SAGRES is the southwesternmost habour in Europe. Spread over a flat, scrubby headland above a working fishing port, it is not a handsome town, but its dramatic position attracts a growing number of families, backpackers, divers and surfers, drawn by warm waters, surf schools and the string of magnificent local beaches. Modern Sagres is little more than a main road – Rua Comandante Matoso – connecting the lively fishing harbour and Praia da Baleeira at one end with the main square at the other, all backed by a new town of white villas and apartments. The small main square, Praça da Républica, is the main focus of town, an attractive cobbled space lined with squat palms. Sagres’s liveliest day is August 15 when celebrations and fireworks mark the local saint’s day.
Sagres and its rugged cape, Cabo de São Vicente, were once thought to mark the edge of the known world, which is why Henry the Navigator is believed to have set up his school of navigation here in the fifteenth century. It was here too that the caravel was developed – a revolutionary boat that could sail further than any European had been before. During Henry’s lifetime, Portuguese navigators colonized the Azores and Madeira and began trading with ports along the west coast of Africa. After Henry’s death in 1460, his school continued to train and equip sailors who went on to become the most famous of Portugal’s great explorers: Vasco da Gama (1460–1524), who opened up the sea route to India; Pedro Álvares Cabral (1468–1520), who “discovered” Brazil; and Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521), the first European to cross the Pacific. Once Lisbon became the main departure point for the Portuguese explorers, however, Sagres lost some of its importance and slipped back into obscurity. Its small sixteenth-century Fortaleza de Baleeira was damaged by Francis Drake in 1587 and further ruined in the 1755 earthquake; most of today’s town was built after tourism revived its fortunes in the 1960s.