During the Middle Ages the Moors were the main inhabitants of Portugal and built many castles and fortresses. However, some sites they chose were occupied during the Bronze and Iron Ages and also by Romans and Visigoths.
Starting on the west coast
The Castle of Aljezur (Castelo de Aljezur) stands high above the town with views out to sea and also inland. The river from the Atlantic Ocean to Aljezur was navigable during the Moors’ occupation of the region and you can see, even today, Moorish accents in the town itself. The castle still has two towers standing (not full height however) to the north and south with the irregular polygonal plan of the castle itself defined by the walls which are 1.5 metres thick. As with a lot of Algarve’s architecture the castle, together with most of the town, was levelled by the 1755 earthquake. Visitors can park close to the castle ruins and walk inside to enjoy the amazing views, free of charge.
On the edge of the known world
Said to be located at the most south-westerly point of Europe, the Cape St Vincent fortress (Fortaleza do Cabo de São Vicente) was built in the 16th century and within which is located the lighthouse, rebuilt in 1904. Legend tells us that the fort housed the remains of the martyred fourth-century Deacon St Vincent. The shrine is said to have been guarded by ravens until 1173 when King Afonso Henriques ordered the exhumation of the saint to then be transported to Lisbon, accompanied by the ravens, all of which can be seen depicted on Lisbon’s coat of arms. Also within the fortress is a museum with visiting hours during 10am and 5pm on Tuesdays to Sundays. The lighthouse is open on Wednesdays from 2pm to 4pm.
Just a few kilometres towards Sagres from Cape St Vincent stands the Fortress of St Anthony of Beliche (Fortaleza de Santo António do Beliche). It is believed, due to the economic importance of tuna fishing, the fortress was built to protect local fishermen from attack. The date of the original construction is unknown however, what is known is that the fortress was built prior to the 16th century when Francis Drake attacked and caused itserious damage. Also badly damaged in the 1755 earthquake, the was decommissioned in the 19th century and subsequently restored for tourism purposes in the 20th century.
Sagres is a mecca for surfers and also for those who enjoy history. The town was created by Prince Henry the Navigator who was in fact the Duke of Viseu . He is known as the pinnacle figure during the early days of the Portuguese empire and particularly with regard to the maritime discoveries during the Age of Discovery (early 15th century to early 17th century). His school was placed within the fortress at Sagres, where today visitors can see the rose compass (rosa dos ventos) which is 43m in diameter and the restored church Nossa Senhora da Graça that dates to the 16th century and which is built where the original church of Prince Henry was constructed. With cannon still standing along its battlements, there is little left of the original walls as the fortress was rebuilt in the 16th and second half of the 18th centuries.
An ancient maritime city
Lagos, a half-hour-drive east, is home to Forte da Ponta da Bandeira. A small fort built during the 17th century, on the estuary of the Bensafrim River, to defend the city of Lagos. It is surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge and inside can be found a chapel with walls covered in tiles.
Lagos still has a lot of its city walls intact and it’s believed that the original walls were built in the 7th century by the Romans. The castle (known as the Governor’s Palace) was built in the 16th century but no longer stands in its entirety, although there is still a fair amount for visitors to enjoy.
Former Algarve capital
And finally, the grand and beautiful castle in Silves (Castelo de Silves), the former Algarve capital. Built in a dominant position overlooking the town clinging to the hillside below, the castle dates back to Roman times and possibly even further, back to 200BC.
The River Arade snakes down to Portimão and provides Silves with access to the Atlantic Ocean which was extremely important in times past. Visitors can walk around the archeological excavations within its walls and also the underground cistern.
There is a visitors centre and also a museum close by which are both worth a visit.
Image courtesy of Lacobrigo