As Macau prepares for Chinese rule, its former colonial master can reflect on past glories.

THE WESTERN edge of the Iberian Peninsula would seem to have no obvious geographical claim to nationhood, yet Portugal has been independent for more than 800 years.

Cut off from the rest of Europe and shaped by centuries of bitter rivalry and warfare with Spain, Portugal has always had to look out to sea. This helps to explain why the inhabitants of such a small nation became such great seafaring people.

Portugal's first foreign adventure was a sortie across the Straits of Gibraltar in 1415, during a wave of anti-Moorish zeal, to capture Ceuta in Morocco. The venture was successful, but its true significance is that it marked the onset of a colonial era, which will only come to an end when the clock strikes midnight tomorrow, and Macau is finally handed back to China.

Prince Henrique of Aviz (later known as Henry the Navigator) established a School of Navigation at Sagres in the Algarve, sending Portuguese explorers out into the unknown. Madeira was discovered in 1419, the Azores in 1427, and Gil Eanes rounded cape Bojador on the West African coast in 1434. Henry died in 1460, but his work continued when Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1487, Vasco da Gama finally discovered the sea route to India 10 years later, and Pedro Cabral landed in Brazil in 1500.

Throughout most of the 16th century, Portugal was the world's dominant trading power. The spirit of this era is recorded in Luis de Camoes's epic poem, Os Luciadas, which jubilantly describes Vasco da Gama's voyage to India.

National pride during this period also asserts itself in Portugal's unique Manueline architecture. Named after King Manuel I, whose reign spanned the heroics of da Gama and Cabral, the style embellishes late Gothic with flamboyant carvings and exotic maritime flourishes. The Belem Tower and Jeronimos monastery in Lisbon are the masterpieces of the style, paid for with African gold and spices from the east.

Ironically, the same hostility towards the Moors which had originally initiated Portugal's expansionism also marked the beginning of its decline. In 1578, young King Sebastian launched an ill-advised invasion of Morocco in which he and an army of 15,000 were slaughtered and the nation's coffers emptied.

However, despite no longer playing a leading role on the world colonial stage, Portugal kept many of its overseas possessions longer than its colonial contemporaries.

Brazil gained independence in 1822, and India seized Goa (along with the Gujarat enclaves of Damao and Diu) in 1961, to the rage of Portuguese dictator Salazar. But it wasn't until 1975, the year after Portugal's "Revolution of the Carnations" left-wing military coup, that Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome e Principe and the Cape Verde Islands - along with East Timor in Asia - were finally relinquished.

That left only Macau. In fact, Portugal had twice tried to return the territory to China; first in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards stormed over the border, and then again in 1975 along with its other colonies. Both times, Peking's answer was thanks, but no thanks. To take Macau back then would have been to lose a valuable funnel for foreign currency. They would wait until midnight, 19 December - the formal expiry of the lease, agreed in 1556.

Today, Portuguese is reckoned to be the sixth most commonly spoken language. Portuguese blue-tiled churches, stone balustrades and black-and-white mosaic cobbles are found across swathes of Africa and South America.

While some of Portugal's former possessions - in particular Angola, Mozambique and East Timor - have descended into appalling post-colonial wars, Portugal itself has seen a smooth transition to democracy and an increasingly confident western European demeanour.

All the same, get upgraded on a TAP Air Portugal flight to Lisbon and you will find yourself luxuriating in Navigator Class. And after a day of sightseeing, you might spend an evening in the city's Bairro Alto district listening to fado - the music of yearning and longing for what has been lost.

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