The famous voyager who blazed new trade routes to India spent most of his life in Portugal’s Alentejo region, but visitors need the persistence of an explorer to follow his trail.

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.

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.