Knowing very little of Portugal beyond its grand capital city, I decided it was time to turn the tides and explore it for myself. Although my voyage of discovery would follow the dramatic coastline south of Lisbon, I figured that a galleon wasn’t the ideal mode of transport, so I opted for a rental car instead.
Positioned on the edge of the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal is the westernmost country in mainland Europe. There’s very little besides ocean separating it from the East Coast of the United States, perhaps explaining why the Portuguese were seafaring pioneers who were skilled at discovering new worlds, and why even today, they appear to be instinctively lured by the sea.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, an era known as the Age of Discovery, Portuguese sailors were vanguard explorers. Nobleman and Naval Commander Pedro Álvares Cabral is celebrated for discovering Brazil, while fellow explorers like Vasco da Gama discovered and mapped the coasts of Africa and Asia, establishing lucrative spice trade routes.
When news came of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas in 1492 under the flag of the Spanish crown, a dispute arose between Portugal and Spain about exactly who’d discovered the New World. It was settled by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, an agreement that divided newly discovered lands outside of Europe between the two countries. This agreement marks the start of centuries of Spanish and Portuguese dominance across much of the Americas.
Portugal’s Age of Discovery has left a lasting impression. Grand historic buildings in places like Lisbon, Porto, Braga, and Sintra remind us of Portugal’s prosperous past, while former colonies like Brazil have a massive cultural impact on modern-day Portuguese life.