Tavira is celebrating its 500th birthday, and let me tell you, it doesn’t look a day over 400!
I ended last week’s blog just as we were having lunch after a leisurely, and eminently enjoyable, boat tour of the Olhão lagoon. We were giddily happy and relaxed. OK, OK…I was giddily happy; “giddily” is not an adjective that can or should be applied to describe my husband, but he was, at least, relaxed. After filling ourselves on a fresh salad of arugula, mango, walnuts, and toasted chèvre (drizzled with the sweetest olive oil and tangiest balsamic vinegar) along with a thin crust pizza with prosciutto, it was time to head to Tavira (pronounced tah-vee-dah).
Rather than take the highway, we chose to follow the coastal route. It took us through scrubby brush most of the time, but every once in awhile we spied that stunning blue ocean. We were in no hurry and didn’t mind the extra ten minutes it added to the twenty minute drive; we didn’t want anything to disrupt our good mood. We arrived at the Pousada Convento de Tavira in the afternoon with plenty of time to unpack and head to the pool for a cool, refreshing dip followed by a poolside gin and tonic – one of the best summer cocktails in my opinion.
The hotel is a historic treasure. It started as the Convento de Nossa Senhora da Graça da Ordem de Santo Agostinho (Convent of Our Lady of the Grace of the Order of St. Augustine), sometimes called Convent of the Hermits of St. Augustine. Construction began in 1542 at the direction of the friars of the Order of Augustine on the site where a Judiaria had once been located. A second phase of construction took place around 1568. Under the guidance of Frei João de S. José, the convent became the main center of culture and education in Tavira. In 1575, and due to its growing importance, the Bishop of Silves, Jerónimo Osório, installed a School of Moral Theology, Sacraments and Canon Law, for the instruction of the clergy and the people.
Less than 200 years after it was built, however, there were already reports of its entry into ruins, particularly in the cloister area. Work to rebuild and repair the building began in 1749 and would last for 20 years. It was at this time that the main facade was changed to reflect the Baroque style and two towers were added at each end.
After the extinction of religious orders in Portugal, the convent was transferred to the Ministry of the Army in 1837. A military unit called the Battalion of Hunters nº5 was installed there and the building became known as the Quartela da Graça (Grace Barracks). The military unit remained in operation until 1999 when the building was handed over to the municipality of Tavira after it was deemed a Monument of Public Interest.
The hotel is ideally located right next to the Igreja do Santa Maria do Castelo, and is literally a five or six minute walk to the historic town core and the Roman Bridge over the Gilão River (which isn’t Roman at all…I’ll get to that shortly). The conversion into a hotel started in 2006 and involved an investment of around 11.9 million euros. It was then renamed Pousada do Convento da Graça (Grace Convent Inn).
One of the things I love about the Portuguese is the way they embrace and protect the history of their country throughout the modernization process. They are masters at maintaining and celebrating the visual and physical elements that make buildings and towns so interesting and beautiful without compromising on current lifestyle needs.
As I walked up the main staircase and made the turn at the landing, I noticed a highly polished indentation in the stone floor at the base of the baluster. It made me think of the countless number of people over the centuries who had climbed those stairs. Knowing the building’s history I could easily imagine friars, students, lay people and military soldiers rounding that same corner as they went about their daily routines. It felt like a touchstone connecting me in an intimate way to each of them.
During check in, it was recommended that we make a reservation for dinner if we planned to dine at the hotel. They are always booked, so we did just that for the evening we arrived and it was a lovely experience. There was a light breeze in the cloisters to keep things comfortable. The hotel staff were incredibly patient, helpful, and encouraging when we would practice our Portuguese with them even though they all spoke English fluently. They gave us great tips and information on what to see and do when Won peppered them with questions.
Because breakfast was included in our room rate, we dined in the cloisters the next morning too. After breakfast we headed out on foot to explore the old town. As mentioned earlier, and just around the corner from the hotel, is the Igreja Santa Maria do Castelo (Church of St. Mary) built in the 13th century after the Reconquista of the city from the Moors. The church was built on the site of a Moorish mosque and holds the tombs of Dom Paio Peres Correia and his knights. It is a significant landmark in the city even though there are between 21 and 37 churches in the town – no one seems to agree on the exact number! Both the hotel and the church face a lovely little park, which we passed through on our way.
