdinand Magellan after circumnavigating the globe. As luck would have it, I arrived just in time to catch the last of the daylight  – after half an hour the sky turned a flurry of pink and lavender as the sun set over the ocean.

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