To the south, AlmaVerde borders the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, a sparsely populated ecological preserve of outstanding natural beauty. Created in 1995, the Costa Vicentina covers an area of 74,785 hectares and runs along 150 kilometres of Atlantic seaboard, forming one of the last true coastal wildernesses in Europe. Varying in width from two to twenty kilometres, the Natural Park stretches from Burgau in the south east as far as São Torpes beach, just south of Sines in the north west.
It is protected by strict planning controls, with no development permitted beyond existing urban limits. It also lies within the recently created Rede Natura 2000, a European-wide network of habitats for the protection of wildlife.
The Costa Vicentina is characterised by a succession of sandy and rocky beaches backed by high cliffs, with deep ravines and seasonal watercourses. It encompasses a diverse array of habitats,including woodlands of oak, alder and pine, heath, scrub, marshes, estuaries, enormous sand dune systems, offshore islands and the ocean floor itself.
It is a naturalist’s paradise, rich in wildlife and unique flora, including many rare and endangered species. Maintained today in an excellent state of conservation, free from pollution and the threat of mass tourism or other industries, the Costa Vicentina stands as a pillar of Portugal’s natural and cultural heritage.
The cultural importance of the Costa Vicentina can most clearly be seen in the Sagres area, for it is here, at the beginning of the 15th century, that Prince Henry the Navigator established his Navigation School and planned his epochal voyages of discovery. The church of Nossa Senhora de Graça and the fortress, both standing on the Ponta de Sagres, are witness to the events of the period. The fortress is now a museum celebrating the history of the area and its role in early navigation.
Cape St. Vincent
Cabo de São Vicente (Cape St. Vincent), 6 km from Sagres, marks the south westerly tip of Europe, and is an essential landmark for any ship travelling to the Mediterranean.
Perched on top of the dramatic 80 metre high cliffs, the Cape St. Vincent lighthouse guards one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Built in 1846 on the site of a 16th century Franciscan convent, and electrified in 1906, its two 1kW lamps are magnified by concentric rows of prisms, enabling a 10 foot tall beam of light to be projected 60 km out to sea, and making it the second most powerful lighthouse in Europe.
Inland Southwest Algarve
Not to be overshadowed by the Costa Vicentina, the inland area of the south-western Algarve has much to offer. An excellent short drive, which takes in some of the best of the interior, can be had by turning north off the EN125 just west of AlmaVerde through the picturesque old villages of Barão de São Miguel and Barão de São João, to Bensafrim. In this predominantly agricultural landscape, smallholdings in the valleys, interspersed with patches of cork oak (quercus suber) woodland and meadows, create an idyllic rural scene. Continue north along the EN120 for 7 km after Bensafrim, and take the right turn to Pincho. The first few kilometres cross the wild cork forests of the Serra do Espinhaço de Cão ("Dog-spine mountains"), which support an extraordinary variety of flora and fauna.
After Pincho, a left turn, signposted to Marmelete, brings you out above the Barragem de Bravura, a large and picturesque stretch of reservoir water surrounded by rock rose (cistus ladanifer). The road continues to rise towards the Monchique mountains. Wild strawberry trees (arbutus unedo) line the road, indicating a more acid soil, the fruits forming the base for the famous liquor of the region, medronha. From Marmelete, you continue through a mature forested area to Casais and on to the town of Monchique itself. From here the road continues to rise, reaching the peak itself, Foia, at 902 metres. On a clear day, the 360 degree panorama of the whole of the western Algarve makes the trip more than worthwhile.