Cabo de San Vicente is a headland situated a few kilometres from the town of Sagres comprised of rough, barren terrain shaped by the winds that frequently top 60 kilometres per hour. It is the most southwesterly extremity of continental Europe and steeped in history, dating back to the Neolithic period when it was a sacred site.
It is here that Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese prince who launched the first great European voyages of exploration, is thought to have spent much time planning voyages that mapped and explored the unknown region of western Africa.
The headland takes its name from São Vicente, Patron Saint of Vila do Bispo and Diocese of the Algarve and Lisbon. Saint Vicente was a martyr of the Christian Church who is said to have been tortured by having salt rubbed into his wounds and then burnt alive in 304 AD under the orders of Emperor Diocletian of Rome.
Little is known about Saint Vincent of Zaragoza, Spain, and what is known about the fate of his remains is likely more legend than history. Some say that after his death his remains were taken to Valencia and then later moved to Sagres. Others believe that Vincent’s disciples shipped his remains as far away as possible from the Roman authorities that had ordered his arrest, however, as the vessel carrying Vincent’s body set off westwards out of the Mediterranean, it was shipwrecked and somehow ended up in Sagres, perhaps seeking protected waters.
One way or another, Vicent’s remains are said to have been buried near the cape and guarded by ravens. In 1173 the 1st King of Portugal, D. Alfonso Henriques who recovered Lisbon for the Christians, ordered the transfer of a large part of the remains (and the ravens) to the city of Lisbon, leaving some of the relics at this site.
The Convent of S. Vicente do Cabo (Saint Vincent of the Cape) was founded on this site in 1516 by the Franciscans, who lit fires on this spot to guide ships. Between 1521 and 1557 a tower was constructed on the order of the king to defend the coast from attacks but then destroyed by the English privateer Sir Francis Drake. It later returned to operation in 1606, following a restoration by the order of King Felipe II.
In 1755 an earthquake destroyed the monastery and it was never repaired, though the ruins can still be seen today. Two sacred statues that survived were moved to the church of Nossa Senhora da Graça in Sagres.
In 1846, after the extinction of the Religious Order a lighthouse was constructed on the ruins of the convent under the order of Queen Maria II. It was originally illuminated by an olive oil lamp that rotated every six seconds and had a range of six nautical miles (11 kilometres, 6.9 miles). Following its initial period of operation the lighthouse was later abandoned and by 1865 it had fallen into ruin. In 1897 remodelling work began; the project took 11 years to complete and the tower was increased by 5.7 metres (19 feet). A 52 inch optic lens was fitted, making it one of the largest optics used in Portugal, and one of the ten largest in the world. The light was projected from an incandescent gas lamp and the lighthouse’s range increased to 53 kilometres (33 miles). In 1914 a signal horn was fitted and in 1926 a generator was installed, allowing the transition from gas to electricity. During World War II deflectors were fitted and in 1948 it was connected to the electrical grid. In 1982 the lighthouse was automated and today the it is one of Europe’s brightest. It can be seen from around 100 kilometres (60 miles) away and guards one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
In the 20th century, the promontory became popular with ornithologists, turning it into one of the best known birdwatching sites in the country. Seabirds pass along this coastline in their thousands during post-breeding migration to wintering sites. A diverse range of birds are also resident here including the Blue rock thrush and the European shag.
A long distance hiking route, Rota Vicentina, comprises the Historical Way and the Fisherman’s Trail, offering walkers a unique experience that blends a living and authentic rural culture with a surprisingly wild coastline. The trail follows the coastline, following paths used by locals to get to hot fishing spots. The single track runs along the clifftops and can only be travelled by foot. From the top of the jagged cliffs there is a sheer 60 metre drop to the turbulent waters below.
The lighthouse is open to the public on Wednesday afternoons. There is a small museum and gift shop, as well as a cafeteria on the site.
- Information signs at Cabo San Vicente