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The Cabo Espichel, Sesimbra, Portugal
The Cabo Espichel is the wild and barren headland on the southwestern tip Setubal Peninsula. This is a dramatic region formed of wind-blasted landscapes and towering cliffs, which are ceaselessly pounded by the ferocious Atlantic Ocean.
Contained within the breath-taking, but bleak Cabo Espichel is a range of interesting tourist attractions, and the area makes for an enjoyable excursion from Sesimbra or as part of a day trip from Lisbon. Cabo Espichel is ideal for tourists who appreciate nature’s raw beauty, as certain visitors may simply find the area empty and devoid of any real sights. This article will provide an introduction to the Cabo Espichel.
What is there to see at the Cabo Espichel?
There are five major tourist attractions at the Cabo Espichel:
• The Santuario de Nossa Senhora and the pilgrim’s accommodation
• The lighthouse (Farol do Cabo Espichel)
• The small the Chapel of Ermida da Memória
• The Pedra da Mua dinosaur tracks.
• The Lagosteiros dinosaur footprints.
The massive cliffs of Cabo Espichel
How long to spend at Cabo Espichel?
A visit of one hour could easily see the Santuario de Nossa Senhora, the Ermida da Memória and the lighthouse (a 10-minute walk from the chapel). It is a 20-minute walk around the cliffs to the Lagosteiros dinosaur footprints, and this route passes the only safe place to view the Pedra da Mua tracks. A two-hour visit to the Cabo Espichel would provide enough time to see everything. Certain visitors may only wish to see the Santuario de Nossa Senhora and the cliffs, which could be done in less than 20 minutes. If you are traveling by bus, then the hour provided is sufficient to see the majority of the sights (details of the bus is found at the end of the article).
If the heat/cold/wind gets too much, there is a decent café (I Love Espichel) for refreshments and traditional Portuguese home cooking, which located close to the Nossa Senhora church. To greatly extend a visit consider a hike either following the Maravilhas do Cabo route or along the cliffs to the Praia das Bicas (details later on in the article).
Our Lady of Cabo Espichel, Cults and Dinosaur Footprints
The desolate cliffs of Cabo Espichel have always spurned superstition and medieval customs, which, after the Christian Crusades of Portugal (1170s), slowly amalgamated into the Order of Our Lady of Cabo Espichel. The Espichel coastline was the setting for multiple miracles and religious visions, and this ensured the region remained an important pilgrimage destination during the 13th-18th centuries.
The most fascinating vision occurred in the 15th century, when an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared riding a giant mule, and ascended the steep cliffs from the ocean. On reaching the top of the cliffs (and more significantly the Chapel of Ermida da Memória) Mary vanished, leaving just the footprints of the giant mule. These giant mule tracks actually do exist, and can be seen as part of the Pedra da Mua, originally being formed by a huge Sauropod dinosaur.
The mule was seen climbing these cliffs, to the small chapel at the top..
The Santuario de Nossa Senhora do Cabo Espichel and House of Tapers
The Santuario de Nossa Senhora do Cabo Espichel was constructed under the direction of King Dom Pedro II in 1701 and was consecrated in 1707. The church may have a bland Baroque exterior, routinely found throughout Portugal, but the main attraction is the ornately finished interior and beautiful painted ceiling.
Outside of the church are two symmetrical accommodation wings, which housed pilgrims to the Santuario de Nossa Senhora. These rows of accommodation were called the House of Tapers but were often simply referred to as “hostels”. Sadly, the buildings have fallen into disrepair and are closed off to visitors.
The House of Tapers, the 18th-century version of backpacking!
At the far end of the courtyard, formed by the House of Tapers and church, is the Casa de Agua (water house) and this was where the water from the aqueduct flowed from.
Cabo Espichel Lighthouse
The Cabo Espichel Lighthouse was one of the most important lighthouses of the Lisbon coastline. The south-western edge of the Setubal Peninsula was notorious for shipping, as there are few major towns to illuminate the coast and the region experiences ferocious Atlantic storms. The first lighthouse was constructed in 1430, but the current 32m tower dates from 1790. On a clear night, the light from Cabo Espichel Lighthouse can be seen for 35km out to sea.
The lighthouse of Cabo Espichel
Dinosaur Footprints at the Cabo Espichel
Within the exposed and weathered cliffs of Cabo Espichel are two sets of dinosaur footprints; the Pedra da Mua and the Lagosteiros. The Pedra da Mua tracks are embedded within the grey and sheer cliffs, directly below the Chapel of Ermida da Memória. These tracks were primarily formed by a herd Sauropods (colossal four-legged dinosaurs) and include juvenile footprints and the irregular step of an injured animal. One factor which has helped the preservation of the prints is that they are on the side of a near vertical cliff, and are very difficult to see closely.
The hiking route to the Lagosteiros and Pedra da Mua view point
The Lagosteiros tracks are much easier to view but are slightly less impressive. The Lagosteiros footprints were formed during the Cretaceous period, from a series of Theropod and Ornithopod dinosaurs, with the most interesting prints from a running dinosaur.
The amazing fact with the Pedra da Mua and Lagosteiros tracks, is that they are only 500m apart but are separated by about 50 million years, and were formed in two very different rock types. For more information about the dinosaur footprints please click here.
Without clear signage it’s very easy to miss the Lagosteiros footprints
Chapel of Ermida da Memória
The small Chapel of Ermida da Memória was an important early pilgrimage destination for Portugal, which lies precariously close to the edge of the cliffs. This was the chapel that the apparition of the Virgin Mary on the mule vanished at, signifying its importance (as Mary “entered it”). Inside the chapel traditional blue and white painted tiles (azulejos) depict the mule and its footprints, which is technically the first ever recorded the existence of dinosaurs (even though it was believed to be a giant mule…..). The chapel is closed off to visitors, but the tiles can be seen through the glass door.
The Chapel of Ermida da Memória is very edge of the cliffs
Hiking at the Cabo Espichel
The Cabo Espichel coastline provides a series of hiking trails. The two most popular are the Maravilhas do Cabo or the trail along the coast to the Praia das Bicas. The Maravilhas do Cabo is a 5km circular route and more information can be found on the Visitsesimbra.pt website:
(link opens new window, as it is a PDF it may download on certain views – and is a massive file of 2.2mb so may take a little while to load.)
The 12km cliffside hike to the Praia das Bicas, follows a selection of paths (all close to the cliffs) and ends at one of the most pristine and remote beaches of the Lisbon region.
Travel to the Cabo Espichel
It is advisable to drive to the Cabo Espichel as there is very poor public transport. At the Cabo Espichel there is a large free car park (GPS: 38.419609, -9.21328) and a secondary one closer to the hiking routes to the dinosaur footprints (GPS: 38.42042, -9.20815). Most visitors to Cabo Espichel are based in Setubal (40km away) or Sesimbra (14Km away). The drive from Sesimbra takes 20 minutes and follows the N379, while Setubal is a 50-minute drive away.
The bus to the Cabo Espichel from Sesimbra
Public transport to the Cabo Espichel is severely limited and there is just a single suitable bus service from Sesimbra. The 205 bus service departs Sesimbra bus station at 13:50, and the 201 bus departs Cabo Espichel at 15:30 (correct Nov17). This gives about one hour to explore the Cabo Espichel, and is just enough time to visit the church and lighthouse or the church and dinosaur footprints (but not all three). The bus runs seven days a week but please don’t miss the connection as it is either a walk to Azóia or expensive taxi fare to Sesimbra. The latest bus timetables are displayed in Sesimbra bus station and can be seen on the TST website:
(the links open a new tab)