It was an inauspicious start. We took the wrong road to the railway station in Portimão and nearly missed the train. Still feeling stressed by the time we stopped at a café in the Praça da República for lunch upon our arrival in Tavira I learned that the café had run out of salad and I was unable to have the tuna salad I had been looking forward to and I settled instead on the biggest tuna toasted sandwich I have ever seen, but ruined by too much mayonnaise and tomato ketchup. Feeling underwhelmed with Tavira thus far, we checked into our guesthouse, which proved to be a wonderful find, restoring my faith in Tavira. Encumbered by nothing but a camera and a map I confess I fell in love with this pretty little fishing town in the eastern Algarve. I recently read that if we focus too much time on taking photos of something rather than just looking at it, then the image doesn’t stay in our memory. I’m sure that this is true, but Tavira is so photogenic from all angles and at all times of the day and night it is impossible not to want to photograph it over and over.
Without a real plan, but just a short list of ‘must see’ places, we wandered back to the Praça da República, where I had had my disappointing lunch. Looking at it with new eyes, it was now an attractive square with fountains, a small amphitheatre and historical buildings – a perfect place to sit and watch the world go by. The square is close to the River Gilão, over which two charming bridges have been built, the Ponte Romana (which means Roman Bridge, but was actually built in the 17th century) and the Ponte das Forças Armadas (Armed Forces Bridge). The river and the bridges kept drawing us back like magnets and we later discovered that a large number of our many photographs of Tavira were of the river and bridges, in the afternoon and morning light, at sunset and after dark. Each time of day offered a different aspect, including the rising and falling of the water level, which left flights of steps leading from the riverfront houses into the river seemingly floating in mid-air. One of my favourite photographs is of a local fisherman standing knee deep in the river fishing for clams, oysters, cockles, razor clams and conch oblivious of the tourist activity around him. Tavira is still a working fishing port; on the quayside is the Docapesca building where fishing boats unload their catch.
Despite its beauty, Tavira is less touristy than places in the western Algarve; even places designed for tourists seemed more understated. There are several places worth a visit, but not one thing to draw tourists to Tavira, apart from Tavira itself. The remains of the castle at the top of Travessa da Fonte, a hill leading from the Praça da República, is a quiet, pleasant place to wander around. We climbed up to the top of the castle walls, which gave impressive views over Tavira, allowing us to see the pyramid-shaped roofs which are a distinctive feature of Tavira’s buildings. We wandered around the small gardens within the castle walls, a peaceful, shady place with trees and flowers. A short walk back down the Travessa da Fonte is the Igreja da Misericórdia, a church built in the 16th century, which contains an impressive series of azulejos (the famous blue and white Portuguese tiles) depicting the acts of mercy. It also has a stunning gilt alter and a doll-like Our Lady of Mercy in a glass case. The outside of the church has an renaissance-style carved stone doorway, showing Our Lady of Mercy flanked by St Peter and St Paul. Not having decided where to go next, we were approached on the steps of the church by a young woman who said the words that makes every tourist’s heart sink, ‘Do you speak English?’. We reluctantly said we did, wondering what she was selling, but were pleasantly surprised when she informed us about a fado centre, Fado Com História, opposite the church, where a live fado performance was going to start in 30 minutes. Having never seen live fado, I was intrigued and after a short break to have some fig ice-cream (which I had been informed is a Tavira speciality, but which is not something I need to try again – it left me very thirsty) we returned to Rua Damião Augusto de Brito to the small building where Fado Com História is based and paid the reasonable entrance fee of €5 each. The show starts with a film about the history of fado, but the real highlight is seeing and hearing live fado performed in an intimate setting. Two guitarists and a singer performed a range of fado songs. The show lasted 30 minutes and was thoroughly entertaining. It was a little disconcerting to walk out into daylight after the show finished, as it is something I associate with late-night fado clubs in Lisbon, not six o’clock in the evening in the sunny Algarve. We had worked up a thirst and decided to return to the Praça da República to have a some reviving sangria. After my disastrous lunch experience I was nervous about returning to the square, but we found a nice bar opposite the town hall with its attractive arcade and spent a pleasant hour indulging in our favourite pastime of people watching.
