For thousands of years it was believed that the rugged and forbidding Cape Saint Vincent (Cabo de São Vicente) in Sagres, Portugal, was the end of the world.
It’s really not surprising as this wild and wind blown spot, with 75 metre high cliffs, is the most southwesterly point of mainland Europe. Beyond that point was the big unknown until all that changed in the 1400s when brave explorers like Vasco Da Gama opened up the world to exploration and discovery.
Standing at the cliff edge gazing down at the swirling and heaving waves far below it was easy to understand how easy it would have been to believe the fearsome legends of serpents and a supernatural vortex where the setting sun was dramatically submerged by the immense, unknown ocean.
Now Cape St Vincent is a popular tourist spot and home to a 24 metre (79 ft) lighthouse which safeguards one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Built in 1846 over the ruins of a 16th-century Franciscan convent, the lighthouse hurls a powerful white beam 60 km (the second most powerful beam in Europe) into the dark expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.
We were astounded to see quite a number of fishermen hanging off the cliff face trying to catch fish from immense heights. I couldn’t help think what would happen if they suddenly caught “the big one” – surely they could potentially lose their balance and tumble down into the churning sea below! I’ve never thought of fishing as an extreme sport but I understand how it could be now!
Near the lighthouse there was a small museum dedicated to ships, exploration and the history of the lighthouse which we enjoyed going round.
On the way to Sagres we were intrigued to see – having recently been in the Netherlands- many windmills. They were completely different in style to the Dutch ones but there seemed to be as many as you would normally see driving around the Netherlands!
We called in the Fortaleza Sagres after our visit to the museum and although it has great historical importance, as it ably protected the town from North African raiders in the 15th Century, there wasn’t a lot to see.
It was from this fort that Henry the Navigator devised his 15th century expeditions to the uncharted seas around the western side of Africa, which heralded in the golden era of Portugal exploration.
We were looking for a suitable place to stay the night and took a look at the designated campervan parking spot on the peninsula. To our amazement there were more vans parked together there than we had seen for a long time (the last place being Honfleur, in France.)
So we kept on driving and decided to look elsewhere for somewhere to stay – away from hoards of people.
While looking up possible places to stay we discovered that there were some Neolithic remains in the Sagres area. Of course we just had to go on a menhir hunt! It took us a while but we did eventually find a beautiful specimen.
It was getting late so we headed to Alvor , about 20 km from Lagos. It was a real shock to see once again, stacks of vans all crowded in together in a muddy and stark field which we later learnt is affectionately called “The Pit”. We opted to park near the Alvor nature reserve where it was a little quieter.
The following morning we went for a fabulous walk through the dunes in the Ria de Alvor Nature Reserve.
Even though it was early February it felt as though Spring had arrived. There were flowers and trees budding and plenty of bird life. In the distance across the estuary we could see the charming white-washed houses of Alvor town.
Later that day we drove on to another spectacular piece of coastline near the resort town of Carvoeiro.
Quite by accident we found Praia da Carvalho – a small but delightful beach, surrounded by steep cliffs that you enter via a “secret tunnel” and enclosed steps.
The sand is fine and a rich gold colour and the sea turquoise and as clear as gin. There are caves high up in the cliffs that would have been great to explore and a little one actually on the beach that looked as though it had been a shrine at one time.