A few hours of fairly easy driving west from Albufeira and you’re on the west coast – the End of the World – at the Cabo Sao Vicente on Portugal’s southwest shore and the southwesternmost point of Europe. The cape is a landmark for ships traveling to or from the Mediterranean. The cliffs rise nearly vertically from the Atlantic to a height of 75 meters. The cape is a site of exuberant marine life and a high concentration of birds nesting on the cliffs, such as the rare Bonelli’s eagle, peregrine falcons, kites, rock thrushes, rock pigeons, storks and herons.
The casual tourist would never suspect that desolate, forbidding Cape St Vincent was the site of some of the most significant events in maritime history. From these shores, Prince Henry the Navigator sent his corvairs to find Madeira in 1420, and the Azores, in 1427. Before him, Roman legions, Moorish conquerors and Sir Francis Drake trod along these cliffs, and watched the huge rolling waves break along their rocky base.
Today this is a wild and windswept place, where only a powerful but solitary lighthouse bears witness to modern ways. Built in 1846, and extensively rebuilt in 1908, Cape St. Vincent Lighthouse station was first established around 1515, but the convent and light tower were destroyed in a raid by Sir Frances Drake in 1587. The present lighthouse is 24 metres (79 ft) high and was built over the ruins of a 16th-century Franciscan convent in 1846. The statues of St. Vincent and St. Francis Xavier had been moved to church of Nossa Senhora da Graça on Sagres Point 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) away.
This lighthouse, guarding one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, is among the most powerful in Europe, its two lamps can be seen as far as 60 kilometres (37 mi) away. It is located atop the spectacular cliffs at the point of the cape. On-site, and opened in 2010, is the small, but excellent, Museu dos Faróis. It showcases the importance of Sagres in Portugal’s maritime navigation history, along with replicas of 16th-century cartography and the history of the Cape’s lighthouse.