Today was a long day in The Algarve for my parents, as they were escorted around the Southwestern-most point of the European Continent from morning until night.
Happily, this area is very compact, and the places the tour group visited—Lagos, Sagres, The Cape Of Saint Vincente and Silves—were all within a few kilometers of each other as well as within a few kilometers of my parents’ hotel in Alvor.
This area of Portugal was central territory in The Age Of Discovery. Ships by the hundred set forth from Lagos and Sagres to explore the globe, and most of the voyages of exploration originating in Lagos and Sagres were inspired by Henry The Navigator, the princely seafarer who lived and worked in Lagos and Sagres and planned his (and others’) voyages from his famed School Of Navigation in Sagres.
Portugal was one of the world’s wealthiest nations at the time of the onset of The Age Of Discovery, and The Age Of Discovery substantially enhanced Portugal’s wealth—the inflow of gold and foreign treasure first from Africa and later from The New World made the nation’s coffers overflow for more than two centuries.
The 1755 earthquake changed everything. The earthquake destroyed virtually all of Portugal instantly. To this day, much of Portugal has never been rebuilt. Starkly put, the nation never recovered from the scale of the 1755 disaster—Portugal went from a great power to an irrelevant country literally in six minutes. Only in the last decade, with massive amounts of aid from the European Union, has Portugal’s living standard once again begun to approximate the living standard enjoyed in the rest of Western Europe.
In the last half-millennium, there is only one other instance in which a wealthy country lost its wealth and position so rapidly: Belgium in 1914. On August 4, 1914, neutral Belgium possessed the world’s sixth-largest economy. By August 16, 1914, Belgium’s national wealth had been erased and its economy decimated, victim of Imperial Germany’s aggression. Belgium was forever rendered irrelevant by World War I, just as Portugal was forever rendered irrelevant by the 1755 earthquake. Neither nation was to emerge from its tragedy anything like its former self.
The day began for my parents in Lagos, the city in which Henry The Navigator built his personal palace. The palace was destroyed by the earthquake; only remnants of the foundation remain.
My parents said that Lagos was a lovely town, a town of cobblestone streets, beautiful trees and flowers lining the streets and squares, and distinguished old buildings. They said that Lagos warranted a visit lasting a couple of days, not a couple of hours.
The most prominent structure in Lagos is the fort that protects the harbor (“Forte Da Ponta Da Bandeira”).
The tour group received a guided tour of the fort and was allowed to walk the walls of the enormous structure. My parents said that the fort was fascinating, and the views from the ramparts gorgeous.
The fort contains a naval museum, which the tour group did not visit.
The Lagos fort remained in use until recent decades, as this part of the Atlantic Ocean carries a long and distinguished history of trade and naval warfare. It was not uncommon, 300 years ago, to see 400 ships in the Lagos harbor. Two great naval engagements occurred off the coast of Lagos, both involving the British and the French. In 1693, the French prevailed; in 1759, the British won a decisive victory.
For over two centuries, Lagos was a more important center of trade than London or Amsterdam, a more important locus of scientific discovery and technological innovation than Paris or Vienna, and a more important seat of political and military power than Venice or Madrid. Today Lagos is nothing more than a resort town, offering little discernible evidence that the town was once one of the most important places on the globe.
From Lagos, the tour group traveled to Sagres, home of Henry The Navigator’s School Of Navigation and the Compass Rose.
Sagres, too, hosts a fort, which is the only interesting feature of the town. The Sagres fort is situated on an unusual—and breathtaking—promontory in the Atlantic Ocean.
It was on the Sagres promontory that Henry The Navigator erected a fort and established his School Of Navigation, an institution responsible for many advances in mapping and navigational instruments. Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco Da Gama were prominent graduates of Henry’s School Of Navigation.
The School Of Navigation was home to the famed Compass Rose, 43 meters in diameter, made from pebbles. According to my parents, the Compass Rose was sort of impressive, and also sort of unimpressive, and I think I understand exactly what those inherently-contradictory statements mean.
After the visit to Sagres, the tour group was driven extensively around The Cape Of Saint Vincente, the Southwestern-most spot on the European Continent.
My parents said that the scenery along The Cape Of Saint Vincente was spectacular.
The multi-colored rock cliffs—red, white, yellow, brown—rising above the ocean are, on average, 200 feet high, providing some of the most dramatic views to be seen anywhere.
Three times the tour group stopped at overlooks to enjoy the uncommon and unforgettable views.
At a fourth stop, the tour group visited the lighthouse on the Cape, erected on the site of a centuries-old convent. It is one of the largest lighthouses in the world and has one of the most powerful sets of lights in the world.
The lighthouse on The Cape Of Saint Vincente provides a vital service. The Cape Of Saint Vincente is one of the world’s most heavily-trafficked shipping lanes, the waters of the Cape are among the world’s most treacherous, and the countless rock outcroppings on the Cape are lethal to ships. This portion of the Atlantic Ocean has been one of the world’s great graveyards for vessels for centuries.
After the tour group had had sufficient time to enjoy The Cape Of Saint Vincente, the group proceeded to Silves, an inland town due North of Lagos.
Silves has numerous attractions—ancient churches, convents, and castles—but the tour group did not have time to see, let alone visit, any of the town’s attractions. Instead, the sole purpose of the tour group’s visit to Silves was to tour a cork factory and to tour a marzipan factory, both on the outskirts of town.
Silves was once the worldwide center for cork-making, but the decline in global cork demand forced most of the town’s cork-makers to close their factories decades ago. Apparently only one Silves cork factory remains in business, and that was the factory visited by the tour group.
My parents said that the cork factory visit was not particularly interesting—and, in the requisite visit to the cork factory gift shop at tour’s end, no one from the tour group bought a single item insofar as my parents could ascertain.
From the cork factory, the tour group proceeded to a nearby marzipan factory for another factory tour.
My parents said that the marzipan factory was much more interesting than the cork factory.
Southern Portugal has for centuries been an important center for marzipan-making. Its prominence in this field is due to the enormous groves of almond trees that have graced the Southern Portuguese countryside for millennia.
Portuguese marzipan is unique—it uses higher almond content and unique sweeteners, variants that make Portuguese marzipan different from all other marzipan—and highly-prized throughout the world.
My parents said that watching the marzipan-making process was rather intriguing. Highly-skilled artisans are needed to fashion the delicacies, since Portuguese marzipan is incessantly colorful and sculpted into all sorts of complicated shapes and figures.
Apparently the most popular shapes for Portuguese marzipan are fruits. Marzipan is most often crafted to look like oranges, lemons, tangerines, limes, apples, pears, peaches, plums, grapes, bananas, pineapples, mangos and other fruits. An experienced and skilled artisan is able to make the appearance of his marzipan fruit creation indistinguishable from the real thing.
To the best of my knowledge and belief, no one in my family has a taste for marzipan, but at the marzipan factory gift shop my parents nonetheless bought two boxes of marzipan. Each box contains a full array of different fruits. I have no idea whom my parents plan to favor with gifts of marzipan. Gift-wise, marzipan is like fruitcake: most persons are happier to give than to receive. I believe my parents, in buying marzipan, may have experienced a momentary lack of lucidity.
From the marzipan factory, the tour group made its final stop of the day: an abandoned cork factory turned into upscale restaurant. The tour group dined at the restaurant on an assortment of Portuguese delicacies.
Given that tourism is now The Algarve’s top industry, most abandoned cork factories have been turned into eating establishments or shopping outlets, primed to capture the tourist trade.
My parents said that it was a very fine restaurant, and that the dinner was excellent.
Tomorrow morning, the tour group goes to Lisbon for the final day and night of the tour.
My parents will remain in Lisbon for an extra day at the conclusion of the tour in order to visit Lisbon’s two internationally-renowned art museums.