…and so much more…
Before we permanently moved to Portugal in January 2020, we visited for the very first time in July 2019. On that exploratory trip, we visited Sesimbra. The real estate agent we met with suggested we consider it as a place to live, so we went to check it out. To help you place where it is, here is a map.
We were delighted to find that Sesimbra (pronounced sess–sim–bra) was a lively, terraced, beach town carved out of the sides of rocky cliffs and fronted by a beautiful bay. It is a great holiday destination with glorious beaches, interesting day trips and a relaxed ambience. Our guide Paulo told us that Sesimbra is frequented by Portuguese tourists, making it an ideal location to immerse ourselves in, and embrace, Portuguese culture. We were very impressed with what we saw, even though we weren’t able to spend a lot of time there. Unfortunately, we had already fallen in love with Cascais and the surrounding area.
Now that we are settled (our upcoming move in two short weeks notwithstanding), we decided to return and visit some of the historical sites nearby.
Our first stop was Cabo Espichel (Espichel Cape). It is the part of the headlands that juts into the sea and just to the right of Sesimbra on the map above. As you can see, the Espichel headlands are in a strategic location and that led to the construction of Nossa Senhora do Cabo forte (Our Lady of the Cape fort) completed in 1672.
Between 1701 and 1707, the Igreja Nossa Senhora da Cabo (Our Lady of the Cape church) was added. Then, in the 18th century, a lighthouse was built to assist with navigation around the cape, which was a bit overdue since ancient mariners had considered the cape a very dangerous place for centuries! On charts that date back to the 6th century B.C. the cape was noted as Akra Barbarion (loose translation: brutal extremes). The lighthouse is still in use today.
We were charmed to learn that dinosaur fossil trackways discovered nearby were considered the path taken by Nossa Senhora (Our Lady, i.e. the Holy Virgin) when riding a giant mule from the ocean up the cliffs. This is what led to the construction of the church, which was built in the Estilo Chão (flat or plain) architectural style. The church remains in use to this day, but the fort was abandoned in the mid-19th century and, as a result, fell into ruins.
The cliffs are 134 meters (440 feet) high and it can get very windy up there. Happily, it was beautiful the day we were there. Even so, Won was terrified I was going to get too close to the edge and fall to my death. Worry Wort Won.
The views from the promontory were pretty amazing. It’s hard to tell in the image below, but we could see all the way across the water to the coastline of Cascais in the far distance.
There were also some great-looking hiking trails all along the cliffs near the lighthouse. We were hoping to take a tour of the lighthouse (which is possible), but it was closed when we were there. I wish we had more time to explore the hiking trails, but we had several other places to visit so we got going.
After we left the cape, we headed for the Pedreira do Avelino, a quarry that has been transformed into a natural monument, because an important set of parabrontopodus, a type of dinosaur footprint from the Upper Jurassic era (155 million years ago), were discovered there. The main slab is about 15 meters (49 ft) long by 10 meters (33 ft) wide, and is inclined (30°) to facilitate observation and study. It contains five tracks with 108 total footprints. You might find it interesting to learn that this isn’t the only location where dinosaur fossil trackways have been found in Portugal. I’m hoping we can see others in the near future.
Having marveled at the dinosaur footprints for a bit, we drove to the Castelo de Sesimbra (Sesimbra Castle). This 9th century Moorish castle is in a dominant position on a cliff overlooking the town of Sesimbra. It was built on a site occupied since prehistoric times. In 1165 the castle was conquered by D. Afonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal. It was then retaken in 1191 by Moroccan Berbers, who nearly destroyed it in the process. The final reconquest took place in 1199, under King Sancho I, with the help of Frankish Crusaders. In 1384 the castle served as a refuge for John of Avis and his troops during the war with Castile (1383-85).
In the fifteenth century, when all the fighting had subsided, people began to gradually move down from the hills to settle by the bay and pursue fishing and boatbuilding. By 1516 there were already signs of abandonment at the castle. Because of its strategic importance, however, the ramparts were reinforced in 1693. Unfortunately, the castle was already in a bad condition when it was effectively ruined by the earthquake of 1755. In 1875, part of the grounds were converted into a cemetery. The advanced state of ruin of the castle was not addressed until between 1933 and 1945, when conservation work was done. The site was declared a national monument on 16 June 1910 and further restoration was carried out in 1998.
In 1721, the Church of Santa Maria do Castelo, which was built by Afonso I, was restored. The church is elegant in its simplicity. I loved the painted, wood ceiling and the large azulejo tiled panels that line the nave and frame the altar. I even loved the red doors and accents on the exterior of the church. It was, appropriately, very nautical.
While we were climbing all over the castle, once again, I had to laugh because I ended up scaling uneven and really tall steps to get up into an area where I could see some of the views. Won helped me down. Then, five steps later, I see the exact same type of lookout, but the steps had been repaired to ensure a safer experience. LOL!!
It was a very warm day and poor little Sweet Pea was tiring out. We needed to cool her down, so we bought 3 bottles of ice cold water, and poured one into her travel water bowl (which she greedily lapped up). We did the same with our water (sans water bowl). We all piled back into the blessedly air conditioned car and drove down toward the beach. You can see that she’s just beat in the photo below. Won carried her down the steps.
The biggest challenge when visiting Sesimbra is parking, especially during the height of summer. It was a miracle we found a spot on the main road fronting the beach. I don’t know how Won managed to back into that spot. We all had to pull in our tummies and hold our breath so we could shimmy out of the doors.
Our goal was to find a place for lunch that served fresh seafood, preferably sardines, which Won had been wanting. We walked up and down the street reviewing the menus and finally landed on a place called O Velho e o Mar (The Old Man and the Sea). We checked to see if Sweet Pea could be with us on the covered patio – it wasn’t a problem. The staff was super nice and offered to bring her a dish of water. We tried to get her to eat some of the food we brought for her, but she wasn’t interested in it. The restaurant is just steps from the Fortress of Saint James of Sesimbra also known as Fortaleza de Santiago. We were entertained by watching kids play on a giant blow-up play structure in the water.
After quenching his thirst with a beer the size of his head, Won ordered clams followed by a dish of six sardines (I really need to be faster with the camera; as soon as the food comes Won dives in and then the presentation is destroyed…sigh…). I had a delicious vegetarian dish!
Tip: If you plan to visit Portugal, please know that restaurants nearly always charge for the bread, butter, olives and any other item that is brought to your table before you order your meal. After sitting down, the server will typically ask if you want bread, butter, olives (or whatever is being offered). Don’t hesitate to say no if you prefer not to pay for it. Sometimes there is a single charge for all the items and sometimes the items are charged separately. This was the case at O Velho e o Mar; the bread (2,45€), butter (0,60€), sardine pâté (1,40€) and cheese (5,90€) were all itemized on the bill and came to a total of 10,35€. We often forget that these are not considered gratis and are typically talking when the server asks us if we want them. We then nod without thinking.
We were happily relaxed and full after lunch and decided to call it a day. The hour long drive home was easy and everyone slept really well that night. I hope you enjoyed this visit to Sesimbra and the surrounding area. We certainly did!
Before I sign off, I have super exciting news to share. I am very honored and delighted to report that Portugal Living Magazine (http://PortugalLivingMagazine.com) will be featuring my blog post, How Progressive Is Portugal?, in their Fall (September) issue!! How cool is that?! If you live in Portugal or plan to move here, this free, English language online magazine is a great resource. I encourage you to check it out.
Until next time, stay safe, stay healthy and, as always, please stay in touch.
From Portugal with love,