In the footsteps of Vasco da Gama
I met local historian Dr Libaneo Reis on the shores of the recently constructed Alqueva Lake in the centre of the Alentejo. It felt appropriate to be sitting at the water’s edge recalling the story of one of the world’s most celebrated seamen, but Dr Reis, who runs historical tours of the region, is quick to dispel a common myth. Da Gama had no great plans to be a sailor and to see the world, Dr Reis said. His ambitions were more about rising up the ranks in the king’s court, and it just happened that he was given a mission that involved a sea voyage.
Da Gama’s fame and wealth led to King Manuel I eventually naming him Count of Vidigueira in 1519, and indeed his legacy lives on in several spots around the small town of Vidigueira, located about 80km inland from Sines. The bell in the town’s clock tower was donated by da Gama; the Donjon, the old castle ruin at the edge of town, once formed part of the da Gama family palace that stood next door; while the attractive, florist-guarded Igreja da Misericordia church was built in the 16th Century, funded by the Santa Casa da Misericordia, da Gama’s charitable institution that provided medical help and social welfare for the poor. Yet none of these links are easy to find. The bell tower and the donjon have no information boards and the church gives no obvious clues as to its benefactor’s identity.
Even the woman at the local tourist information centre displayed a distinct lack of interest in the town’s first count, although she did offer a map of Vidigueira (in Portuguese) with da Gama’s sites marked as places of interest. While there is no evidence to suggest that the town authorities in Vidigueira are reluctant to acknowledge their most famous resident, neither have they made any noticeable attempt to commemorate his life in the city. So for now, Dr Reis’s tours offer the best way to explore da Gama’s legacy in the Alentejo.
Perhaps the one place where da Gama is unashamedly celebrated is in Portugal’s capital Lisbon, a city he rarely visited during his life but where he was finally laid to rest alongside the kings of Portugal in 1880, more than 350 years after his death in Cochin, India in 1524. It is only here in the Church of Santa Maria in the Jeronimo Monastery complex that large crowds cross paths with the explorer’s trail.
Those who travel around the Alentejo may be surprised at the low-key manner in which da Gama’s achievements are remembered. While not perhaps in keeping with the explorer’s own grand ambitions, this understated approach is entirely in tune with the slow pace of life and unruffled character of the Alentejan people.
Getting around the Alentejo requires a car as there is little public transport. The airports in Lisbon and Faro are around 120km from the centre of the region and are served by regional low-cost and major international airlines. Recently British tour operator Sunvil started the first direct charter flight service between Beja, the Alentejo’s regional capital, and London Heathrow. The historic Hotel Convento de Espinheiro in the town of Evora dates back to the days of da Gama and serves as a convenient base from which to explore the area.