Many visitors appreciate that Sagres is the last stop on their journeys across Europe. You can definitely go no further once you've reached Sagres and Cape St Vincent. In this wild and picturesque corner of Portugal there is a sense that the world really does tumble off a cliff. And it's a pretty spectacular sight! I can imagine many curious minds from times-past standing on the edge of the sheer cliffs, gazing out from this remote outpost and wondering what lies beyond. It must have been a tantalising prospect.
Away from the busier resorts of the Algarve, Sagres offers a hint of the much sought-after 'real' Portugal which we hear so much about, especially amidst Expats who came here to seek something altogether different from what they left behind. Cafés offering full English breakfasts, fish & chips or Devonshire cream teas seem to make some aspects of modern Algarvian life a tad cringeworthy in some folks' minds. Sagres, however, is quite a small settlement which has retained a vibrant Portuguese community despite being just 34 kms from the resort town of Lagos. It's within Sagres' local Portuguese community that a palpable sense of authenticity has remained. This town certainly has a different vibe about it compared with other regions of the Algarve. In some ways, it feels more akin to a rural town in the Alentejo, which is no bad thing.
In the ancient world, Sagres was the last explored point. Today, of course, it is pretty routinely explored by countless tourists from all over the globe. Located within the Parque Natural de la Costa Vicentina, Sagres provides a rugged geographical allure. This natural park is home to more than 100 species of flora which are now, sadly, deemed endangered. The park offers sanctuary to a number of animal species that are also at risk of extinction. In this respect, Sagres is shockingly similar to many other parts of our increasingly beleaguered world.
Sagres has a population of fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. The sleepy town itself is not what attracts tourists to the area, per se. There's little by way of visitor attractions or any fabulously ornate architecture around Sagres. It's the area's impressive natural features, dramatic cliffs and the 25 isolated beaches that make Sagres so popular. It is especially popular with surfers, rock climbers, hikers, divers and ornithologists. Its storm-carved coast, wild seas and the generally mild climate that attract year-round visitors.
Fort of Sagres
The Fort of Sagres is the town's main historic attraction. The fort is positioned on a narrow headland that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean. The fort dates all the way back to the 15th Century, a time when the Portuguese coast was often targeted by Barbary pirates who came from North African shores.
The Fortaleza de Sagres was built on the orders of Prince Henry the Navigator (Infante D. Henrique). Henry was the main driver of what became known as the Age of Discoveries. Henry spent much of his time at the Sagres Fort before setting off on his many voyages. It was during such a voyage he discovered the Azores as well as large swathes of the African coastline.
Before the Age of Discoveries many Europeans had been too frightened to venture out into the open Atlantic for fear of huge sea monsters that were believed to be capable of swallowing entire ships! This means that the likes of Henry were true pioneers and mythbusters.
Henry has the dubious reputation of being the founder of the Atlantic slave trade. Enough said about that.
The historical significance of the Fortaleza de Sagres site outweighs the tourist experience because there's very little to see there other than the views. I was, however, fascinated to learn that much of the fort was destroyed during the devastating 1755 earthquake and tsunami. It blew my mind that any wave could have ever topped those enormous cliffs which rise over 60 metres above sea level. That must have been the mother of all waves. Unimaginable!
Escape the crowds
So, tsunamis aside, Sagres makes for an ideal spot for those who might wish to escape the hurly burly of Algarve's busier resorts. The town has a small Praça with a fine selection of locally owned coffee shops, bars and restaurants. They're all within easy walking distance of Mareta Beach (which means it can get very busy during the peak summer holiday season). Away from the Praça there's an extensive selection of other cafes, bars, restaurants and take-aways dotted around the town. There's plenty of choice.
When I visit a Portuguese restaurant or a Spanish tapas bar, I often find myself discreetly observing what some of the locals choose to order. Armed with this new info, it's fun to see if the waiters might be willing to guide me towards trying something a little different, authentic and slightly off-piste. Whatever I choose, around Sagres, I always feel confident that I am about to enjoy dishes made from the finest locally sourced ingredients. It's quite common to see fishermen carrying boxes of freshly caught fish to the local restaurants on a daily basis. It surely doesn't get any better than that?
Apart from the surfing fraternity, a lot of Sagres' visitors appear to be fairly transient; simply passing through the town on route to and from Cape St Vincent with its famous lighthouse and legendary sunsets. They often arrive as day trippers from the Algarve's larger resorts which are located further East along the more sheltered southern coast.
The busy resorts of Lagos, Luz, Portimão or Vilamoura tend to be quite a lot warmer away from the exposed peninsula on which Sagres is perched. This hotter climate provides more of a draw for the 'all-inclusive' northern European holidaymakers. However, Sagres is often favoured amidst Andulusian visitors who come in droves to escape the sweltering temperatures of Spain's hottest region. For them, a cool sea breeze is very welcome!
A great base
Sagres is also a great base from which to drive along some of Portugal's west facing coastal routes. As the Spanish have already discovered, this region, inclusive of Sagres itself, can feel markedly cooler than the south-facing coast of the Algarve. Despite the seemingly mild readings on the thermometer, the prevailing winds can often have quite an edge to them, especially after dark. A warm jacket is recommended no matter when you choose to visit. It will almost certainly come in useful at some point during your stay, just to keep that wind off. There will also be days when you'll wonder why on earth you bothered packing it at all!
Sagres was the first place I ever visited in Portugal, so it will always hold a very special place in my heart. I've regularly visited Sagres over many years. For me, a trip to the Algarve is never quite complete without spending some of the time in this quirky corner of Portugal.
Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring.