Where is the edge? Outer space perhaps?
In ancient times, the edge of the world was the southwestern tip of mainland Europe, Cape St. Vincent in the western Algarve of Portugal.
Several civilizations reached the cape. The Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks. The Romans called it Promontorium Sacrum (Holy Promontory). From the cliffs, they watched the sun set into the sea, marking the extremity of the world as they knew it.
The cape is named for St. Vincent, a martyr tortured for his religious beliefs by the governor of Spain in the 10th century. Some of his relics were carried by followers escaping persecution to the western Algarve. According to legend, a flock of ravens protected his shrine. Later, the relics were moved to the cathedral in Lisbon and the raven became the symbol of Portugal’s capital.
In the 15th century, Infante Dom Henrique de Avis, better known as Henry the Navigator, adopted the western Algarve as his second home and the location for his navigation school. Henry, the fifth son of King John I, gets credit as the instigator of the Age of Discoveries. A big thinker, he is behind the development of the caravel, a lighter ship that could sail farther and faster. He helped pioneer new methods of navigation and sponsored numerous voyages down the coast of Africa.
Henry directly influenced Columbus, Magellan, Da Gama, Dias, Cabral and others. As a result of the advancements made under his direction, he gets credit for opening the world to trade with India and later the Americas. (It is important to acknowledge that Henry’s sponsored voyages also brought African slaves back to Europe’s first slave market in Lagos, Portugal.) In 1587, Sir Francis Drake of England wreaked havoc on the Portuguese coast, destroying most of Henry’s school.
Today, the Algarve west of Lagos is largely unspoiled by development, due in part to the government-designated Natural Park of Southwest Alentejo and Cape St. Vincent. Adventurers visit to sunbathe, swim, surf, paddleboard, kayak, dive, sail, paraglide, climb and hike.
I spent several days in Salema, a sleepy village shared equally by traditional fishermen and British ex-pats. The cobblestone Rua dos Pescadores (Street of Fishermen) is lined with white and pastel homes. The mile-long beach of golden sand is cropped at each end by jagged rocks. Octopus jars are stacked along the boardwalk. A community tractor drags the fishing boats to and from the surf. Tourists pack the restaurants every night for the catch of the day. A colony of well-fed feral cats have the run of the place. I climbed hiking trails along the edges of cliffs, sometimes scrambling on rocks, occasionally descending to hidden beaches where there were no footprints.
Further west on the tip of Portugal is Sagres, a sprawling beach town, a bit run down or perhaps just worn down by the endless wind and sun. These days it’s a surfing mecca, known for picturesque rocky coves and monster waves. At the marina, I watched the fishing boats unload their catches onto the pier. They sorted the fish into plastic bins by species and size. Inside the warehouse, the bins were placed on a conveyor belt, weighed and electronically tagged. Buyers in a grandstand bid on the bins as they passed on the conveyor. I decided on golden bream for dinner.
I visited Fortaleza on the Ponta de Sagres, the site of Henry’s school, where local fishermen dangle their lines precariously over the cliff edges, angling for fish in the surf 80 yards below. A huge stone “wind compass,” which some interpret as a navigational aid, is all that remains from Henry’s time.
Further west is the Cabo de São Vicente (Cape St. Vincent). It’s lighthouse is seen by ships from all over the world. Thundering waves carve sea stacks and grottoes from its foundations. On top, I bought a sandwich from the Last Bratwurst Before America.
North up the coast, I drove the one-lane cliffside road down to Castelejo beach. The waves were massive, relentlessly pounding the rocks. An unbelievable natural spectacle. I sat on the polished stones and watched the show for hours, mesmerized. The air was filled with sea spray.
Traveling light, as I do, requires doing laundry frequently. Some b&bs provide the service or make washers and dryers available. Sometimes I use a laundromat (or launderette as they say in Scotland) or a retail service. In Sagres, desperate for clean clothes, I was surprised there was no laundry of any kind.
I was directed to a rumored laundry service in the next town, Vila do Bispo. I drove the narrow cobblestone streets, stopping numerous times to ask for directions. Finally, I found it, a tiny hole-in-the-wall on a side street. The laundress didn’t speak English but we agreed to the price (€2.20 per kilo of clothes). However, she couldn’t deliver until the next day and I was reluctant to leave my only clothes overnight in the next town. I left.
Back in Sagres, I asked (with an aggravated tone) a hotel clerk how it was possible that an area that caters to tourists has no laundromat.
She shrugged, “It’s the edge of the world.”
She was right. Who needs clean clothes at the edge of the world?