Henry the Navigator, the non-seafaring prince who established a school of navigation on the Algarve and financed naval expeditions to West Africa in the 15th century, looks out to sea from Praça do Infante Dom Henrique, gazing upon the harbour from where his expeditions, which made Lagos a major trading port, started. In Praça da República is the former Customs House and the slave market dating from 1444, in the arcades underneath the building, where African slaves arriving in Europe were sold to the highest bidder. This building is a reminder of this dark period of history and may explain why Henry has such a grave look on his face. Nowadays the site of the slave market houses an art exhibition commemorating the victims of this terrible trade.
Another Portuguese hero commemorated in Lagos is King Sebastian, the 16th-century boy-king (he became king at the age of three), who looks out over Praça Gil Eanes. A very misguided attack on Morocco in 1578 resulted in the 24-year-old king’s death, along with 8000 of his troops, including most of the male line of the Portuguese royal family. This reckless act ultimately resulted in Portugal losing its independence to Spain for 60 years. A myth developed around Sebastian based on an idea that he wasn’t really dead and would one day return to rule Portugal. Sebastian rallied his troops for the fateful expedition into Morocco from the window of the Santa Maria church in Praça do Infante Dom Henrique, just behind the statue of Henry the Navigator. But it is the statue in Praça Gil Eanes that drew our attention. Sculpted by João Cutileiro in the early 1970s, it looks like a cross between a spaceman and David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust era.
Local hero Gil Eanes has his own statue, not in Praça Gil Eanes, as you might think, but in a park near a surviving section of the town wall, opposite the fort. Eanes’ most famous expedition was when he successfully rounded the previously unchartable Cape Bojado in 1434 which opened the way for the exploration of west Africa.
Once we had paid homage to Henry and Sebastian’s legacies we discovered that there are only a few other places of minor interest in Lagos to keep a tourist occupied for a few hours. Praça Luís de Camões, located just up from Praça Gil Eanes, is a very peaceful square with decorative cobbled paving surrounded by 18th- and 19th-century buildings with very attractive windows, doors and filigree balconies. The square is a nice place to have a drink and watch the world go by. The Santo António church on Rua General Alberto Silveira is worth a detour for the azulejos (the Portuguese blue and white tiles) and ornate gilt and wood carvings. There is also a small museum next door to the church with an eclectic display of objects.
We spent some time wandering around the market taking in the sights and smells of the various stalls selling local produce, ranging from freshly caught fish to cakes and preserves made with locally grown almonds, figs, oranges and honey. From the roof of the market there is a view over the marina and the river. At the southernmost end of the river where it meets the sea is the Forte Ponta da Bandeira, built as a fortification in the 17th century to protect the entrance to the harbour. If you wish to go inside the fort you can pay the €3 entrance fee, which will give you access to a small exhibition about the age of discoveries inside. Next to this is the small but busy town beach. However, the best beaches are about a mile or so outside of the town in both directions, which is also where most of the tourist hotels are located. The lack of large tourist hotels in the centre of Lagos allows it to remain a more traditional Portuguese town and, in fact, its main income comes from fishing rather than tourism. However, it has its fair share of restaurants and shops aimed at tourists, and, of course, along the sea front are endless booths offering boat trips accompanied by the inevitable hard sell!
From the riverfront road, Av. dos Descobrimentos, you can catch the tourist ‘train’ south to the pretty beach of Praia Dona Ana (which was voted one of the best beaches in Europe by Trip Advisor reviewers) and on to the promontory of Ponta da Piedade, one of the most stunning rock formations in the Algarve. This ‘train’ will also take you in the opposite direction to one of the biggest beaches in the area, the 4km expanse of Meia Praia. Beware, the train journey can be very bumpy and uncomfortable in some places where the road is less than perfect!
Ponta da Piedade is the highlight of a trip to Lagos. We were initially discouraged by the area at the top of the cliff where the tourist ‘train’ dropped us off. It is an ugly area where the tour buses stop, with a café and gift shop both aimed at the many tourists who pass through. It is the site of the lighthouse and there is also an unassuming shrine depicting Jesus in the tomb, which seemed incongruous in the midst of all the tourist activity. Round the corner from the café there are some good views of the coastline to the east of Lagos and, on a clear day, as far as Carvoeiro, but it was not until we climbed down the very steep steps to the viewing platform at the bottom, overlooking the arches, caves and fragments of rocks which have been eroded into interesting shapes by the sea, that the sheer scale and drama of the seascape was revealed. Was it my imagination or did one of the rocks look like a horse feeding from the sea? I later learnt that the local fishermen have names for each of the rocks, the strangest of which is General de Gaulle! You can also view these rocks from the sea by taking a boat trip from the marina, but having seen a little boat being thrown around on the rough sea as it tried to pass through an arch I decided to decline this offer. If you are lucky you will manage to avoid arriving at Ponta da Piedade at the same time as the many coach tours. If you are unlucky enough to arrive at the same time, be warned that the steps are quite narrow and the viewing platform at the bottom isn’t very big. The best time to visit Ponta da Piedade is at sunset. The ever-changing colours of the rocks are said to be stunning and maybe next time we will be able to stay until dusk, but for the time being we will have to make do with our photographs of the polychromatic standstone rocks against the bright blue sky and sparkling blue-green sea.
Lagos is on the west coast of the Algarve, between Portimao and Sagres. It is easily accessible by bus from Lagoa. There are two routes – the fast route that goes to Lagos direct from Portimão and the slower route which goes via Portimão, Praia da Rocha and Alvor. It’s a slower but prettier journey.
You can also get a train to Lagos from the east of the Algarve, as it is the start and end point of the Algarve Line railway that goes the length of the Algarve from Lagos to the Spanish-border town of Vila Real de Santo António.