9 – 14 October 2019
On the most southwestern tip of mainland Europe is a place once known as the End of the World. The rocky point of Cape St Vincent was The last known point of land in Europe for the seafaring explorers of the 15th century as they left on their voyages of ‘discovery’. (apologies to the “discovered”). Today it is the site of the 2nd most powerful lighthouse in Europe and a go-to place for spectacular sunsets. It is also where the 4-day Birdwatching Festival was based so we set up at a campsite a couple of miles from the Cape, just outside the small harbour town of Sagres.
The constant wind at the End of the World has created a landscape of low spiny shrubs and wind-sculpted pines. The campsite is in a dip that creates a wind shadow, allowing a small wood of taller pines to grow, providing shade and shelter for campers.It has its own surf school and a lot of young surfer-types with their tents that made us feel old just looking at them. Danny put up the hammock for the first time this year amongst a small stand of firs. It was peaceful, relaxing and a good base for our explorations.
The annual October birding event is timed to make the most of the mass migration heading south for winter. Thousands of birds of prey, seabirds and small landbirds are on the move and can produce an amazing spectacle. Sadly not during our 4 day visit. We went to various observation points and each time were told by the specialists that the unseasonal weather was disrupting the normal migration and the wind direction was unfavourable. But we had a relaxing time and still managed to see some ‘firsts’.
The highight was an early morning boat trip from Sagres harbour to look for seabirds. The weather was grey and windy and there was a 2m swell which made for an exciting ride in our RIB. We went 12 miles out, beyond the continental shelf where the waters mix and more abundant food attracts shearwaters and storm petrel, giving us great views, although wallowing around the swell was not good for photos. Near to a trawler were lots of gulls, and gannets were diving and flying close over our heads.
That would all have been great, but to make it perfect a pod of dolphins decided to accompany us part of the way back in. Briliant.
It wasn’t all cloud and birdwatching though. The sun shone more than it didn’t and we had a good time exploring. As well as the lighthouse, the Cape has the old convent buildings that housed the relics of St Vincent and are now a nice cafe selling excellent cake and 2 gift shops. But it’s the cliffs and sunsets that are that are most impressive, although we saw a couple of nice sunrises there as well (yes – a shock I know). It’s a lovely spot.
We explored Fortaleza de Sagres that sprawls across the neck of the Sagres Promontory, a peninsula of limestone pavement and steep cliffs rising out of the sea. The Promontory was a key location in the “Age of Discoveries” being the base of Henry the Navigator who built his seafaring school here – famous navigators such as Magellan and Vasco de Gama trained here before heading out to redefine the world. Most of the fort was rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake but the gatehouse was undamaged.
In 1919 a huge ‘Wind Rose” was unearthed within the walls – 48 stone tiers in a 50m radius thought to be a mariner’s compass, although others suggest it is a huge sundial use for study and naval & military activities. Interesting regardless.
We walked out round the promontory past local men fishing precariously from the cliffs. Nerves of steel!
Even at this time of year on this windswept finger there were lots of interesting plants amongst the rocks and looking back we could see the aspiring surfers learning their craft in the bay.
At the end of the promotory is a small automatic lighthouse and a curved modern art ‘installation’ surrounding a blowhole where you can sit and listen to the sea rushing below.
The sun was shining and it was lovely. Cold and wet at home – each time we think we miss it we just think about the weather.
Sagres is a low lying, slightly scruffy town of surfer shops, small bars and cafes, and out of season at least is very relaxed. It grew on us – the whole area did – and we will be back. Our last night we watched another sunset at the Cape and wild-camped just down the road after the crowds had gone, with the full moon streaming in through one window and the lighthouse flashing in through the other, surrounded by stars and silence. Perfect.