Located on the west coast of Portugal, almost at the westernmost tip of Europe, lies the Berlengas Archipelago, a group of islands and islets in the Atlantic Ocean, about 10 kilometers from the town of Peniche.

The archipelago consists of three groups of granite islands and islets, the main ones being Berlenga Grande (the only one currently inhabited), Estelas, and Farilhões.

They are characterized by their rugged coastlines, cliffs, and numerous caves carved by marine erosion, with steep reliefs reaching up to 95 meters in height at the highest point.

Berlenga Grande is the largest island in the archipelago, measuring 1.5 kilometers in length by 0.8 kilometers in width, with an area of over 75 hectares. Surrounding this island are numerous smaller islets and rock formations. Throughout the centuries, this island has been a crucial setting for Portuguese defense.

The second-century geographer Claudius Ptolemy mentions it in his Geographia as Londobris, likely derived from londo-briga, meaning “fortress of Londos”.

The earliest traces of human presence on the Berlengas date back to antiquity when they were used as a refuge by Phoenicians and Greeks who sailed these waters.

In the Middle Ages, a monastery was established, though it was later abandoned due to pirate attacks. The first permanent settlers arrived in the 15th century.

Its natural isolation has preserved an ecosystem of great biological richness, with colonies of seabirds and several endemic plant species. In 1981, it was declared a Natural Reserve and in 2011, a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. Previously, by a royal decree in 1465, it was Portugal’s first protected area.

Perched on an islet on the southeast coast of Berlenga Grande island is the Fort of Saint John the Baptist, also known as the Berlengas Castle. It is an old military fortress ordered to be built by King John IV of Portugal in 1651, as part of coastal defenses against attacks by Barbary pirates and enemy fleets from Spain, France, and England.

The location was strategic: from the top of its walls, access to both the bay of Peniche and the entire archipelago could be controlled.

The construction utilized the ruins of a previously abandoned 16th-century monastery and connects to the island via a masonry bridge.

In 1655, while still under construction, it withstood the siege and bombardment by an Ottoman fleet. And in 1666, it faced the attack of a Spanish fleet of 15 ships which, with great losses, eventually managed to conquer the fortress, according to Portuguese tradition with the help of a deserter.

According to another version, the aim of the Spanish fleet, which was to abduct Queen Maria Francisca of Savoy upon her arrival in Portugal to marry King Alfonso VI, was not fulfilled thanks to the resistance offered by the garrison of the fortress.

The fort has an irregular octagonal polygonal layout that adapts to the morphology of the islet, with two stories containing narrow vaulted corridors. Its perimeter is marked by windows on the north and west curtains, while towards the south and east, embrasures for artillery open up.

After centuries as part of the defensive system of the Portuguese coast, in 1847 the fort was finally disarmed and abandoned. In the mid-20th century, it was restored, classified as a national monument, and converted into a picturesque hostel that still offers accommodation to visitors of the archipelago today.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on March 5, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La espectacular fortaleza del Archipiélago de las Berlengas en Portugal

Sources

Forte de Sao Joao Baptista / Forte da Berlenga (Sistema de Informação para o Património Arquitectónico) | Forte de São João Baptista e os arcos que o ligam à ilha Berlenga (Direção-Geral do Património Cultural) | Wikipedia


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