Sesimbra nestles beneath imposing hills and towering cliffs where the Serra da Arrabida meets the ocean. It is lovely town that I imagine would be packed with people on a summer weekend. Lisbon is a 30 minute drive away and Sesimbra feels like a cross between a traditional fishing town and an upmarket resort. Plenty of urbanites, desperate to get to the beaches and swim in the turquoise waters along this coastline, are drawn to Sesimbra.
The town is famed for its fish restaurants, of which there are many. Fishing boats still head out into the ocean, bringing back fresh fish that are daily served up in small family run restaurants dotted through the narrow town streets. We ate some of the most delicious food we had on our trip while we were in Sesimbra. Walking the streets though, the thing that stands out is the semi-official street art.
Standing on the beach, the most obvious thing about Sesimbra is the enormous fort that covers an entire hilltop behind the town. The fort was strategically important, guarding this vital port for centuries during both Moorish and Christian rule. The Moors held the fort until 1165 when, with the help of German crusaders, King Afonso I retook the fort and town during the Reconquista.
When you reverse this view and stand on the battlements of the fort, you get stunning panoramic views over the town, ocean and surrounding countryside. We walked through the fort which, apart from the views, holds little of interest. Or at least that is true, until you discover the church of Nossa Senhora do Castelo (Our Lady of the Castle). The uninspiring exterior almost put me off from venturing inside, but once through the door the church comes to life: extravagant blue tiles line the walls.
During the Age of Discoveries, Sesimbra was an important port but it wasn’t until the 17th century that Fortaleza de Santiago, the fort which sits in the middle of the town’s main beach, was built as part of Portugal’s coastal defence. The fort was seriously damaged in 1602 by an English fleet during the Battle of Sesimbra Bay. In 1602 Portugal had fallen under Spanish control, and the ongoing struggle between England and Spain arrived in Sesimbra in June.
An English fleet sent by Queen Elizabeth I attacked and defeated a Spanish fleet stationed in Sesimbra Bay, and the English went on to attack and capture the fort. Amongst the many similar military engagements of this period, this one is notable for being the last attack on the Spanish carried out upon the orders of Elizabeth I. She died the following year.
Looking out over the blue waters of Sesimbra Bay today, it’s hard to imagine the violent struggle that took place here when approximately 800 people died in battle; or that once this sleepy town was an important strategic point in Portuguese and Spanish defences. Just another long forgotten battle, like so many others we’d encountered on our Portugal trip.