Walking around the side of the church we saw the old castle walls and an open gate. As we passed through the gate, we were immediately enchanted! There was a well-tended garden completely enclosed within ancient castle walls and, adding to the ambiance, someone was playing a guitar and singing.
The Moors began to build the castle between the 10th and 11th centuries. Following the conquest of Tavira in 1242, work was carried out on the walls under the reigns of King Afonso III (1248-1279) and King Dinis (1279-1325). In the late middle ages, the walls enclosed approximately five hectares, an indication of the town’s importance. However, once they were no longer required as a defensive structure, they fell into ruin. In 1938, the Tavira Municipal Council, acquired the alcáçova (citadel or main fortress), which they restored two years later. I took a short video of what it was like in the garden.
The musician you hear and see is Helder Lopes. He was so appreciative of our small gesture to thank him (Won gave him one euro), that when he finished his song he came running up to say thank you and offer me a sprig of tea leaves from the garden! It was a very sweet and thoughtful gesture.
In the images below, you can see the church beyond the gate and the views of the city from the battlements. I did take note that Tavira seems to trust tourists less than Óbidos where there are NO railings to prevent you from falling when walking the battlements there! In all fairness to Tavira, the stone steps and battlements were far more steep and uneven than in Óbidos, so I guess it could be understood.
As we exited the garden back out through the gate to continue on our way, a tourist tram happened to be waiting and no one was on it. This is not something we would normally do, but we thought it would be fun and could be useful to help us get oriented more quickly. We paid €5,00 each and then hopped on at the very back of the tram. Only one other couple got on at the same time, sitting further up, and off we went! The tour took a little less than an hour as it made its way around the town, across two bridges, out to the coastline and then eventually back to the castle. The tram made one stop along they way at the Gilão River where a lot more people got on. Most were families with young children. Every other row on the tram was blocked so as to maintain social distancing. The tram ride was a great idea because we got to see parts of the city we probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
While it was fun and informative, there is one point I feel compelled to share; for the majority of the ride we were going over cobblestone streets in a vehicle with pretty much no suspension which meant we were feeling every. single. stone. Now, I’m not a particularly well-endowed woman, if you know what I mean, but even I had to hold on to them for most of the trip!! Being constantly bounced around, though, made me laugh nearly the entire time!
Since the tram dropped us back at our starting point, we continued with our original plan and headed for the historic center to see the sights, including the Ponte Romana, a pedestrian only, seven-arched bridge over the Gilão River (pronounced zhee–gnlau). The interesting thing about the bridge is that even though it’s called the “Roman Bridge,” the Roman’s didn’t build it. The bridge is named after the Romans because it linked the Roman road from Castro Marim to Tavira. It was originally built by the Moors in the second half of the 12th century. The center of town was a dreamy place to stroll. Even the side streets were charming, fun, and had great views.
The gazebo in the picture above was surrounded by a water feature that was home to many turtles and fish! It was approaching lunchtime and we were getting hungry. Won always does a lot of research before we go anywhere and suggested we try a highly rated Japanese restaurant called Bartô. To be brutally honest, I wasn’t into having sushi at that moment, but didn’t say anything and I’m so glad I didn’t. It was delicious! I HIGHLY recommend the hot rolls (temperature-wise, not spicy). Impossible to explain how they are prepared, but incredibly good. They were so good, in fact, we ordered a second serving. Over lunch we decided to head to Spain. Just for the afternoon, not permanently! I mean, why not? Tavira is just a 30 minute drive from the border.
We jumped in the car and drove to Vila Real de Santo Antonio where the river Guidiana separates the two countries. Here’s a map to orient you. You can see Tavira in the lower left corner.
Even though we could have taken the car on the ferry, we decided to leave it in Portugal. The fare was €1,90 per adult each way, for a total of €7,60 and we parked for free at the ferry terminal. Talk about a deal! In the spirit of full transparency, it was a bit of mad rush because when I went to buy the tickets while Won parked the car, I saw the ferry was scheduled to leave within minutes! I was so flustered I didn’t ask for a round trip ticket. I called and told him to hurry, and then bolted to the ferry. I was on board waiting anxiously for Won to get there. He made it, but it took me a few minutes to calm down.
