SAGRES, Portugal -- The men of Sagres make their way gingerly across the face of the cliff, and drop their lines a hundred feet into the clashing sea where the big fish lurk that entice them to these precarious haunts.
Perhaps now and then they fall and perish, as their ancestors perished in remoter seas, risking life and limb for much more than a few fish.
It can be frightening to draw near the edge of Sagres Point, to see the rocks jutting out in the seabelow, and hear the concussive shocks of the waves, and behind it the whisper of that small nihilistic voice in the back of the brain urging, "Go ahead."
The wind flows soundlessly up over the edge and brushes the walls of Henry of Sagres' fortress; it stirs up dust by a sad little pillar put up to mark the 500th anniversary of his death in 1460.
The Church of Our Lady of Grace stands near what is believed to be a remnant of the house Henry lived in when he came to build his town, Vila do Infante. The church is closed; one bell hangs in a tower made for two. Rusty cannons protrude from the ramparts. The sky above is white, and blue over the water the gusts tear the clouds to rags
The sun is a blur on the horizon. Shortly, when it retreats around the corner of the Earth, the headlands all along the coast will be transformed into a fleet of shadow ships ready to set out once again on behalf of the ghostly navigator.
Sagres Point is a cat's paw in the sea. It reaches out from this region of cliffs and escarpments and submarine caves on the edge of the European continent. In the Middle Ages this was the platform for speculation about what lay out there.
This is a good place to be as we approach the year that will mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing in the New World. Whether good or ill flowed from that may be a question of some heat in certain quarters of the United States and Northern Europe, but in Sagres only memories of glory linger.
The Age of Discovery dawned here. The stunning peregrinations of the men from Iberia during the 15th and 16th centuries were stimulated by a single man, Henry of Sagres, the third son of King John of Portugal, known as Henry the Navigator.
He built a fort, a town, and sent out ships that ranged down the African coast, around the Cape of Good Hope. His captains found the route to India and the Far East long before Columbus dreamed, wrongly it turned out, that he would reach the same destinations by sailing westward.
This place helps you to appreciate the way nations rise and fall, how even small countries can achieve esteem and authority before they recede The Portuguese navigators, Gil Eanes, Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama, under the patronage of Henry, gave Portugal its singular moment in history.
Then came Spain, France and England. Germany had its day, and even tiny Belgium and Holland created formidable empires, controlled vast territories. They all went into decline. So the questions naturally follow: Is this cycle inevitable and unbreakable?
The coast here is studded with fortifications. There is one across the water between Sagres Point and Cape St. Vincent, called Beliche. Its mission was to protect those ships at anchor below waiting out fierce seasonal winds off Sagres Point.
Henry was the perfect example of a man steeped in and dedicated to a certain way of life who nevertheless takes actions that undermine it. He was deeply religious, a mystic, abstemious as a saint. The ancient likenesses show a pale man, possibly jaundiced. He died a virgin.
Yet his activities changed the world, for the discoveries not only enlarged the Portuguese empire, but expanded the minds of those who carried them out, and of those who followed the discoverers. They triggered an audacious breakout of the closed, religion-saturated thinking that held sway in his time. They ushered us into the modern world, for what it was worth. Henry, more than Columbus, began it all.
At the lighthouse at Cape St. Vincent a young Portuguese woman, a tourist off a bus, is overheard talking about her visit to Sagres Point: "First we drove to the end of the world, then we had lunch."
Thus, with only a few words the romance of this place is made prosaic. The romance in this case has to do with the notion of limitless possibility and unflagging hope, the sensibility from which all discovery proceeds.
Indeed Sagres was the end of the world in the 15th century. And, remote and arid as it was, it was also a place of refuge. Henry used it as such when things did not go well for him at the court in Lisbon. When he knew he was dying he came here to write his will and breathe his last.
Others use Sagres today for the same purposes. They find here a kind of self-rescue, and by that they redeem the romance of the place. Peter is an English truck driver who has been spending his evenings in Nascimiento's bar.