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Descovering the West - I


The West region of Portugal is formed by the northern part of the Lisbon district and the southern part of the Leiria district. To the west it is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean and to the east by the Tagus lezíria. It has a total of 12 municipalities that form the Intermunicipal Community of the West: Alcobaça, Alenquer, Arruda dos Vinhos, Bombarral, Cadaval, Caldas da Rainha, Lourinhã, Nazaré, Óbidos, Peniche, Sobral de Monte Agraço and Torres Vedras.


We've been wanting to get to know this region better for a long time, which has so much to see and do, but this time we focused on three locations: Peniche, Óbidos and Nazaré.



Peniche and Berlenga island



After arrival and overnight in Peniche, we dedicated the first day to explore the island of Berlenga. This island belongs to the Berlengas Archipelago, which is located on the west coast of Portugal, northwest of Cabo Carvoeiro and, comprises the island of Berlenga and the set of islands, or islets, of Estelas and Farilhões. Of these, only Berlenga can be visited, with a daily capacity of 550 visitors. The archipelago has been a Natural Reserve since 1981, due to its high importance as a nesting area for seabirds (some of them threatened), the presence of endemic plants and the rich marine ecosystem. Later, this group of islands and their marine surroundings received more recognition, both at European level (Special Bird Protection Zone and Natura 2000 Network), and worldwide, becoming a World Biosphere Reserve in 2011. The symbol of the Natural Reserve is the Airo (common murre -Uria aalge), a bird that resembles the penguin, and which has already nested in Berlenga.


The presence and human influence over time have also marked the landscape and two good examples of this are the Fort of S. João Baptista and the underwater archaeological heritage.


Cultural heritage


The Fort of S. João Baptista is a military defense fortress, with an octagonal plan, built in 1654. It was built to strengthen the defense against pirates and privateers on our coast. The Fort was built with the rock existing on the island, a pink granite of great hardness and is connected to the island by a masonry bridge with arches. This is one of the most photographed landscapes on the island. A well-known moment in its history was the Battle of Berlengas, fought in 1666, in which a Spanish fleet of 15 ships with hundreds of men commanded by Diego de Ibarra attacked the fortress with the aim of kidnapping Queen Maria Francisca de Sabóia, who arrived in Portugal to marry King Afonso VI. With Portugal at war with Spain, the Spaniards did not want this marriage to take place, which signed an alliance with France. In the defense of the Fortress were about 28 soldiers led by Commander António Avelar Pessoa, who heroically resisted the attack, with practically no casualties against 500 dead Spanish soldiers, one ship sunk and two seriously damaged. After a long siege, the Portuguese soldiers ran out of supplies and ammunition and ended up being betrayed by a deserter. The Portuguese commander was killed aboard one of the Spanish vessels and the fortress was eventually destroyed by Spanish troops. It was later rebuilt and, later, when it no longer had any military use, it was abandoned and used as a fishermen's shelter until the 50's, when the Bairro dos Pescadores was built. The Fort of São João Baptista is now a National Monument.


The sunken Spanish ship, Covadonga, is today one of the points of interest for a large number of divers who seek this diving destination for the transparency of its waters and underwater assets. The underwater archaeological finds from antiquity, suggest that this island was a strategic point often used by vessels that traveled trade routes between the Mediterranean and the northern regions. In this region there are also several sunken boats that attract many divers to these waters.


The Bairro dos Pescadores (Fishermen neighborhood), was built in 1941 to house the island's fishing community and is named after Commander António Avelar Pessoa. It is a small cluster of 10-12 houses that do not function as permanent homes, but as resting places for fishermen during the days they do not return to land.


In the marine area that surrounds the archipelago, the waters are very productive and are home to fish of high commercial value. In the past, the practice of fishing was quite destructive to ecosystems and included techniques using dynamite and the technique of trawling. All these methods were abolished due to their negative impact and, currently, the fishing practiced in Berlenga is artisanal, the only authorized techniques being the siege and the longline. The main species fished are mackerel, sardines, sea bass and bream. In Berlengas, fishermen say that they have "the best fish in the world". Pilados, a species of crabs, are used as fishing bait.


SPEA (the Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds) is developing a project in partnership with fishermen, with the objective of measuring the impact of fishing activity on seabird populations and implementing measures to mitigate the accidental capture of birds.


In the area where the Camping Park is located, there was the Monastery of Nossa Senhora da Misericórida, built in the 16th century by order of D. Manuel. It operated between 1513 and 1548 and housed a community of Jerónimos friars who were later forced to leave the monastery, due to frequent attacks of privateers.


