The cape of St. Vincent: the extraordinary end of the world
The Cape of St. Vincent (in Portuguese: Cabo de São Vicente) near Sagres is the most southwestern tip of continental Europe. The Cape of St. Vincent combines nature, culture and myth. It feels quite amazing to walk around here, because you will feel the magnitude of nature. The cape is closely associated to the sea, from the ancient navigators to the legends and myths associated with the cape. From St. Vincent to Henry the Navigator. The Cape of St. Vincent and the surrounding area is one of the rare places where the geographical location, a wild but majestic nature, and historical factors combine with a mythical dimension. The result is a magical place. In this article you can read all about the cape, its history and natural beauty.
The coastline around Cabo de São Vicente consists of steep cliffs. The cliffs have varying altitudes between 60 and 80 metres. Occasionally you can see small coves with sandy beaches in between the cliffs, such as Praia do Tonel and Praia do Beliche. The views from the cape are absolutely stunning. You just see cliffs and the Atlantic Ocean. When walking in this area, make sure to not go near the edge of the cliffs. That can be quite dangerous, especially with the strong and unpredictable wind.
Visiting the cape of St. Vincent
It is only possible to visit the cape of St. Vincent by car. Parking near the lighthouse is free. After you have parked your car, enter the gate of the small fortress. This building is now a lighthouse, which can be visited. The lighthouse belongs to the Portuguese Navy (as all lighthouses in Portugal).
On the right side of the entrance, there is a small maritime museum. Nearby there is a bar with a terrace. The bar is only open during high season.
Along the edge of the rocky plateau, there is a protective wall from where you can have spectacular views over the coast and the ocean. This is a great place to take a few pictures. The lighthouse itself and museum are open to the public on Wednesday afternoons. So, if you are lucky enough to visit the lighthouse, do it. It will be an unforgettable experience.
A small lighthouse existed on the cape since 1520. It was built on the site of a convent. Between 1521 and 1557 a tower was constructed, as ordered by King D. John III, who wanted to defend the coast against attacks from North-African pirates. Yet, in 1587, the tower was destroyed by the English sea captain Francis Drake. Subsequently, King Philip III ordered its restoration, after which the tower returned to operation in 1606.
The modern lighthouse of Cape St. Vincent (also known as the lighthouse of D. Fernando) was ordered to be constructed by Queen D. Maria II. It began operating in October 1846. The lighthouse was originally illuminated by an olive oil lamp, which had a range of 11 kilometres.
From abandonment to powerful lighthouse
The lighthouse was used for a couple of years. However, in the second half of the 19th century the lighthouse was abandoned and almost fell into ruin. Remodelling work on the structure of the tower began in 1897. As a result, the tower was increased by almost 6 metres, to a total height of 24 metres.
The remodelling of the tower lasted 11 years, until the lighthouse reopened in 1908. Its optic was replaced by a new lens, making it one of the largest optics used in Portuguese lighthouses and one of the ten largest in the world. As a result, the light had a periodicity of 15 seconds and a range of almost 60 kilometres.
Automation of the lighthouse
A generator was installed in 1926, which enabled the transition from petrol to electricity. In 1948, the lighthouse was finally connected to the public electrical grid. Automation of the lighthouse followed in 1982. Moreover, the optic’s rotation was automated in 2001.
Before leaving the Cape of St. Vincent, you still can walk around outside the complex to enjoy the stunning views. Make sure to take good care, because outside the complex the rocky cliffs have no protection.
The area around the Cape of St. Vincent has a very special climate, which is strongly influenced by the Atlantic Ocean. The climatic conditions give this place a unique contrast with the rest of the Algarve region. The Cape of St. Vincent is one of the most windy places in Portugal. There are strong winds from the north and northwest. Also there is little rainfall and the temperature in the winter is mild. During the year, there is a small difference in temperature between summer and winter.
These climatic conditions have implications for the flora of the region. There are several endemic species that only exist in this area and nowhere else in the world. However, this does not mean that these unique species of flora are safe. The biggest risk for these species are the tourists. Visitors, looking for the most interesting points to take a picture, accidentally step on them or allow weeds to settle in these areas. As a result, this leads to the progressive destruction of the unique characteristics of this area.
