The Algarve, Part 1: Sagres

Overview of the Algarve

This series on the Algarve is dedicated to my daughter for her love of archeology and history and to my grandson who loves pirates.

My interest during this first exploration of the Algarve was the historical aspect and how it is reflected in the architecture of the area due to its influence by several cultures that have inhabited what is called the Iberian Peninsula. This included the Phoenicians, the Moors, the Romans and the British until it was established as the country of Portugal in 1143.

Our base was Portimao and from there I was taken on a seven day tour of the Algarve.

My tour begins with the west coast of the Algarve and I will be working my way towards the border of Spain.

Each town will have a separate post because there is so much fascinating history to share with you about each place I visited.

First stop, Sagres.

Sagres is located at the southwestern point of continental Europe.

Its history dates back to the Stone Age with the discovery of Celtiberian grave sites dating back to the third millennium.

The name Sagres, is from Sagrado (sacred) due to religious practices and rituals that occurred during the pre-history of Portugal. It is here that some of the Mediterranean people, including the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, worshipped their divinities and some believed it was the gathering place for their gods.

The Romans called this area the Holy Promontory (Promontorium Sacrum) and believed this southwest point was the seat of their  gods. You can understand why when you stand on the peninsula and gaze out onto the cliffs and the sea.

The Fort of Sagres (Fortaleza de Sagres)

Photo thanks to someone’s drone

The Fort of Sagres goes back to the 15th Century when the coast was the target of raids by the Barbary pirates from the North African shores. (Yes Oliver, there really were pirates! 😉 )

A soldiers post

The fort was built by Prince Henry the Navigator, one of those who began the Age of Discovery and Exploration in Portugal.

One of Prince Henry’s goals was to chart ocean routes to India and establish a spice trade. The way he decided to achieve this goal was to send ships onto the Atlantic. 

To achieve this, he brought to the fort astronomers, mathematicians, naval architects and sailors. Prince Henry basically established a scientific institute on the peninsula. There is a giant compass within the fort that some think date back to the original institute. 

Sailing out into the Atlantic was a big leap of faith because many assumed the earth was flat as they looked out onto the horizon and many Europeans thought sea monsters existed that could swallow up ships. 

Prince Henry spent time before sailing to India exploring closer to home and discovered the Azores and parts of the African coastline.  

A beautiful structure designed like a labyrinth and in the center you can hear the sounds of the ocean magnified.

The discovery of these new worlds was based on calculations, bravery and the Portuguese mastery of ship building. This is why Portugal became the forerunner of the Age of Discovery and Exploration.

The lighthouse at the fort

The old and the new at the fort through a window.

The church at Fort Sagres

After having lunch in Sagres, we visited the Cape of St Vincent which also has a very interesting history. The Cape St. Vincent is sometimes referred to as “The Edge of the World”.

Photo not mine

This is the geographical point that was considered sacred by the Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians and probably further back then that. The Greeks called it the “Land of Serpents”. To the Romans, Cape St. Vincent was the “Edge of the World”, a supernatural vortex where the setting sun submerged into the ocean of the unknown. 

The lighthouse

During the Middle Ages, a lighthouse was built to protect the Portuguese from attacks. A new lighthouse replaced it in1846 although it was still illuminated using an olive oil lamp (!). In 1926 electricity was installed and used to light the beacon.

The lighthouse is now one of the most powerful in Europe. It has two 1,000 watt lamps that can be seen up to 37 miles away and safeguards the shipping lanes around the point. 

View from the Cape

Even though I’m not usually into the activities of warring countries, it was very interesting to find out that between 1337 and 1833 the ocean off of St. Vincent was the site of at least nine major naval battles. This reflects the strategic importance of the Cape. Eight battles and a naval action are all referred to as the “Battle of Cape Saint Vincent”. 

This painting is by Robert Cleveley, “The Battle of St Vincent” which depicts the final battle of the Anglo-Spanish war.

The battles of Cape Saint Vincent include:

  • In 1337, a Castilian fleet defeated a Portuguese fleet.
  • In 1606, a Spanish fleet defeated a Dutch fleet.
  • In 1641, a Spanish fleet fought with a Dutch fleet.
  • In 1681, a Spanish fleet defeated a Brandenburger fleet
  • In 1693, a French fleet defeated an Anglo-Dutch fleet.
  • In 1719, a Spanish fleet defeated a British fleet.
  • In 1751, a Spanish fleet defeated an Algerian fleet.
  • In 1780, a British fleet defeated a Spanish fleet.
  • In 1797, a British fleet defeated a Spanish fleet.
  • In 1833, a Loyalist fleet defeated a Miguelite fleet.

So you can see the Cape has seen a lot of action through the centuries.

On a more peaceful note, the Cape is also a major flight path for birds migrating to and from Africa.

Next stop: Alvor, Portugal

-Dora Taylor

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