Portugal's edge of the world

To the ancients, Cape St. Vincent, Europe's southwesternmost point, represented the end of the world: finisterre. Beyond lay boiling, bubbling seas , fierce winds, and long-necked monsters ready to swallow a ship in a single gulp.

Todday this rocky promontory in the farthest corner of Portugal remains austere and forbidding, a tortured land that rises from cliffs more than 500 feet high. Pointed rocks like teeth push through scrubby soil, while stunted fig trees clutch at bare, exposed roots. The wind drives in with a vengeance, so that those few remaining tufts of grass are bent in continual obeisance.

There is a whitewashed lighthouse at the tip of the cape. Built to outlast centuries of relentless, raging squalls, it gallantly directs ships from the black Atlantic around the corner of this world, toward the warmer calm of the Mediterranean.

three miles east of the cape, where the time-eroded cliffs of the Algarve begin, lies the fishing village of Sagres. Visitors who wind their way here, down the dusty one-lane road that is the only entrance to the town, find an isolated and remote haven - a village that existed, and continues to exist, literally on the edge of time.

Down in the harbor, swarthy fishermen, idle by day, sit chatting as they repair their mounds of delicate orange nets. Deep-sea fishing is advertised for the adventurous, and restaurants and beach grills serve the fruits of both land and sea. There is a beach, though the water is colder here than in those resorts farther down this famous coast. And there a few hotels and pensaos.

But the place to come, if you are in Sagres, is the Pousada do Infante, a government-run resting house built on a cliff overlooking the remains of Prince Henry the Navigator's fort. This small inn has only 15 rooms, each with a balcony surveying sheer cliffs and rugged sea. It has a superb restaurant, offering regional specialties, and seafood of all types.

And yet, what is most striking about the Pousada do Infante is that though the building is modern, everything in it is a reminder of that prince, known to the Portuguese as the "infante do Sagres," who came to this same spot over 500 years ago, giving up a life of luxury in the royal court, to delve into the mysteries of the unknown.

The walls of the pousada are decorated with facsimiles of maps drawn by cartographers who were contemporaries of Prince Henry, some of whom, perhaps, worked under his auspices. The tiles in the dining room are emblazoned with the symbol from the sails of Henry's ships. And huge local tapestries hang on the walls of the lounge, depicting in bold colors Henry's achievements around the globe.

All this creates a comfortable atmosphere that mixes harmoniously with the mellow solitude of the area and invites one to look beyond the mist-covered windows, to contemplate those unchanged elements that so captured Prince HenrY's imagination: the sea, the stars at night that wheel continuously through the skies, and that spectacular sunset, which silhouettes Cape St. Vincent at dusk. At this time the sun, low on the horizon, actually appears to be dropping into oblivion, a thought that so terrified the ancient mariners.

It is worth noting that when Prince Henry first came to Sagres, in 1419, the western coast of Africa had hardly been explored, let alone the Atlantic Ocean. Ships would not sail out of sight of land for fear that inclement winds would sweep them into the "sea of darkness," or toward "the edge of the earth." The compass was still regarded as an instrument of black magic. The farthest that ships had been known to sail down the coast of Africa was Cape Bajador, a promontory that juts into the Atlantic hardly 1,000 miles south of Tangier. Of the few ships known to have ventured beyond it, none had ever returned.

For more than 10 years Prince Henry financed (largely from his own purse) and launched 15 voyages with the sole objective of passing this psychological and physical barrier. Beyond Cape Bajador, Henry hoped that the great mass of land would turn north again, and he would find the fabled land that Marco Polo wrote about in such glowing terms. Today we may well smile, for Cape Bajador is hardly a fifth of the way down this huge continent. But to the Portuguese adventurers, it was the very edge of the world itself.

With every new boat in which Henry sent out, with each new discovery, he urged his captains to "go just a little farther." Always, always it was just "a little farther."

But finally, in 1434, one of Henry's most trusted captains, Gil Eannes, following his patron's advice, sailed out into Atlantic, then tacked back to the coast. When land was sighted once more, the dreaded Bajador was behind them.

Advances were now made, little by little. The Azores were discovered. Trading posts were established up and down the African coast, and contact was made with the natives. Advances were made in navigation, and a new ship was designed to cope with the difficult return voyage up to the coast: the lateen-rigged caravel.

When Henry died in 1460, his reputation was already secure throughout Europe. Twenty-six more years were to expire before Bartholomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope. It wasn't until 1498 that Vasco da Gama rounded the cape and finally reached port at Calcutta, thus realizing Henry's dream. By the beginning of the 15th century, an immense Potuguese empire spread over four continents. And much of the credit of this tiny nation's maritime success must go to Prince Henry.

Today, perhaps what we most admire Prince Henry for is his approach as much as his achievements. His School of Navigation at Sagres tackled practical problems through empirical methods based on experiment. Superstition was rejected. And answers and solutions were found to problems previously insoluble. In an age fo darkness, he discovered light.

Now, as I stand on the balcony of the Pousada do Infante, fog rolls in from the cold Atlantic and whitecapped waves batter the rocks far below. It is the same view that first captured Henry's imagination when he came here as a young man. And I can appreciate the farreaching extent of this ascetic prince's vision, for the sheer solitude of this austere land is awesome. Darkness presses about me now, but the lighthouse at Cape St. Vincent carves a narrow streak of light.

I pick up the conch shell I found this morning upon the beach and put it to my ear. And I hear the hoarse whisper -- "a little farther, just a little farther" -- urging us all to extend further the frontiers of the possible, whatever they may be.

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