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The church’s heavy wooden door remained firmly shut, despite the insistence from the woman in the nearby tourist office that it is always open. On my third attempt, a man with a broad smile approached and made the gesture of turning a key, pointing to a little doorway up a side street and repeating the word “florista” (florist). Disturbing an elderly woman who was busy trimming the stems of a bunch of roses in a small shaded workshop, I repeated the key-turning gesture and she put down her flowers and went to open up the church doors.
The Igreja da Misericordia (Church of Mercy) in the municipality of Vidigueira is one of several sites in Portugal’s Alentejo region that are linked to the nation’s most famous explorer, Vasco da Gama. He spent most of his life in the Alentejo, and a visit to this under-developed part of Portugal reveals many links to his life, including the two places claiming to be his birthplace and the town where he was laid to rest.
The Portuguese have long been keen to attach the name of Vasco da Gama to all manner of high profile places, from Europe’s longest road bridge near Lisbon to streets in almost every town in Portugal. Yet it is by exploring the towns where he lived that perhaps the most interesting discoveries can be made – even if those sites require the persistence and orientation skills of an intrepid adventurer to uncover.
Da Gama achieved fame and fortune when he led the 1497 expedition that opened up the sea route to India, which had long been the source of the spices that were in demand among European aristocracy. The Venetian Republic, with its dominance of several strategically important Mediterranean ports, had a virtual monopoly on trades between Europe and Asia. This meant that the established routes were expensive for other Western European powers, with countless middlemen adding their share to the already considerable cost of transporting the goods. In the latter part of the 15th Century, the Spanish and Portuguese engaged in a bitter race for trading dominance by cutting off the Venetians from the trading routes and establishing a sea route to India – with da Gama being the first to land in India in 1498, winning great wealth for the Portuguese crown as a result.
The explorer was born in the now industrial port city of Sines, located around 120km south of the Portuguese capital Lisbon. Not only is his year of birth disputed (either 1460 or 1469), but there are also two places in the city’s Old Town claiming to be his birthplace, the most plausible being the castle where his father lived as a 15th-century nobleman for the military Order of Santiago. Sines Castle now houses a modest section on the upper floor dedicated to its most famous resident, including a multi-media biography that recalls da Gama’s life and his many achievements. Apart from an old window frame and the weathered stone walls, there is little that has survived the 500 years since the explorer lived here. Even the Mother of Sao Salvador church next to the castle, where da Gama was ordained into the Order of Santiago when he was 11 or 12, has been entirely rebuilt.
From the castle ramparts, look out to sea and you will see the wide expanse of Vasco da Gama beach, spreading out for several kilometres against the backdrop of enormous cranes in the busy port beyond. A short walk west from the castle along Rua Vasco da Gama, another house bears a plaque proclaiming it as Vasco da Gama’s birthplace, but is not open to the public and there is little known about the property to support its claim.
The explorer’s final contribution to Sines was the Church of Nossa Senhora das Salas, located 2km to the west of town. The original church was ordered to be rebuilt by da Gama soon after his second return from India in 1503, at a time when his growing sense of self-importance was becoming a nuisance to the authorities. Within four years of his return, his disputes with the influential leaders of the Order of Santiago forced him to leave the city.