The Seaside Town of Peniche

Once an offshore island as recent as the mid-16th century, the old port town of Peniche is a place of history, ocean-fresh air and fun-filled seaside pursuits on some of the best beaches to be found in Portugal’s enchanting Estremadura region.

A deep-sea fishing destination (and busy canning centre in days gone by), much of the town remains protected by a series of robust 16th-century walls (built by the Spanish to hold off English invasions during the time of Francis Drake) and, according to some historians, its name appears to be a corruption of the Latin for its charming peninsula, upon which a sizeable portion of Peniche is still located.

Today its centuries-old harbour is a picturesque setting of bobbing fishing boats of all colours flanked by a number of excellent eateries serving up some of the freshest fish and seafood dishes on Portugal’s long Atlantic coastline.

Constructed in 1557-70, the imposing Fortaleza de Peniche (Peniche Fort) was originally designed by the Italian architect Filippo Terzi and extensively enlarged and reinforced the following century with innovative Vauban-style fortifications.

Taking full advantage of its high walls and sturdy bastions, Portugal’s repressive dictator – António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970) — used the fort (which now houses the excellent National Museum of Resistance and Freedom) as a high-security political prison for some of his most threatening opponents, although the communist leader Álvaro Cunhal famously escaped from its confines in 1960.

In 1589, when in Spanish hands, the fort witnessed another important chapter in Portugal’s long and chequered history when Sir John Norris landed with 12,000 troops in support of António, the Prior of Crato’s claim to the Portuguese crown.

Built at the end of the 16th century, the town’s handsome parish church, the Igreja de São Pedro, has a fine collection of fishermen’s relics, while the nearby church of the Misericórdia features some outstanding paintings by Portugal’s talented 17th-century female artist, Josefa de Óbidos.

Where to go in central Portugal

Affording fine views of the Berlenga Islands some 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) offshore, Peniche’s windswept peninsula is fringed with towering rock cliffs harbouring deep caverns and the occasional sandy cove.

Besides Cape Carvoeiro (one of the westernmost promontories on the European mainland, whose lighthouse dates back to the mid-18th century), other points of tourist interest on the peninsula include Furninha Cave (a natural cavity occupied and used as a necropolis during the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods) and the lovely chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios which features a series of outstanding azulejo panels depicting the life of the Virgin.

Just along the coast to the north of Peniche lies the small seaside resort of Baleal where surfers and beach-lovers flock to its broad golden sands throughout the year.

The Berlengas archipelago off the Peniche coast is a protected nature reserve and seabird sanctuary accessible by boat from the town’s port. Here, great cliffs rise sheer out of the clear green water and the rocky shoreline is embroidered with picture-book coves and grottoes.

Lourinhã (just 18 kilometres/11 miles to the south of Peniche) is the undisputed dinosaur capital of Portugal where theme parks, museums and other related attractions portray the imposing presence of several different types of dinosaur in the local area during the Jurassic Period.

North of Peniche, the popular beach town of Nazaré is a magnet for big wave surfers, especially during the winter swells when the Atlantic rollers can reach a height of almost 30 metres!

Visitors have a very wide choice of other interesting places to discover a short drive inland from Peniche, most notably Caldas da Rainha (a lovely spa town with a close connection to the Portuguese royal family) and the two magnificent churches at Batalha and Alcobaça.

Peniche (located on the Google map below) is also the perfect base from which to explore the medieval walled town of Óbidos (one of the most precious jewels in central Portugal’s diamond-studded tourism crown) and the religious sanctuary of Fátima where an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared before three young shepherds in 1917.

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