Located in the extreme south-western corner of Portugal lies a most historic site that changed the world in the 15th and 16th centuries – Prince Henry the Navigator‘s ground-breaking Rosa dos Ventos.
Close to the Ponta de Sagres promontory in the Algarve, some sixty metres (200 feet) above the Atlantic waves, is the prime spot where he established his ground-breaking School of Navigation.
The main attraction is spread out below the main gate – a vast mariner’s wind compass known locally as the Rosa dos Ventos – which is marked in stone on the ground. It was only discovered in 1928.
It’s a monument to the prince’s (and Portugal’s) immense seafaring achievements of sending mariners far beyond sight of land, as real as today’s satellite-guided ships turning this busy corner of the Atlantic, with the sole purpose of discovering a sea route to Africa, India and eventually the Far East.
Henry was the younger son of King João I, and when his mother died she entrusted the future of the kingdom to him.
History subsequently conferred on him the title of ‘The Navigator’ despite the fact that he scarcely ever left this desolate piece of land at the extreme tip of mainland Europe, where he untiringly scrutinised the oceans with the leading astrologers, cartographers and sea captains of the time.
He died without ever knowing that his objectives had been achieved, sadly unable to witness the triumphant return of Vasco da Gama from his pioneering round-trip to India in September 1499, a voyage famously recounted in Luís de Camões‘ epic poem, Os Lusíadas.
But Henry the Navigator’s tall, austere profile still haunts the solitude of this wind-swept strip of land in the western Algarve, and visitors often describe the sensation of feeling him there with them as they gaze out to sea.
Offering visitors a glimpse of the real Portugal, the pretty town of Sagres thrives on being the south-westernmost place on mainland Europe with a portfolio of attractions including 15th-century churches and the largest lighthouse in Europe.
Nearby at Cape St Vincent, which marks the south-western tip of the continent, stunted bushes have been bent by Atlantic gales and the low-slung houses are dug in for self-defence, making it an exhilarating place to visit.
But on a cloudless day when the ocean is as calm as a pond, the ‘end of the world’ seems more like the beginning.