The dramatic, cliff-fringed Cabo de São Vicente – Cape St Vincent – is the most southwestern point of mainland Europe. The Romans called this Promontorium Sacrum and thought the sun plunged nightly into the sea here – it later became a Christian shrine when the relics of the martyred St Vincent were brought here in the eighth century. Today, tourist stalls selling trinkets line the approach road to a lighthouse – the most powerful in Europe – and a ruined sixteenth-century Capuchin convent, which survived the 1755 earthquake but not the dissolution of the monasteries in 1834: its remaining walls today shelter a small shop and café.
The sea off this wild set of cliffs shelters the highest concentration of marine life in Portugal, including rare birds such as Bonelli’s eagle – there’s a birdwatching festival here in autumn (wbirdwatchingsagres.com). If you can, it’s worth visiting the cape at sunset, when the views are breathtaking.
St Vicent was born in Zaragoza in Spain in the first century AD and became the town’s deacon during the early days of Christianity in Iberia. He was later imprisoned in Valencia and sentenced to death in 304 AD during the days of Christian persecution. It is said that while he was being burned alive, the room filled with light and the voices of angels, and he was proclaimed a martyr and then a saint. In the eighth century, his remains – which had somehow survived the fire – were miraculously washed up in an unmanned boat piloted by ravens at what is now Cabo de São Vicente. Perhaps more credible is the theory that Christians took whatever was left of Vincent with them to flee invading Moors, arriving at the safe outpost of the Cape where they later built a chapel to house his remains. In 1173, Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first Christian monarch, had the saint’s remains moved to Lisbon. Legend has it that the faithful ravens followed them to the capital, and guarded over him in the cloisters of Lisbon’s Sé (cathedral), until the last raven died in 1978. Today São Vicente remains Lisbon’s patron saint.