January in the Netherlands and my mind yearns for sunshine and blue skies! The grey days feel lighter if you start planning a trip to warmer climes and with that in mind I’d like to recommend an idyllic find in Portugal.
Portugal, to me, was always that place that Brits went to play golf or stay in one of the many huge towering hotels built along the Algarve coastline.
I had an image of hundreds of bright pink bodies on a beach and fish & chip restaurants hovering on every corner and yes, there are those things.
But Portugal has so much more to offer if you just look past those vacation venues.
Tavira is a little-known gem, introduced to me by a friend, on the eastern Algarve close to the Spanish border. The town itself has grown in recent years, and the historic centre is wrapped around by an ever-growing municipality. But don’t be put off by that as the core of the town remains unspoiled, and the new construction did not impact our visit at all.
Tavira also provides a great point from which to explore the quieter eastern Algarve by car or local train. Santa Luzia, a fishing community close to Tavira is famous for its octopus catches, and Cacela Velha, a sleepy once-flourishing fishing community, now provides photo opportunities for tourists and access to a beach.
Both are a short drive away from the town. The under-rated ancient city of Faro is only a 30-minute drive or you can take the cheap train ride along the coastline.
A day trip can take you to Alcoutim, a lovely town of tiny cobbled streets, on the banks of the river Guadiana, part of the border between Portugal and Spain.
Here you can visit the small 14th-century castle and archeological museum and gaze across at the mirroring Spanish castle on the river’s opposite bank, much as the locals must have done in the past.
The Guadiana is no longer a hostile frontier but a lazy river, with boats floating gently past on their way to the coast.
Almost at the river’s mouth is the historically important Castro Marim, once guardian of the Guadiana and its entrance to the Atlantic Ocean. In Roman times a road to Lisbon connected the two towns, and the enormous 12th-century castle there leaves you in no doubt about its significance.
The Knights Templar’s 14th-century replacements, “The Order of Christ,” were once based here. As you stand on the battlements you see the value of its location, overlooking the saltpans and the river, with the Atlantic in the distance … no-one was going to sneak past here!
The old town of Tavira is full of history, having once been the home to the Phoenicians and the Moors, and the old cobbled streets wander enticingly alongside some beautiful 18th-century buildings, remains of Islamic doorways, the remnants of a castle and 37 churches.
CASTLES, BEACHES, CHURCHES AND FERRIES
The Gilão River meanders through the centre of the Old Town providing fishing boats a place to unload the local catch, and the harvested sea salt – both important industries to the area since the 12th century. The “Roman” bridge crossing the river was actually built by the town’s Moorish inhabitants in the 12th century, and provides wonderful photo opportunities for tourists and a place to sit and relax whilst watching the sunset each evening.
In the town, you can wander the bougainvillea-bedecked streets, the warmth of the sun-soaked cobbles bouncing off the white walls of the houses, admiring the hand-shaped door knockers and the beautiful tile work around every corner.
The castle, reduced to outer walls following the devastating 1755 earthquake, now embraces a garden filled with scented flowers and affords an opportunity to climb the rather nerve-wracking steps and look down on the jumble of red roofs below.
The Renaissance Church of Misericórdia is said to be one of the best in the Algarve and, once inside the peaceful cool interior, the beautiful 18th-century blue and white tiles representing the churches “works of mercy” surround you.
When you are foot-weary and need a break from your wanderings, the town has a relaxing spot in the shape of an old-fashioned bandstand garden.
There, you can rest in the shade on the benches and watch both locals and tourists chat with friends, or enjoy the delight of the children as they discover the fish and terrapins in the pool at the base of the bandstand.
The town is filled with wonderful restaurants featuring locally caught fresh fish and delicious local wines. Eating out is not expensive in this area of the Algarve and Tavira provides you with a surplus of choices.
The highlight of Tavira and the reason for its under-developed coastline are the barrier islands of Ilha de Tavira and the Rio Formosa lagoon, a national park where more than 30,000 species of birds visit during the year.
These protected areas have kept away roads and hotels and have allowed the 11-kilometer beach to remain virtually unspoiled. Access to the beach is by foot (or small train in the summer months) from Santa Luzia, or the inexpensive ferry from Tavira.
FERRY TO THE BEACH
There is nothing more idyllic than taking a ferry up the river to the beach! Of course in its busy months I imagine the ferry could be rather crowded, but when we visited in June, it added an extra facet of pleasure to a beach day.
The 20-minute ride meanders along the lazy Gilão River, past salt pans and browsing egrets before docking at the small jetty.
From there you walk past a small campsite, a few vintage 1940’s beach homes (no new homes can be built) and the small selection of bars and fish restaurants displaying their plethora of local delicacies enticingly on the boardwalk.
The 11-kilometer beach is impressive white sand and a blue Atlantic Ocean that can be calm, or provide waves to jump and ride. There is a section of manned beach umbrellas and cabanas at the top of the beach, but if you want something similar to Robinson Crusoe’s beach then keep walking.
Soon it’ll be just you and the local guy clamming on the shoreline.
Just one thing to remember … the ferries stop running at 20.00 in high season and 17.00 outside the season but there are also water taxis available.
I ask you just one small favor … let’s keep this gem of a town our little secret!
How to get there:
Faro International Airport is served by many of the budget airlines, such as Easyjet, Transavia, Vuelling to name but a few.
To get to Tavira from Faro airport, the taxi ride to Tavira takes 30 minutes, but you can also take the train or bus.
Faro train station is a 10-minute taxi ride, or a bus ride from the airport.
The inexpensive (less than €7) coastline train ride takes 40 minutes to get to Tavira and is a pleasant relaxing way to start your vacation. By comparison, the bus takes closer to an hour and costs slightly more.
Both train and bus stop close to downtown Tavira.
Photographer/writer Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a long-time expat, she lived in Boston for 12 years and in the Netherlands for the past 10 years.
Trained as a nurse in the U.K., she worked for nine years in the United States as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and photography.
Contributing to Dispatches since 2016, Jackie has written about her travels around Europe as well as about expat life and issues.
She also covered the Women’s March Amsterdam.
She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.