By Paul Bernhardt
A pair of designer flip-flops, each decorated with leather flowers and filigree cork, slap across the entire length of the African continent before coming to rest at the Cape of Good Hope.
Wearing them is an attractive young woman, who pauses before taking herself and her fashionable footwear across the Indian Ocean to stand on Calicut, a city in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
She turns and waves to her partner, a tassel-haired youth standing with one foot in Spain and the other somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea.
“I’ve just walked to India,” she declares, laughing. “Come on, let’s go to the Far East.” They clutch hands and make for Japan, stomping over China in the process.
The couple are visiting one of Lisbon’s most unusual tourist attractions, the Rosa dos Ventos, a huge mariner’s compass cut into the pavement in front of the Monument to the Discoveries, in the city’s historic Belém district.
A beautiful mosaic of impressive proportions, the ‘wind rose’ circles a map of the world that illustrates the routes of the Portuguese discoverers in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Those countries and continents that fell within the sphere of the Discoveries are clearly defined, with inlaid place names and dates marking the progress of the intrepid explorers.
Bare-breasted mermaids, fearsome-looking sea creatures and lateen-rigged caravels with crimson crosses on their sails further embellish this modern-day mappa mundi.
Vasco da Gama made landfall in 1498 thus opening up a sea route to India by circumnavigating Africa. Calicut, the great ‘Pepper Port’, quite literally one vast marketplace, was the supreme prize and da Gama returned home with an exotic consignment of spices – cloves, nutmeg, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, and other treasures.
Understanding the history behind Portugal’s Age of Discovery enhances any sojourn to this wonderfully original tourist attraction.
But even if you’re not very familiar with the pioneering events of 500 years ago, the chance to navigate the world in just a few minutes, and even walk on water, is not to be missed.
Raucous laughter draws my gaze towards South America. Squatting over Porto Seguro in Brazil is a rotund gentleman who’s just regained his composure after apparently toppling backwards into the Atlantic Ocean.
“Quick, take a photograph,” he urges in a flustered tone, as if he might lose his balance again. A member of his party duly obliges, capturing the scene for posterity.
Pedro Álvares Cabral landed at Porto Seguro in 1500. An account of the voyage written by Luis Vaz de Caminha soon afterwards and dispatched to Portugal’s King Manuel noted the people that greeted Cabral and his crew had ‘… good bodies and good faces…’ and that ‘…rhythm was the essential basis of their dances.” Brazil in a nutshell, I’d say.
It doesn’t take long for the place to get busy. The mariner’s compass is a must-see on any itinerary and a steady stream of tour buses pull up to disgorge their chattering cargoes of sightseers.
Over near Egypt a middle-aged English couple are retracing the exact route their cruise ship took the previous summer. The pair head out of Alexandria, striding confidently towards Cyprus.
“Rhodes next, darling.”
“Then Italy. Jolly good fun, this.”
Then I notice a group of around a dozen or so youthful Americans saunter up to the compass and make a beeline for their sprawling nation.
“This is so cool,” drawls one girl who sets about trying to pinpoint the location of Atlanta, presumably her home city. Another, all teeth and hair, skips down to Florida, the Sunshine State. “Sunny side up,” she pipes.
I decide to mosey south, shuffling the course Bartolomeu Dias sailed along the west coast of Africa.
Dias rounded the toe of Africa in 1488. Right now, the treacherous cape is being closely scrutinised by an elderly lady dressed in black slacks and a plus-size paisley top. She’s busily prodding the map with a folded umbrella and mumbling something about oranges. It’s all very odd.
Perhaps the wind has changed.