Growing up on the West Coast of the United States, everything I learned about Portugal as a child had to do with the explorers. Bridging the late 15th and early 16th Century, many voyages that shape the way our map looks today, set sail from the West Coast of Portugal.
Portuguese explorers and the men who sponsored them were frontrunners in The Age of Discovery. Just a few high level and simplified facts from my school textbooks:
- Explorers such as Henry The Navigator, Vasco da Gama and Álvares Cabral founded new lands and colonies making Portugal a major economic, political and military power, ultimately dividing the world with Spain.
- Although Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition was financed by Spain, this famous Portuguese explorer championed the first voyage around the world in 1519. He was killed during the voyage.
- The Portuguese Empire was the longest-standing of the modern European empires. The legacy of this fact is the Portuguese language is today the 6th most spoken (first) language in the world, with over 200 million speakers.
- Portugal’s empire has slowly been broken up, with Brazil gaining independence after the revolution of 1910. The African colonies of São Tomé and Príncipe, Timor-Leste, Cape Verde Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau gained independence in 1974-1975. East Timor was granted sovereignty in 2002.
While many of the motives were spurred by a quest for financial and political domination, there is no denying the great risks these expeditions faced, and the obstacles that meant smooth sailing was a pipe dream. Although much of what we have explored in Portugal has the perfect patina coupled with a traditional pace of life, there is no denying a healthy spirit of progress and discovery.
We have felt this spirit since arriving:
- Driving over the 11 mile stretch of the impressive Vasco da Gama Bridge in Lisbon was unforgettable. It is the largest bridge in Europe and it dwarfs the mighty Tagus River below.
- Clean energy leaders in Portugal believe that renewable energy can replace fossil fuels. For four and a half days, in May 2016, the entire country ran on electricity from wind, hydro and solar power.
- When the Portuguese mourned the passing of the “father of democracy” Mario Saores, this month, we learned so much about how one man can move a nation forward in the direction of freedom. He headed the country’s first democratically elected government in 1976 after Salazar’s dictatorship was overthrown. He was a political pioneer who felt like his work was not yet finished when he died at age 92.
One of the definitions of discovery is “something seen or learned for the first time.” As I sit on the boardwalk and look around me, I am surrounded by hundreds of Portuguese people gazing toward the Atlantic. People are talking, sharing news, watching the fisherman come back to the harbor, while paying their respects to the sea.
I think long after I leave Portugal, this is what will stay with me. As long as there is a willingness to welcome the unknown, the unfamiliar, the unchartered, there is discovery. With discovery comes hope and excitement for what is to come. No matter what obstacles are in our path, the wave of the future is what we make it …
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