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Fisherman casts off from the cliffs of Cape Sagres. (Jose Pedro Fernandes / Alamy)

Cape Sagres

This windswept coast was once home to a navigators’ school that readied explorers for adventures in the New World

In the days before Columbus, when the world was presumed to be flat, this rugged southwestern tip of Portugal was the spot closest to the edge of the Earth. Prince Henry the Navigator, determined to broaden Europe’s horizons and spread Catholicism, founded his navigators’ school here, and sent sailors ever further into the unknown. Shipwrecked and frustrated explorers were carefully debriefed as they washed ashore.

Portugal’s “end of the road” is two distinct capes. Windy Cape St. Vincent is actually the most southwestern tip. It has a desolate lighthouse (currently closed for restoration) that marks what was referred to even in prehistoric times as “the end of the world.” Outside the lighthouse, salt-of-the-earth merchants sell figs, seaworthy sweaters (€25 average), cotton tea towels (a bargain at €1), and the “Letzte Bratwurst vor Amerika” (last hotdog before America). Cape Sagres, with its old fort and Henry the Navigator lore, is the more historic cape of the two. At either cape, look for daredevil windsurfers and fishermen casting off the cliffs.

Lashed tightly to the windswept landscape is the salty town of Sagres, above a harbor of fishing boats. Sagres is a popular gathering place for the backpacking crowd, with plenty of private rooms in the center and a barely existent beach and bar scene.

Sagres Fort and Navigators’ School
The former “end of the world” is a craggy, windswept, wedge-shaped point that juts into the Atlantic (short drive or 15-min walk from Sagres). In 1420, Prince Henry the Navigator used his Order’s funds to establish a school here for navigators. Today, little remains of Henry’s school, except the site of buildings replaced by later (sometimes new) structures. An 18th-century fortress, built on the school’s original battlements, dominates the entrance to the point (€1.50, daily May–Sept 9:30–20:00, until 17:30 off-season, tel. 282-620-140).

1. Plaque Inside Entrance: After entering through the 18th-century battlements, find the carved stone plaque that honors Henry. The ship in the plaque is a caravel, one of the small, light craft that was constantly being reinvented by Sagres’ shipbuilding grad students. The astrolabe, a compact instrument that uses the stars for navigation, emphasizes Henry’s role in the exploration process.

2. Wind-Compass: Sagres’ most impressive sight--a circle on the ground, 100 feet across and outlined by round pebbles--is a mystery. Some think it was a large wind-compass (rosa-dos-ventos). A flag flying from the center could immediately announce the wind’s direction. Others speculate it’s a large sundial. A pole in the center pointing toward the North Star (at a 37-degree angle, Sagres’ latitude) would cast a shadow on the dial showing the time of day.

3. Remains of the School: The row of buildings beyond the wind-compass is where the school once was. The tower-cistern (abutting the end of the modern Exhibition Centre) is part of the original dorms. The small whitewashed 16th-century Church of Our Lady of Grace replaced Henry’s church. The former Governor’s House is now the restaurant/gift shop complex. Attached to the gift shop is a windbreak wall that dates from Henry’s time, but is largely rebuilt.

The Sagres school taught mapmaking, shipbuilding, sailing, astronomy, and mathematics (for navigating), plus botany, zoology, anthropology, languages, and salesmanship for mingling with the locals. The school welcomed Italians, Scandinavians, and Germans and included Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Captured Africans gave guest lectures. (The next 15 generations of Africans were not so lucky, being sold into slavery by the tens of thousands.)

Besides being a school, Sagres was Mission Control for the explorers. Returning sailors brought spices, gold, diamonds, silk, and ivory, plus new animals, plants, peoples, customs, communicable diseases, and knowledge of the routes that were added to the maps. Henry ordered every sailor to keep a travel journal that could be studied. Ship designs were analyzed and tweaked, resulting in the square-sailed, oceangoing caravels that replaced the earlier coast-hugging versions.

It’s said that Ferdinand Magellan (circumnavigator), Vasco da Gama (found sea route to India), Pedro Cabral (discovered Brazil), and Bartolomeu Dias (Africa-rounder) all studied at Sagres (after Henry’s time, though). In May 1476, the young Italian Christopher Columbus washed ashore here after being shipwrecked by pirates. He went on to study and sail with the Portuguese (and marry a Portuguese woman) before beginning his American voyage. When Portugal denied Columbus’s request to sail west, Spain accepted. The rest is history.

About Rick Steves
Rick Steves

Rick Steves is a travel writer and televsion personality. He coordinated with Smithsonian magazine to produce a special travel issue Travels with Rick Steves.

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