The Duque de Bragança Lighthouse it was built in 1841 by Gaudêncio Fontana at the highest point of the island, 112m above the sea, where it marks the location of the island 30 miles away. On our visit, the Lighthouse was closed to the public.


Fort of São João Baptista. Left: The terrace is an excellent viewpoint. Right: View from a Fort window.


Geology


The Berlengas archipelago is a geological monument, an impressive record of the earth's history and of the formation of continents and oceans. The coastline is very jagged with coves, caves and natural cavities, arches, islets and rocks. On a tour to the caves it is possible to observe some of these formations such as Furado Grande and Furado Seco, Cova do Sono, Cabeça do Elefante, Gruta Azul or Rocha da Baleia.


Left: Rocha da Baleia (Whale Rock). Center: Gruta Azul (Blue Grotto) with various shades due to lichens. Right: Cabeça de Elefante (Elephant's Head).


The caves located on the cliffs at 20/25 m altitude, suggest that the sea level was already positioned on that horizon. Some reliefs on the Berlenga plateau, such as the formation of marmitas, suggest that the plateau was an ancient platform of maritime abrasion.


Berlenga Island, or Berlenga Grande, is divided into two parts, almost entirely separated by a seismic fault that, to the north, gave rise to the so-called Carreiro dos Cações (Dogfish Trail), and, to the south, to the Carreiro do Mosteiro (Monastery path).

The largest part of the island is called Berlenga and represents more than 2/3 of the island's total surface; the smaller part is called Ilha Velha (Old Island).


Left: Carreiro da Inês. Center: Pink granite used for the construction of Fort S. João Baptista. Right: Dogfish Trail. This site was once an important spawning ground for sharks.


Fauna and Flora


In Berlenga Grande, more than 100 botanical species were inventoried, with some endemic species resulting from the island's isolation and the particularities of the rocky substrate, as is the case of the berlengas armeria. Due to the inhospitable conditions, the presence of tree species is almost nil.


Berlenga is a bird sanctuary. On the boat trip, we were able to identify some species such as the Alcatraz, the Cory's Shearwater and the Cruet. There is a dense population of dark-winged gulls and yellow-legged gulls that nest on the island. The latter has increased a lot due to the availability of food from fisheries and garbage, so it is very important not to feed the seagulls. A pair of peregrine falcons nest every year on the island.


In Berlenga there is a population of geckos-de-bocage, a local endemism, with a very wide distribution and density.


In the calm waters of the Berlenga Special Protection Zone, it is possible to see some cetaceans such as the common dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, pilot whale and porpoise.


Left: Bocage gecko. Center: cruet or crested cormorant. Right: Yellow-legged Gull.


Visit Berlenga


The island can be visited throughout the year. Between November and March, due to adverse maritime conditions, visits are not frequent.

We visited Berlenga at the end of June on a sunny day with calm seas, so the trip, which takes approximately 40 minutes, went quite well. If you get seasick, you can always take a seasickness pill before boarding.

We traveled with the company Julius - Cruzeiros Berlenga.

To consult the list of licensed operators that connect to the island, click on this link: http://www.berlengas.eu/pt/operadores

Tip: Make your reservation online and in advance.


To stay overnight on the island, there are three options:

  • Campsite. It is currently closed due to the pandemic, but it was considered one of the ten best places to camp in Portugal. Reservations are managed by the Peniche City Council.

  • The Fort of S. João Baptista was requalified as an inn and works as a hostel with a capacity for 50 people. It has rooms and dormitories, a shared kitchen and shared bathrooms. You will need to bring your own bed linen, but you will have a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean. Currently, the Fort is managed by the Associação Amigos das Berlengas and you must book your overnight stay: (berlengareservasforte@gmail.com).

  • Berlenga Bed & Breakfast, accommodation managed by the restaurant A Mesa da Ilha.

At the restoration level, there are also three options:

  • At the Fort of S. João Baptista there is a bar where you can have a drink or a snack.

  • Mesa da Ilha, the only restaurant on the island, where you can eat fresh fish and seafood.

  • In "Castelinho", a building from 1952 with stones from the old monastery that existed on the island, there is a micromarket and a snack bar, The Castelinho da Berlenga, where you can have lighter meals.

In terms of support, there are two public bathrooms on the island, one in the Fort and the other in Bairro dos Pescadores.

Tip: It is important that you take cash with you as there is no ATM on the island.