We meandered our way along the narrow cobbled back streets, admiring the azulejo-covered walls of houses and shops, back to the guesthouse, taking time to investigate the personality-less Mercado Velho (Old Market, which is now made up of souvenir shops and restaurants) and the tranquil Jardim do Coreto park, with its enchanting 19th-centry bandstand, noticing the old men who gather there to chew the fat, ignoring the intrusive tourists with their cameras.
After a shower and a change of clothes we headed up the Calçada de Dona Ana to the Pousada do Convento da Graça on Rua D. Paio Peres Correia. We had considered staying here during our time in Tavira, as I liked the idea of sleeping in a former convent, but my research revealed that the pousada, which is run by the Pestana chain, has been modernised into a luxurious, but expensive, hotel. After asking permission to look around the hotel at the reception desk we walked into the well-preserved original 16th-century cloister around which the hotel is built. The adjacent bar and swimming pool area are disappointingly modern. In addition to the cloister, the exterior of the pousada has maintained its original features and it is worth walking up the hill for this if nothing else. We headed back down the hill to the river to find a restaurant for dinner. We are experienced travellers and have been to enough tourist destinations to know that the restaurants in the most desirable locations generally do not serve the best quality food, however, the lure of sitting at a riverside table overlooking the Ponte Romana and the landmark clock tower of the Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo (which strangely has clocks on different walls of the tower telling different times!), was hard to resist. Not surprisingly the meal was underwhelming and the waitress acted as if she would rather be anywhere than there. After Neil had returned our cold chips to the kitchen and got some hot ones the rest of the meal was fine: the portions were good, the house wine was more than acceptable and it was the cheapest meal we have had in the Algarve. We were coming to the conclusion that customer service in this area of the Algarve is a little bit less slick, but, refreshingly, a little less cynical than in the western Algarve resorts, where tourism is more developed.
The next day, rather than eating breakfast in the hotel, we found a pastelaria (cake/pastry shop) on a side street and ordered a breakfast of pasteis de nata (custard tarts) and coffee. I love the selection of savoury and sweet pastries on offer in most pastelarias, but confess an addiction to the ubiquitous custard tarts. We had two hours to kill before our train left, so decided to walk around the town again, making sure we hadn’t missed anything. The previous day we hadn’t spent a lot of time looking at the architecture, but in the morning light our eyes were drawn to the buildings. A lot of Tavira’s charm is due to the 18th-century town houses with their wrought-iron balconies and attractive windows and doors, particularly those that line the river front, which were built after the town was destroyed in a major earthquake in 1755. The houses were lived in by merchants when Tavira was the main trading port in the Algarve. Strange as it may sound, the doors of these townhouses are much photographed, due to their graceful designs. Prints of photographs of these doors are sold in the town’s gift shops. After revisiting many of the places we had been to the previous day, and taking more photographs of them in the morning light, we made the short walk to Tavira railway station, which itself is also photogenic. Two statues outside the station showing a young couple waving goodbye (or hello) to each other were quite moving. Inside the station is a beautiful azulejos of the Roman Bridge over the River Gilão. I left Tavira feeling I hadn’t seen a lot in terms of tourist attractions, but the beauty of the town left me with an ineffable sensation, and this sensation has stayed with me for a long time since my visit.
We travelled by train from Portimão, a journey which took approximately 2 hours. The train was a direct one, but on some you may have to change at Faro. There are several trains a day, but they don’t run late at night. A one-way ticket costs €8.40 (as of March 2016).
We stayed at the Calçada Guesthouse, Calçada de Dona Ana 12, a small guesthouse that has recently been renovated. It is on a quiet side street close to the river and the Praça da República. The communal areas were welcoming, with everything you could need, including free tea- and coffee-making facilities and even a very small fridge containing a bottle of milk, and. of course, free wi-fi. There is a lovely rooftop area where breakfast is served, but we didn’t make use of this. The rooms were clean and well-equipped, including a welcome bottle of water in the room on arrival. We had a very comfortable night’s stay and Andy, the owner, was very welcoming and helpful. We paid €75 for a night’s stay (this didn’t include breakfast).