Lighthouses abound along the ferocious Atlantic coast of Galicia, Spain’s Northern Province. However, two are more famous than the many others, because on the one hand they offer spectacular views, and on the other they have a tragic history of lost lives, sea battles and shipwrecks. It is not surprising, then, that the stretch of the Atlantic which reaches from Cap Finisterre to Cabo Vilan near Camarinas is called “Coast of Death.”
The name Finisterre derives from the Latin finis terra, which means the “End of the World.” Although Cap Finisterre is not the western-most point of Europe, the view from the rocks at the foot of the lighthouse over the vast, grey expanse of churning Atlantic Ocean certainly evokes an image of finality.
The lighthouse of Cap Finisterre, or “Faro Cabo Fistera” in the local language of Galego, spreads its signals high up on a promontory on top of Monte Facho, 238 meters (781 feet) above sea level. Monte Facho was a sacred region since the prehistoric Celtic origins of Galicia, and local legend has it that a hermit who lived in his hovel near the site of the current lighthouse used to warn the inhabitants of the village of Finisterre when pirates and plunderers approached by sea. He did so by lighting fires and was highly revered by his grateful neighbors who kept him in food and drink.
The current lighthouse dates from 1853 and consists of a 56 foot high octagonal, cylindrical granite tower and a ground house. The house is painted white with stone trim and the lantern is silvery metallic. Located at 9o17’53”W, the lighthouse sends a white flash every five seconds and a double fog blast every 60 seconds. The foghorn is operated from the two story building at the foot of the lighthouse proper, which is also a small but cozy hotel called Hotel O’Semaforo. Except for the month of November, the hotel is open year-round but the lighthouse tower cannot be visited or climbed.
Cap Finisterre and its lighthouse is also the final destination of one of the world’s longest pilgrimages: the Camino de Santiago. Pilgrims from all over the world who have hiked up the final one-and-a half miles to the End of the World are supposed to burn their boots and travel clothes in a symbolic act at the foot of a bronze boot perched on a rock.
As for shipwrecks, Cap Finisterre has seen its fair share. One of the most devastating was the tragedy of the British vessel Captain, an ironclad turret ship, which capsized on the 6th of September, 1870 off Cap Finisterre, claiming 480 lives.
Three naval battles between Britain and France raged at Cap Finisterre in May of 1747, October of 1747, and July of 1805 respectively. All the events surrounding Cap Finisterre and the lighthouse are beautifully documented in the Maritime Museum next to the Lonxa (fish market and auction hall) in the village of Finisterre.
Sadly, lives are still lost at Cap Finisterre. The latest was a Polish pilgrim who fell to his death in May, 2009 while climbing the rocks around the lighthouse and taking photographs. Although the views are breathtaking, every visitor needs to exercise extreme caution and be aware of sudden gusts of wind and slippery rocks.
The second infamous lighthouse, Cabo Vilan, was directly involved in another sea tragedy, the sinking of the British vessel Serpent.
Cabo Vilan is located near the coastal town of Camarinas, approximately 35 miles north of Cap Finisterre. The lighthouse was established in 1854 and the current structure dates from 1896. The 82-foot tall octagonal stone tower rises from a plateau 341ff above sea level. The all-glass lantern emits two white flashes every 15 seconds and the fog siren gives three short blasts followed by one long blast every 60 seconds. Cabo Vilan is the northernmost of several historic first order lighthouses along the Coast of Death.
During the night of November 19, 1890, the British vessel Serpent, with 175 naval cadets on board, approached Cabo Vilan on her journey from Plymouth to Sierre Leona. The night was dense and a storm was raging. The ship crashed on the rocks below the lighthouse of Cabo Vilan. 172 sailors died; only three made it on dry land. They reported that the ship’s captain had either misread the lighthouse signal or else it had failed totally on that fatal night. Although a subsequent court-martial declared the cause of the tragedy a navigational error, the final consequence was that the hand operated lighthouse beacon was changed to electricity after the tragedy.
The bodies of the British sailors washed ashore the next day and were buried on the beach in what became know as the English Cemetery, a memorial to the tragedy of
the Serpent and all other lives lost in Camarinas. The fisherman’s cottage where the three survivors found refuge is still
standing. A curiosity of the shipwreck is that the ship’s
barometer, still in working order, was also washed ashore and can today be seen embedded in the wall of a house along the seafront of Camarinas.
As in Cap Finisterre, the interior of the lighthouse cannot be visited, but plaques and notices at the entrance explain the history and the events of the Serpent, and climbing the surrounding rocks and a walk along the dunes leading to the English Cemetery afford a compelling view of the small passage between the rocks that became fatal to the Serpent.
This story appeared in the
March 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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