The car door wrenches open. Wind swirls in flapping us out in a cling of hats and cameras towards the lighthouse at Cabo St Vincente – the south-westerly tip of Europe, of the Sagres Peninsular in Portugal.
We tunnel into the wind, protected by the stone of the lighthouse from the drop of cliffs on either side. Sea air forces through every pore. We try to stand, to find our breath at the end of the world, the point from where the Romans could see no further than imagined horrors.
There are tourists with us – travellers. We swop viewpoint corners as we batter to and fro across the wind.
Brown, blue and wind – Sagres. Cliffs that strut into the ocean stubbled with aloes, clinging plants and fishermen. There are beaches and there is surf. Everywhere there is light.
Stretching furthest into the light is Cabo St Vincente with the lighthouse as its scarlet nail. To its left, round a ragged curve of cliffs and sand, is the point signposted ‘Fortaleza’ after the fortress which blocks across its end. It is a stubby thumb of a point, more masculine than St Vincente, more suited to the name with which it is linked – Prince Henry the Navigator.
Henry the Navigator (1394 to 1460) spurred Portugese sailors beyond their fears and beyond the bulge of Cape Bojador on the northern edge of Western Sahara.
How did he do it? Stand on the cliffs of Sagres in a wild wind, look out to the deep nowhere, and you cannot help wonder how Henry made them sail. Why did they go? The answers may be a little confused but there is no doubt that the Prince’s belief in his nerve-wracking, sea-space start-up appears to have been unshakeable.
He kept sending sailors out beyond the western edge of the earth to battle with myths and the wind. For years they bobbed unhappily towards Africa but always returned before they rounded the Bojador bend. It was only in 1434 that Gil Eanes conquered the dreaded corner and the Golden Age of Discovery popped open.
Today, thanks to its status as a national park, this ‘sacrum promontorium’ is protected from too much development. Its few resorts are tucked tidily out of sight beside the harbour. The rest is cliffs, beaches and sea; a ceramics shop; an old man selling almonds and honey alongside a handful of other traders; and then the town of Sagres.
The town’s low level buildings seem indifferent to the roads and the tourist vehicles that run through them. Sun dried locals sit outside cafes on plastic chairs, their conversations evaporating in the heat. There are occasional dogs; scooters; bleached surfers; overheated cyclists; and there is less wind. The mood is unpretentious. This is a continental dead end that has seen centuries of good ideas blow by. All that remain of most are a few crumbling, rearranged buildings and rumours of brilliance.
So Sagres remains reluctant – like the plants that cling to its cliffs, it sits low and slightly spiky into the wind, waiting perhaps for the next good idea to swagger into town.
There are signs that it might be on its way.