Discarded memories, a mystery at Cabo Espichel

It seems fitting that a place as atmospheric as Cabo Espichel, perched on towering cliffs high above the blue-green waters of the Atlantic, would come with a mystery attached. In this isolated and desolate place, it was a mystery that seemed desperately sad and very human.

Coastline at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Coastline at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Coastline at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Coastline at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

I was walking behind the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo towards the crumbling cliffs that are being slowly eroded by the giant Atlantic waves, when I saw what at first I assumed was a pile of litter tipped over the edge but not out of sight. I was silently cursing the person who had littered in such a wonderful place when I realised that some of the litter was photographs.

Coastline at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Coastline at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Closer inspection revealed that the pile of paper being buffeted by the breeze was actually several dozen intimate family photographs stretching back decades. Some of them were of weddings, birthday parties, holidays at the beach and family dinners. There were babies, children, adults. One photograph had the date 1920 written in a corner. All of them had been torn into small pieces.

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Some one the pieces had been blown downwards towards the ocean, others had been blown back up to the top of the cliff. I looked at a few, arranged some and wondered to myself about who would have done this and why? Below where I stood the ocean waves provided a suitable soundtrack as they pounded into the cliffs.

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Walking back towards the car park, we stopped at the lovely little cafe next to the old church buildings. I asked the woman working there about the photos and whether this was a tradition or something that happened regularly. She said she’d never heard of anything like it before, and thought it might have been the act of someone who was disappointed in love.

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

I don’t really accept that interpretation, the photos dated back too far, over too many generations for this to be petty revenge. So the mystery of Cabo Espichel remains unsolved – at least for now. We may have left without an answer but our next stop, the nearby Praia do Meco – an absolutely wonderful beach with a couple of very good fish restaurants on the sand – soon had us turning our thoughts to the mystery of what to have for lunch.

Praia do Meco, Portugal

Praia do Meco, Portugal

Praia do Meco, Portugal

Praia do Meco, Portugal

Praia do Meco, Portugal

Praia do Meco, Portugal

…and with an unsolved mystery and one last stroll on an Atlantic coast beach, our trip to Portugal came to an end. The following morning, as if the fates were telling us not to push our luck, we woke to grey skies and the rain began to pour as we drove to the airport…definitely time to head home.

The extraordinary Cabo Espichel

Breathtaking. There is no other word for what awaits at Cabo Espichel. Can there be a more extraordinary sight along this coast than the ornate Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo Espichel, and the rows of pilgrims’ lodges that stretch along the sides of the wide courtyard in front of the church? If the buildings aren’t enough, they sit dramatically on a headland above towering cliffs that plunge to the ocean below. Truly breathtaking.

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Constructed in the 18th Century, the church and lodges are a surreal addition to this desolate, brooding landscape. Inside, the church is decorated with the most sublime paintings – no photos allowed, so you’ll have to take my word for it. The grandeur of the buildings is more than matched by the grandeur of the landscape. Yet it is impossible to escape the thought that this was an enormous piece of human folly – it is only a matter of time before the ocean reclaims the land the church is built on.

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Adding to the sense of the surreal is the story of Our Lady of the Cape. This area of Portugal is home to an unusually large number of dinosaur tracks dating to the Late Jurassic period. In the 13th Century a local fisherman is supposed to have discovered the tracks; lacking any other possible narrative for what they were, it was decided that they must have been made by a giant mule which carried Our Lady of the Cape to this place.

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Around the back of the church is a shrine, the Ermida de Memoria, which houses an image of Our Lady of the Cape and the Virgin Mary; the latter apparently made an appearance on this very spot in the 15th Century. An unfortunate choice, the Atlantic Ocean is slowly eating away at this coastline and soon everything will be in the sea.

Lighthouse, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Lighthouse, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Lighthouse, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Lighthouse, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

A short distance from the church is the Cabo Espichel lighthouse. A pleasant walk along the cliffs, you can stroll to the lighthouse and then down to some abandoned buildings on the very edge of the cliffs. These look like they were once houses and also an industrial workshop. They may have been the original lighthouse – this area had the earliest lighthouse on this coast in 1790 – but I couldn’t find any information on them.

Lighthouse, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Lighthouse, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

The views all along this strip of coast are spectacular; they alone make a visit here worthwhile, but being able to explore abandoned buildings on a cliff edge really makes it doubly special.

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal