Forte de São Filipe

Who was this 16th century fortress designed to protect?

Forte de São Filipe, Setubal (photo: Brent Petersen)

Philip II of Spain

When King Henry of Portugal died, the kingdom was in crisis. Henry was a chaste cardinal and had no heirs. Philip II of Spain (known as Philip I in Portugal) swooped in and claimed the throne through the bloodline of his mother Isabella (who was born in Lisbon but was the queen consort of Charles V, King of Spain).

Others claimed the throne as well, but Philip won the Battle of Alcântara in 1580, ascended to the throne and Portugal became, in essence, a protectorate of Spain with some limited independence.

Forte de São Filipe

Forte de São Filipe, Setubal (photo: Brent Petersen)

Just two years after becoming king, Filipe ordered a fortification to be built on a hill just outside Setubal. Construction began in 1590 and completed 10 years later. A battery was built about 50 years later to defend the fort against possible cannon fire from boats in the harbor below.

But, the question remains; why was the fort built in the first place?

There is no doubt that Setubal occupies a strategic position. On the Sado estuary and with an accessible port, shipping and trade are quite important to Setubal and the entire region. Foreign invasion or marauding pirates could be a problem.

However, there’s also the uncomfortable fact that, despite coming from a line of Portuguese rulers, Philip I was viewed as an outsider in Portugal. In Setubal specifically, he was quite unpopular.

So, there is the very real possibility that the king built the fort not to protect Setubal from outside invaders, but to protect the king’s interests from his own restless subjects.

Visiting the Fort

View of Setubal from the fort (photo: Brent Petersen)

Forte de São Filipe is a 15-20 minute walk from the historic district of Setubal. But, be forewarned, it is on top of a hill. The road is paved but you are walking uphill the whole way. Or, you can get to the top in 5 minutes or so by taxi.

The structure itself is in good shape but there’s not a lot of information about its history once you get there. No tours, no museum, per se. But, you can wander around the castle and take in the spectacular 360° views of the countryside, the Sado Estuary, and the Tróia Peninsula.

The tiny baroque chapel inside the fort is decorated with iconic Azulejo tiles, depicting scenes from the life of Philip I.

Chapel in Forte de São Filipe, Setubal (photo: Brent Petersen)

There is also a outdoor cafe. The patio seating overlooks Setubal and the water. It’s easy to linger for hours watching the sailboats or the ferry cross from Setubal to Tróia. Not to be missed.

Forte de São Filipe from the outside (photo: Brent Petersen)

The fort is closed on Mondays and holidays.

About the Author

Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink, including in-depth eating and drinking guides to Lisbon, PortoSintraMonsaraz, and Evora in Portugal. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.

Author: Brent