Berlengas Forte S. João Baptista
Terrace at Fort S. João Baptista


What to do in Berlenga Grande


  • Nature observation walks / cultural heritage

There are two routes on the island: the 3km long Berlenga Trail and the 1km long Ilha Velha Trail. Both start in Bairro dos Pescadores, are linear and are properly signposted. Off-track circulation is not allowed to protect and conserve the island's fragile vegetation.


Points of interest

Berlenga Route: Carreiro do Mosteiro, Carreiro dos Cações, Lighthouse, Fort of S. João Baptista, Cisternas and Cova do Sono

Ilha Velha Route: Melréu, Buzinas, Pedra Negra, Ilhéu da Velha and Ilhéu Maldito.


Useful information

When start walking along the paths, make sure you have time to catch the boat back.

Be careful with seagulls, they can be aggressive.

Bring a hat, sunscreen and water. There are no shades or drinking water on the island.

Bring your garbage with you.

The recommended season is from May to September. You should avoid the month of August.

Although the routes have a low degree of difficulty, the climb to the lighthouse it's not easy for people in low shape.


From the plateau of the island you can see the Estelas and the Farilhões.


  • Visiting the Fort of S. João Baptista

The visit to the Fort is "mandatory". Entry is €1 and the funds go towards the maintenance of the Fort. Be sure to go up to the terrace to enjoy the views, but be careful as there are some unprotected areas.

  • Visitor Center

Inaugurated in 2015, it is an Interpretive and Visitor Support Center with informative and audiovisual content promoting the natural values of the Berlengas archipelago. It is located at the Bairro dos Pescadores.

  • Tour to the caves

The natural beauty of the island with its geoforms is even more beautiful if seen from the sea. The maritime-tourist operators carry out daily tours to the caves lasting 1h, and the value is around 8€. The company Julius - Cruises Berlenga has at your disposal a boat with a glass bottom, where you can observe the seabed and some fish and invertebrates such as the sea cucumber.

The maritime route is approximately 2 hours long. We leave Berlenga Pier at Carreiro do Mosteiro and visit several points of interest: Carreiro da Inês, the Bay of Flanders, São Baptista Fort, Blue Grotto, Furado Grande, Cova do Sono and Cabeça do Elefante. In these bays, as they are sheltered from the north winds, the waters are calmer and the fishermen use them as a refuge. In Cova do Sono there is a monumental natural cavity, also known as "Cathedral". It has a vaulted ceiling, the base of which is a small pebble beach.

On the way back, you have the option of disembarking at the São Baptista Fort.



  • Kayak and Stand-up Paddle

The practice of these sports is promoted by several operators. You can rent a kayak on the island and freely visit the caves around the island, including entering some tunnels where it is not possible to enter by boat.

  • Bird watching

The Berlengas archipelago is the only place in Portugal that harbors colonies of pelagic seabirds, such as the Cory's Shearwater and the Roque-de-Castro. The airo, despite having already nested in this area, is now extinct as a nesting agent.

The best time to observe birds is during the post-nuptial migration period (September to November). At this time some migratory birds seek refuge on the island and are easily detected due to the absence of dense vegetation.

  • Diving

The Berlengas archipelago has one of the richest marine ecosystems in Portuguese waters, with an abundant underwater life, where you can see large schools of fish, walls with gorgonians, some emblematic species such as grouper or sunfish and, old sunken boats colonized by marine life. For these reasons, this is one of the most wanted activities by visitors. There are dive sites around Berlenga Island, in Estelas and Farilhões.

  • Beach

In the summer, bring a towel and dive into the clear waters of Berlenga Grande. During low tide, the beach has a reasonable area of sand, however, during high tide it is smaller.




Other points of interest in Peniche


  • Viewpoints

The cliffs of the Peniche Peninsula have several geological reliefs and viewpoints that are worth a visit, such as Papoa or Varanda de Pilates. The Nau dos Corvos, next to Cabo Carvoeiro, is a rock with the shape of a ship, often frequented by cormorants.

  • Renda de Bilros Museum

The renda de bilros (bobbin lace), is the ex-libris of Peniche's handicrafts. This museum aims at the study, conservation, enhancement and dissemination of this material and immaterial heritage that is part of the heritage and identity of the people of Peniche.

  • Peniche Wave Capital

The beaches of Peniche are an excellent surfing spot.

  • Gastronomy

If you're going to Peniche, try some local specialties such as Caldeirada de Peniche, Fish Soup, Lagosta Suada à Moda de Peniche (lobster) and Roasted Sardines.


  • CIAB - Interpretive Center of Atouguia da Baleia

  • Peniche Fortress












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