September 20, 2012

On our western drive along the Algarve this morning, we stopped at a little off-the-beaten path beach town called Salema, where we found the PRETTIEST BEACH IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE. White sands, rolling waves, sapphire sky, breathtaking panoramas of cliffs tumbling into the ocean… We had originally thought that we would stay long enough to take a quick dip on our way to Sagres, but as soon as we saw the place, we decided to stay longer. Seriously — if anyone is looking for a small, undeveloped paradise to visit for a week or so, go to Salema. And go there soon… I got the distinct impression that this hidden gem might be on its way to exploitative condos and hotels, but for now it’s a sleepy little town with a stupidly beautiful beach.

I frolicked in the water for a long while, enjoying the way the large waves gently picked me and set me back down again. I then walked along the beach to explore the rock formations and admire the scenery. And then lunch out on a terrace overlooking the ocean, and then on the road again.

Hokay, so a little more history. Henry the Navigator (the son of King John I) was hugely instrumental in jumpstarting Portugal’s Age of Discovery, in which Portugal made giant strides in nautical travel and global trade. Henry was a mathematician, and with the help of cartographers, astrologers, and mariners, was an early pioneer in navigation. Also, due to his wealth, he was the first patron of the Age of Discovery, financing many trips down the west coast of Africa.

(Side note: A common misconception is that Middle Age scholars believed in a flat earth; I remember learning in school that people though Columbus might sail off the end of the world when he began his voyage west. A spherical earth was determinedly proven centuries before this time, however, thanks to advances in Hellenistic astrology (3rd century BC). Sure, there was some residual doubt, dispelled only when Magellan circumnavigated the globe in 1522, but most educated people had a firm grasp on a spherical planet. This is not to lessen how badass those mariners were, however. They still had ABSOLULTELY NO IDEA what they would find when they set out. There were guesses, sure, especially after the Cape of Good Hope was discovered. Superstitions nevertheless abounded, and many sailors believed in things like sea monsters and dragons. Just imagine that for a second… getting on a boat, and setting off into the open water… not only wondering if you would ever see land again — and if you did find land, where on earth you would be — but also honestly terrified of MONSTERS. Those people were brave.)

It is disputed whether or not Henry had a physical school or an academic “school” of followers, it’s certain that Henry spent a lot of time in Sagres, a huge wind-swept point that lies very close to Cabo São Vicente, the south westerly point of Portugal. Because it offered sheltered seas, many famous navigators set out from this Sagres, considering it a kind of navigational zero. Though most of Sagres’ structures were destroyed in Portugal’s great 1755 earthquake, there still exists a compass rose, from which many of the old navigational calculations are based. A compass rose is basically just an illustration of the compass, but the one on Sagres is huge and “drawn” with rocks and pebbles. And of all of the stops during our adventure in Portugal, standing at the center of this compass rose was the only thing non-negotiable to my dad.

It’s interesting to me what gets people going. I love history very much, but my fascination doesn’t even come close to my father’s. He was so, so excited to see Henry the Navigator’s Rosa dos Ventos and to stand right on the point from which the Age of Discovery began. You’re technically not allowed to walk onto the compass rose, and my dad NEVER breaks the rules, but he nevertheless hopped the rope so that he could stand in the middle for a few moments. And then, when he returned, he was shaking so much he had to sit down, uttering “This is the point from which the world was discovered.”

I love my dad.

We drove up to Lisbon on a narrow and curving road, passing through dozens of small villages, all with their requisite whitewashed plaster houses and bright blue trim, orange tile roofs, and old men sitting on chairs outside the market/café/bar. In between the villages there were hundreds upon hundreds of cork trees with their knickers cut off, revealing reddened and harvested cork below.

On the way into Lisbon, we drove past the Cristo-Rei statue, which is a 92-foot Jesus on top of a 269-foot pedestal, mirroring the Cristo Redentor statue in Rio de Janeiro. The statue sits atop a high hill and overlooks all of Lisbon. In case you haven’t heard, THE PORTUGUESE REALLY LOVE JESUS.

We then drove over the April 25 bridge into Lisbon (which was built by the same guys who build the San Francisco bridge!). In my “Brief History of Portugal,” I neglected to mention a huge part of Portugal’s recent history, which was the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar between the years of 1932-1968. I unfortunately don’t know too much about this time of history, only that it was incredibly complicated and involved several conscripted wars in Portuguese colonies and those colonies’ subsequent independence. And that the whole dictatorship thing crumbled during the Carnation Revolution on April 25, 1974 (so named because no shots were fired and then, when the people flooded the streets to celebrate their independence, they put red carnations into the muzzles of the soldier’s guns). April 25th is a big deal date to the Portuguese, and marks a national holiday with lots of partying.

And now here we are in Lisbon! My parents found a half-off deal for a swank Lisbon hotel online, and I have my own bed with a comfy bed and down comforter. This part of the trip has me spoiled rotten. In just three more days, I’ll be back to sleeping on couches and floors, so I am definitely going to get everything I can out of this place.

Today’s Parent Quote of the Day:

(at the beach)
Mom: Want to go topless? I’ll do it if you do it.
Kerry: …
Mom: What? Is it because your father’s here?