Parque Natural da Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vincentina and Cape St. Vincent in the Algarve, Portugal - May 2012
This vast nature reserve extends from the little coastal town of Salema westwards around the coast at Cape St Vincent itself and then northwards as far as Odeceixe on the way up to Lisbon on the western coast of Portugal.
This Parque was established to protect and preserve the outstanding beauty of the coastline and also the region’s unique flora and fauna.
Apart from its outstanding wildlife, the area is rich in history with evidence of occupation dating back to prehistoric times. There are also remnants of Roman and Phoenician settlements in the area.
The lighthouse at Cape St. Vincent contains the largest warning light in Europe for both marine and air traffic.
Although there is no information centre for the Parque, signs on the roads running throughout the area alert you to the fact that you are entering the reserve. There are numerous towns and villages within the Park and they all have their share of cafes, shops and toilets, so there is no shortage of facilities if you choose to spend a day visiting the area.
Recently opened is a gift shop and cafe at the lighthouse at Cape St Vincent. This resource is much more focused on the natural environment of the area than the other gift shops and you will be able to get help and advice about your visit to the Parque. It is closed during winter but reopens each year at the beginning of April.
The dramatic, 100 metre high cliffs at Cape St. Vincent consist of hard dolomitic limestone very unlike the sandstone cliffs with which the Algarve region is generally associated. The numerous plants that inhabit the limestone cliffs have capitalised on the sand which, as a result of filling the cracks and fissures in the rock, maintains a higher level of moisture than would generally be found in this inhospitable and windswept environment.
Although the cliffs at this most south-westerly point of Europe tend to be the focal point for the casual visitor to the Algarve, for those interested in the natural world the whole Parque is a revelation. The superb sandy beaches along the costal strip, the outstandingly beautiful flora along the cliffs, the numerous wildflower meadows and the mixed cork oak (Quercus suber) and pine woodlands in the region offer an unparalleled opportunity to observe the teeming wildlife of the Algarve. Although the ocean that pounds the coast of Parque Natural da Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vincentina is the Atlantic, the warm wet winters and long hot and dry summers are far more reminiscent of the Mediterranean region, and the plants, birds and animals found in the Parque are far more typical of the Mediterranean than they are of the northern European countries the coasts of which are also dominated by the Atlantic ocean.
Apart from the unique plantlife within the park, the area is also famous for its birds, some of which nest on the rocks and cliffs while others use this ‘first and last post’ in south-western Europe on their migratory journeys. Other animals can be found in the Park, too: Otters, Gennets, Badgers and the Egyptian Mongoose are reported from the area, and the Park's woodlands are home to Wild Boar.
The Plants of Parque Natural da Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vincentina
Tearing yourself away from the amazing flora you will witness on the clifftops at Cape St Vincent in any visit during April and May can be difficult. These windswept cliffs at ‘The End of the World’, as the Cape was known in the Middle Ages, are dominated by Cistus palhinhae which closely resembles the Gum Cistus found throughout the rest of the Algarve, except the flowers of this species do not have the maroon spots on the petals found on Cistus ladanifer.
A closer look, particularly at ground level, reveals some of the other special plants found at the Cape which include Linaria Algarviana, Algarve Toadflax, Scilla vincentina as well as Shrubby Violet (Viola arborescens) – a rare plant only found here and at Cape Trafalgar in Spain. Both the creamy-yellow and purple-flowering types of Honeywort (Cerinthe major) are common as are both colours of Bellardia (Bellardia trixago). Yellow and red wild Snapdragons (Antirrhinum spp.) flower at the Cape, and some of the many Algarve broomrapes appear there, including the majestic Orobanche foetida.
One of the prettiest of the wildflowers is Evergreen Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) which forms brilliant white pin cushions from early April onwards. It is generally accompanied by bright pink Sea Stock (Mathiola sinuata) and deep purple clusters of Shrubby Pimpernel (Anagallis monelli) which is one of the most common and memorable plants of the Algarve and found almost anywhere close to the coast.
Various parts of the Parque are also home to many of the wild orchids of the region including Ophrys speculum, the Mirror Orchid, and its rare subspecies lusitanica (formerly known as Ophrys vernixia); Ophrys bombyliflora, the Bumblebee Orchid; Ophrys tenthredinifera, the Sawfly Orchid; Orchis anthropophora, the Man Orchid; Orchis italica, the Naked Man Orchid; Serapias cordigera, the Heart-flowered Tongue Orchid, Serapias parviflora, the Small-flowered Tongue Orchid and many Broad-leaved Helleborines (Epipactis helleborine). The Broad-leaved Helleborines are particularly numerous in the mixed Cork Oak and Pine woodlands in the area and the flowers show a confusing variation in colour, some being deep pink and others creamy-green.
The Insects of Parque Natural da Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vincentina
The outstanding plantlife of Parque Natural da Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vincentina with its profusion of flowering plants, in particular, means that the area is particularly rich in insect life. Once spring and summer get underway numerous moths and butterflies are visible flying from plant to plant taking advantage of the plentiful pollen and nectar rewards for assistance with pollination.
Once the high summer arrives, and temperatures soar to the high thirties and even low forties Celsius, many of the insects hide under stones during the daytime heat only emerging in the early mornings and evenings to hunt for food. The insects that fly can move inland and higher up into the hills where the temperatures are several degrees cooler during the day.
The Birds of Parque Natural da Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vincentina
Cape St Vincent and the rest of the Parque is an area of major importance for resident, visiting and migratory birds, and if there at the right time there are lots of special treats in store for the bird lovers, who arrive in flocks almost as large as some of the migrating birds. In spring, Nightingales and Golden Orioles arrive along with many other passerines. Vast numbers of migrating birds move along the coast, including Griffons, White and Black Storks, Egyptian Vultures and Booted Eagles. Nesting birds include Choughs, Shags and Swifts.
Other Attractions of Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vincentina
There is much on offer in the area for the archaeologists and historians among us. The megaliths between Sagres and Vila do Bispo speak of prehistoric occupation, and there are remains of both Roman and Phoenician settlements. Remnants of irrigation systems and wells date back to Moorish times, and there are many fine churches from the 15th to 17th centuries dotted about in the towns and villages within the Park.