Cycling In Portugal: Sagres to Lagos - 31 kilometres

Just thirty kilometres to the east, is the much bigger and busier coastal town of Lagos. Once the epicentre of Prince Henry’s Age of Discovery, it is today one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.

While many fold the size and population of Sagres, its past has followed a similar fate. Located on the southern Iberian shoreline of the Atlantic, Lagos, like its western neighbour, became vulnerable to frequent attacks, first by Sir Francis Drake during the late 1580’s and later, Barbary
pirates from North Africa
. In addition, it was bombarded by the Spanish during the Portuguese Restoration War (1640-1668) - which led to a chain of forts along the coast - while there was no escaping the earthquake and tsunami of 1755, which destroyed much of the town’s walls and buildings. As a result, the town suffered a long decline, for almost two centuries, until the tourism boom in the early 1960’s. Since then, Lagos’s tourist-friendly beaches, picturesque plazas and vibrant nightlife have gradually transformed it into a major resort.


A far cry from the alluring white-walled square (Praça Infante Dom Henrique), I visited on my way through town, was the former site of Europe’s first slave market, the Mercado de Escravos. Only metres from the square, dominated by yet another statue of Henry the Navigator, the innocuous-looking, two-storied building, with its four Romanesque arches, is a pitiful reminder of the atrocities associated with human exploration. 

Opened in 1444, the market provided the gateway for the first Moorish slaves to be dispersed throughout post-medieval Europe. Contributing a considerable amount of wealth for the Portuguese monarchy and not least the richer merchants of Lisbon, they were sold to the highest bidders for their cheap labour. A major sponsor of these ‘slave-gathering’ expeditions, to Morocco and the west coast of Africa, Henry supposedly received one-fifth the price for every slave sold. Obviously, guilt-free, with the knowledge that Pope Eugene IV would absolve anyone who captured Moorish slaves as a part of the Holy Crusade, his caravels were soon transporting as many as 800 slaves each year from southern Morocco, Mauritania and Sene-Gambia.

While further expansion into the Atlantic and the New World continued to bring shipments of slaves and ‘other precious commodities’ to the port of Lagos, trading houses began to spring up in the more prosperous capital of Lisbon. Before long, it had replaced the Algarve town as the country’s main slave port. With Henry’s death just half a decade later, commercial opportunities in Lagos soon began to diminish. Fortunately, fishing remained a staple industry throughout the following centuries, originally through the catching of whale, followed by tuna, until scarce, and finally, sardine.  Come the late 19th century, there were four sardine canning factories in the area.

While today in far better shape than its dark days after the 1755 earthquake, when waves pummelled the top of its walls, Lagos never regained the political significance that it lost during this moment in time. The following year, Faro, with its more intact historic centre, to the east, became the Algarve’s new administrative capital and remains so to this day.


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