The area belongs to the Natural Park of Costa Vicentina and is part of the European Network of Biogenetic Reserves and the Natura 2000 Network. The Algarve section of the park covers about 74.000 hectares. It stretches for some 80 km, from Odeceixe on the westcoast to Burgau (between Sagres and Lagos). The nature around the cape of St. Vincent is very beautiful and a big reason to visit the area.
History of the Cape of St. Vincent
Already in Neolithic times, the area around the Cape St. Vincent was sacred ground. You can still find standing menhirs in the neighbourhood. In addition, you can find other menhirs from here in the Archaeological Museum of Lagos. These Neolithic menhirs were part of a religious belief: the cult of Fertility. Actually, they represent erect human penises.
The end of the world
The Cape of Saint Vincent, located in the extreme southwest of the European continent, was for approximately three millennia one of the limits of the known world. For the people of the Eastern Mediterranean, such as Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, and Arabs, the Cape of St. Vincent was the navigation threshold to the west before the mare incognitum, the unknown sea. For this reason, it was known for millennia, as the finis terrae, that is, the end of the world. The common people believed the sun sank here hissing into the ocean, marking the edge of their world.
Besides being the end of the world, the cape was also a holy place. It was associated with maritime deities. The Greek geographer Strabo, based on older written sources, already confirmed the cape as a shrine:
Advanced over the ocean which ship, has no material evidence of any sanctuary or altar to Heracles, as Ephorus had said, or to any other deity, but that in many places there are groups of three or four stones, which are by the visitors turned by tradition and displaced after making libations. Pilgrims are not allowed to make sacrifices, nor to go to the place during the night, for the gods are there. They stay in a neighbouring village and enter it during the day, taking water with them, since the place does not have it”.
This religious dimension associated with the cape was the reason why the Romans later called it promontorium sacrum. It was a sacred cape, dedicated to the cult of Saturn. The town of Sagres derives its name from sacrum, the Roman word for sacred. This was the last sheltered port where ships could stay before setting out into the open Atlantic Ocean. The crews climbed the promontory, consulted the gods and made vows. These gestures transformed the Promontorium Sacrum into a primary point of reference for seagoing men.
A new religious evocation emerged in the 8th century, linked to the Christian cult of the martyr St. Vincent. He was the 4th-century martyr of Zaragoza, whose relics there arrived by sea at that time. This was a way to preserve them from destruction by the Muslims, who had invaded the Iberian Peninsula. According to tradition, the remains of the Saint will have brought Sagres adrift in a boat guarded by two crows.
The relics were then deposited in Igreja do Corvo (Church of the Crow), which was a famous centre of pilgrimage near the inhospitable cliffs of Cape St. Vincent. People believed that the flocks of ravens present in the place would be the guardians of the Saint. In the mid 12th century, the Arab geographer Muhammad Al-Idrisi refers to the Raven’s Church which, in his view, would already have existed before Islamic domination and situated on a “promontory that enters the Sea”.
The influence of St. Vincent on Portuguese culture
The cult of St. Vincent became so relevant, that the first king of Portugal, Afonso I, after taking Lisbon from the Moors in 1147, sent a vessel there to collect the relics of the Saint and transfer them to Lisbon. He declared this Saint to be the Patron of the city and built the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora in his honour. In Lisbon you can still see a statue of St. Vincent, with a vessel and two crows in his left hand. In the background you can see the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora.
The iconographic attributes of the vessel that transported the relics, always guarded by two crows have been adopted in the iconography of the coat of arms of Lisbon, which can also be seen in the flag of Lisbon.
There is also a remarkable Portuguese painting from the 15th century, with two representations of St. Vincent. This painting is now on display in the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon.
The history of the buildings that exist or that already existed on the Cape of St. Vincent is fascinating. The existence of Igreja do Corvo is referred to in 12th century Arab documents. It was a place of worship to St. Vincent, because his relics were supposed to have been deposited there. This place continued to be a place of pilgrimage, because in 1434 the Portuguese King Duarte asked the Pope for authorisation for the foundation of a Franciscan monastery. He intended to support the pilgrims who were travelling there. The Pope gave the authorisation and a convent was built. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Bishop of Silves had a wall built around the convent, as well as facilities to live there. However, the entire complex was damaged in 1587 by sea captain Francis Drake and rebuilt a few years later.
Moreover, here is a drawing of the Monastery of the Cape of St. Vincent from 1842: