José Saramago finished his “Journey to Portugal” on page 440 of his book. Yes, he briefly visited Raposeira, Guadalupe and Cabo de São Vicente, but the last town of note on his journey was Lagos.
It is a city of 18,500 people nowadays, and was founded more than 4000 years ago by the Conii, an Ibero-Celtic tribe. Its immense bay with its natural anchorage must have been attractive.
Saramago repeats the story which appears in Plutarch’s (d 120 CE) Sertorius that Lagos was the site of a battle between the forces of Sertorius and Metellus in 79 BCE, at which Sertorius defeated the forces of Rome.
He is also right when he says that Laccobriga, the town of Roman times, was built on the other side of the river from modern Lagos, at Monte Molião, where recent archaeological work has disclosed Roman era fish-preserve tanks.
Lagos became famous in the 15th century as the centre from which Prince Henry, the Navigator, masterminded the Portuguese discoveries. Gil Eanes was a follower of the Infante D. Henrique, and it was he who commanded the ship which in 1434 rounded the biggest obstacle on the route to the south. He circumnavigated Cape Bojador, returned to tell the tale, and was knighted and rewarded with a rich marriage. His statue graces the modern town.
The age of the discoveries was triumphant for Portugal, but carries in Lagos its own dark cloud. Slavery is, of course, an ancient institution, but the contribution of D. Henrique was to introduce the seaborne slave trade in the Atlantic Ocean.
The contemporary records of the sale of the first slaves in Lagos in 1444 are even now quite heartbreaking. Over the next 350 years, Portugal played its part in transporting millions of black Africans to the slave markets of the New World.
The Lagos slave market with its new museum and computer-assisted displays somehow sanitises this disgraceful chapter in the history of the town. Out in the Praça da República beyond the museum is the statue of D. Henrique who benefitted so greatly from this trade.
D. Sebastião, that ill-fated King of Portugal, visited the Algarve and became convinced through his Jesuit education that he was destined to conquer North Africa from the Moors.
Having appointed Lagos as capital of the Algarve, he and his army left Lagos in 1578 for their appointment with fate on the battlefield of Alcácer Quibir in modern Morocco.
Alcácer Quibir is called the Battle of the Three Kings because in it three monarchs lost their lives. D. Sebastião also lost his throne, and his kingdom lost its independence as a result of his foolhardiness.
His expedition is remembered in Lagos through the two sculptures by João Cutileiro. Next to the Church of Santa Maria (or the Misericórdia) stands a strange oblong and pictorial memorial to the battle; and in the centre of Lagos, in the Praça Gil Eanes, stands the most peculiar representation of the king himself.
This statue was erected during the dictatorship (in 1973) much to the chagrin of many because it seemed so disrespectful. The statue portrays a young man of effeminate appearance and seems to corroborate his epicene reputation.
Cutileiro himself, aware of its challenging nature, presciently believed that if it remained standing for more than six months, then the dictatorship was about to fall.
Undoubtedly the main attraction of the town is the Church of Santo António, which can be accessed only through the town museum. From the outside, the church appears plain and ordinary. But the inside is a riot of gilded colour, an egregious example of Baroque art.
The barrel-vaulted ceiling is painted with daring perspective and, crowning it all, we find the royal arms of Portugal. There is a grave in the middle of the nave and on the stone we read (in translation): “Hugo Beaty, Irishman, Colonel of this Regiment, who lived as a Protestant, but died as a Roman Catholic on 2 January 1789, lies here.”
Beaty is reputed to have devoted his efforts to the rebuilding of this church, damaged as the town was ruined in the massively destructive earthquake and tsunami of November 1, 1755. The 16th century town walls also escaped complete destruction.
One of the aspects of the Algarve which is rarely mentioned is the long-lasting threat of the Barbary corsairs on this coast. From the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 until the suppression of the pirate menace in 1830, piracy was a constant threat to people of the Algarve.
One of the defences which was erected against this menace was the beautifully preserved Fortaleza da Ponta da Bandeira at the entrance to the harbour. It was built after 1670 during the reign of D. Afonso VI, the son of the restored D. João IV. The “guaritas”, the round watch towers at the corners of the building, were added in 1960 when the whole building was restored.
In his envoi, a relatively cheerful Saramago wrote that the journey is never over. The end of one journey is merely the start of another, and even if you visit the same place twice, something is different – the time of day, the weather, the season. He is right, and we keep travelling, and revisiting our favourite places, seeing them again, but always in a different light.
By Lynne Booker