Tavira is a captivating town at the eastern end of the Algarve, in Southern Portugal.
It was raining the first day I arrived, but I loved everything about it- even the puddles! And when the sun came out...wow! All those photos I'd looked at on the internet, right there before my eyes, and I couldn't wait to see more.
The town rises gently on either bank of the River Gilao. Your eyes are drawn upwards to the castle and church towers, and the bold outline of the water tower. From the main square, the Praca da Republica, you pass through the archway- the sole remaining gate in the original castle walls- and up the steps of the Rua da Galeria.
The Igreja da Misericordia was my introduction to the lovely blue and white azulejo tiles found throughout Portugal, revealing its history in pictures. Free concerts at 18.00 on a Saturday are a great time to sit and admire them. It’s one of more than 20 churches in Tavira, each with their own charm. Often there'll be a celebration for a Saints Day and paper flowers appear, accompanied by singing and traditional dance.
On upwards, you pass the Galeria Palace, where Taviras Roman remains lie visible through the glass panels, just inside the doorway. Excavation continues at the rear. Your reward for climbing the steps to the castle gardens is one of Taviras finest views- the wide panorama of tiled tessoura roofs and the river, meandering past the salt pans and out to sea. The gardens themselves are lovely, different in each season. The water tower behind Santa Maria church has been innovatively converted into a camera obscura- an interesting place to keep cool on a sunny morning.
By now the outside tables will have been set for lunch at A Ver (“the view” it translates). The lunchtime menu is relatively good value at this rather upmarket restaurant but you do pay for location. (Calcada da Galeria 13, tel 281 381 363) Or return to the Praca for a snack and some very moreish cake, or to ogle the luscious range of icecreams in Tavira Romana. A new museum is to open this Spring dedicated to the towns Moorish past, and will incorporate the TI in an ideal central location on the Praca. A booklet “Tavira Tours” will give you all the information you need to complete several walks around the town, and beyond.
Stroll through the riverside gardens, or cross over the Ponte Romana to reach my favourite square, Praca Dr. Padhinha. What doesn’t it have? Glorious tile-fronted buildings, many with crumbling balconies; a variety of shops and cafes; a tiny bakery with delicious cakes (Café Nicola); another church, and one of the best Indian restaurants I’ve ever eaten in. Punjab Palace has atmospheric vaulted ceilings in its cavernous interior, and your reception will be as warm as the food. The lamb karahi is delicious, but then, so is everything. (Praca dr Padinha 42-44, tel 916 975 286)
Back on the riverfront I seldom pass up the opportunity to sit at Café Anazu, but sunset with a glass of port is the best time. Tiny birds swoop low overhead, then soar to their nests above the awnings. Across the river the floodlights come on and the bell tower glows green.
Take to the water
You can spend many happy hours ambling around the town, making your own discoveries, but eventually the water calls. From May to September the ferry leaves the quayside on its journey out to Tavira Island. I love this smooth expanse of glittering water, the sheltered bay and fragrant pines lining the river beach. Cross over the island and you come to a seemingly endless swathe of Atlantic facing shoreline. A dozen bars and restaurants offer shade in the summer, when the Ilha has quite a party feel. Off season it’s a more relaxing place, for strolling and gathering shells, still accessible by ferry from Quatro Aguas, beyond the saltpans.
A trip out to the lagoon is a lovely way to experience at close quarters the Ria Formosa nature reserve. The skipper takes pleasure in sharing his knowledge, and from July to September you have a good chance of spotting flamingos. The boat leaves the quayside a couple of times a day- there's a leaflet on the stand. The more adventurous can hire a kayak from the bike hire shop on the opposite riverbank.
East or west, the choices are equally inspiring. Head for the village of Santa Luzia and be beguiled by the rows of traditionally tiled houses, in their infinite variety, and the boats bobbing on the lagoon. In the distance you can see Barril, the pontoons over the water, and the little red train that takes you across Ilha Tavira at its broadest point. In all weathers this is a stunning beach, backed by iconic anchors and a couple of restaurants for whiling away the hours.
Further east, along the N125, Olhao with its superb fish and vegetable market, expanding marina and access to the offshore islands Armona and Culatra. Both of these make a great days outing.
Going west, you have Cabanas, its new boardwalk making the best of the views. Again access to the beach is by boat- a smaller affair, boarding which you are quite likely to get your feet wet. The tiny village Cacela Velha (old castle) lies just beyond, off the N125 in the direction of Spain. In July the festival of Enchanted Nights transforms it into a Moorish settlement, with exotic spices and mint tea.
The offshore islands end here, and you have immediate access to miles of smooth sand. My favourite beach is Praia Verde with its excellent Pezinhos na Areia restaurant. It's had a major facelift since we first started to come but the food quality remains superb. www.pezinhosnaareia.com
Almost at the Spanish border, there's Castro Marim with its towering castle and nature reserve. This is the setting for a later Moorish festival, when the normally quiet streets hum with life.
You probably have the sense by now that I could go on, and on, on this subject and you’d be absolutely right. That’s before I get started on walks along the banks of the Guadiana River, peaceful Alcoutim, or even venture across to Spain (5 mins by ferry or a simple drive). It’s also before I mention the 6 weeks or more of free entertainment that enlivens Tavira on evenings through July and August. Maybe I should just say, get in touch if you want more details or suggestions? I never tire of the subject.
Meantime you need a place to stay
Cheap, and an extremely useful place to stay- Hotel Porta Nova. It’s central and the poolside terrace looks out across rooftops and churches to the sea. There's a hill involved, of course, but there is a more gentle climb. www.portugal-info.net/hotelportanova/index.htm Tel (+351) 282 423 770
Slightly more expensive and in a location that may not appeal to everyone, but that I really love- Hotel Vila Gale Albacora. It’s on the salt marshes so ideal for wildlife, but has excellent facilities including a superb pool, and its own boat service to ferry you over to Tavira Island or into town. There’s a courtesy bus service too. www.vilagale.pt Tel (+351) 281 380 800
For a touch of luxury, try the pousada (state-owned hotel) - Convento da Graca. We watched the renovation with interest over a period of years and couldn’t wait to see inside when it was finished. It doesn’t disappoint. You can dine here in the elegant cloisters or the impressive wooden ceilinged restaurant even if you can't afford to stay. It’s a lovely experience and not seriously expensive. www.pousadas.pt Tel (+351 ) 281 329 040 There are 15% discounts for over 55s!
Faro airport is about half hour from Tavira by taxi, but you can make the journey by airport bus into Faro and then by train, if you’re not in a hurry and travelling fairly lightly. A car will be an advantage but not an absolute necessity, as the local bus service is reliable and the railway reaches from Faro to Vila Real de S. Antonio at the Spanish border.
Around Tavira, a little tourist train trundles up to the castle and out to Quatro Aguas.
www.tavirauncovered.com has loads more information and photos.
Have I got bored yet? We've been coming here for 7 years and I'm still finding new places to go. It's been a base to travel in all directions, from Lisbon to Granada, but most of all I love it just for itself.