Forte São João da Barra
The Forte São João da Barra, also known as the Forte da Conceição or the Forte de São João Batista, is a small fort situated on the coastline of the Algarve near the port of Tavira. This coastline has a large natural sandbar that was used by Portuguese ships as a place to shelter before entering the Mediterranean Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar.
North African pirates, who were a constant menace to Spanish and Portuguese shipping in the 16th and 17th centuries, frequently cruised off the Algarve and sometimes even raided coastal settlements. In the mid 16th century the Forte do Rato was built to guard the entrance to the harbour at Tavira. However in the 17th century the sandbar extended to the east significantly, leaving the entrance from the open sea a long way from the old fort.
The Forte São João da Barra was first built shortly after Portugal regained its independence from Spain in 1640. It was enlarged to its present form in the 1670s. The fort is a simple square design with four bastions, one at each corner. In the interior there was a central square courtyard with buildings around the edges. It was built on a small hill such that it overlooked the adjacent coastline as well as the channel between the coast and the sandbar.
There were no outworks or covered way, but there was a small dry ditch in front of the walls. Since the fort's primary purpose was to guard against pirates or hostile ships from other nations, there was no need for these features. It was not designed to face a serious siege, only to provide a strong base for regular forces that would deter pirates and block the waterway to Tavira. To this end there were sentry posts on all four bastions and also a sentry post in the centre of the two curtain walls that faced along the coast - the fort's garrison was expected to be vigilant.
However the soldiers in the Forte São João da Barra were not always as vigilant as was hoped. On one occasion the garrison failed to notice when a Barbary pirate ship ran aground in front of the fort! They were only alerted when a captive escaped from the ship and swam ashore and knocked on the gate to warn them. Aside from minor events such as this, the fort's history was relatively uneventful and it was never attacked by any of Portugal's European enemies, despite being close to the border with Spain. Damaged by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the Forte São João da Barra was repaired and remained garrisoned into the 19th century.
The fort became less effective as the sand bar shifted and artillery became more powerful, but a small garrison remained in place until 1897 while the fort served as a customs post. It was finally declassified in 1905 and sold into private ownership.
Visiting Forte São João da Barra
The Forte São João da Barra is still in private ownership today, although it now serves as a luxury coastal hotel instead of a private residence. The fort is in excellent condition, although trees have grown up in some of the ditches, obscuring the walls. It is possible to walk up to the gate and go all the way around the outside of the fort. Alternatively a visitor who is eager to see the interior could book into the hotel and experience a night in the governor's quarters!
Forte São João da Barra is easy to reach by car, although there is a rough track to drive down. It is within a short walk of the town of Cabanas.
The hotel website can be found at www.fortesaojoaodabarra.com