There was very little wind, no clouds, and you could clearly see the riverbanks of both countries during the entire fifteen minute crossing. We also saw a lot of jelly fish in the water!! Big ones! Not sure if that was an anomaly based on the time of year or a standard thing, but that may be one reason no one was swimming…egad! [Just before publishing, I decided to do a bit more research on the jellyfish issue and found an article dated January 3, 2018 reporting that researchers had found global warming caused higher levels of salinity in the river which allowed several invasive species to enter and thrive, one being jellyfish.]
Upon arrival in Spain, Won immediately purchased our return tickets and noted the departure times posted in the office. Based on when we got there, we planned to catch the 5:30PM ferry back to Portugal. That would give us an hour and a half to poke around and explore. If we missed the 5:30 ferry, the last one of the day was scheduled to depart at 7:00PM.
Off we went! We walked from the dock directly into the town of Ayamonte, which took less than two minutes. The first thing you come across is a beautiful community square surrounded by shops, cafes, and a municipal building. Just past the square is a grid of tight pedestrian walkways that are filled with shops and cafes. Not all of them were open, but it was lively enough to enjoy the experience. We stopped to get an ice cream because it was pretty hot and laughed about how awkward it was to suddenly have to speak what little Spanish we know. Won had a complete brain freeze and couldn’t even remember how to say thank you! Ha! Ha! (Later, over dinner, we talked about how strange it felt to be in “a foreign country.” Portugal is quickly becoming our home.)
After we had finished our ice creams, we checked the time. Won’s wrist watch showed 4:20PM, but my phone, which had automatically switched to the Spanish time zone, said it was 5:20PM!! Yikes!! We forgot that Spain is one hour ahead of Portugal. We ran back to the dock to catch the 5:30PM ferry, but when we got there, there was no ferry. What the…?! Did we just miss it?
I looked out across the water, but didn’t see the ferry coming or going. Confused, we walked back to the ticket office and were informed that the posted schedule was wrong. It might have been nice had they proactively mentioned that detail when we bought the blasted tickets! The last ferry was scheduled to leave at 6:00PM, not 5:30 and not 7:00. Holy moley. We were a bit annoyed, incredibly relieved, and really flustered, but happy to learn we weren’t stranded. With about about 20 minutes to kill (to ensure we got back early just in case there was another unexpected misunderstanding), we returned to the town and bought some flip flops.
Back in Vila Real Santo Antonio (at 5:15PM Portuguese time), we walked to the main plaza, stopped in to see the 18th century Igreja Matriz de Vila Real de Santo António (Village of St. Anthony Mother Church), and explored the cute shopping area.
When we returned to the hotel we began to think about dinner. I mentioned that it might be wise to call the restaurant we had planned to dine at to see if we needed a reservation. Guess what? We did, and they were completely booked. Groan…when will we ever learn? Won pulled up the list of restaurants he had researched in advance of our trip and began calling. They were all booked. Hoping for the best, I left him to that task and continued to get ready. A little while later he came to tell me he made a reservation for 8PM. I said, “Great! Where?” He said, “A Ver Tavira a Michelin Star restaurant just behind the church. It’s a two minute walk from the hotel.” I blanched. In my experience, Michelin Star restaurants tend to be wildly expensive. Oh well…we both agreed that we’d just have to splurge, reasoning that we should at least get a great meal. And boy, did we ever!! I’ll share what we had and how much it cost momentarily.
It was a spectacular evening with a full moon. On our walk over, I stopped to get a picture of it hanging low in the sky just over the castle walls. When we arrived at the restaurant they asked if we wanted to sit outside or in. We decided to sit inside next to the large glass doors that were wide open to a balcony set with tables.
Let me start by telling you that our lack of planning turned into one of the BEST meals we’ve had in years. No kidding. The name “A Ver Tavira” translates to “See Tavira.” The reason for this is due to their location, which is on top of the same hill as the church. Tables on the covered balcony off the main dining room have stunning views over the city. Wow!! Naturally, having only called an hour before we were seated, we weren’t going get a balcony table, but sitting just inside the glass doors was nearly as lovely and allowed us to watch the moon ascend. This was the view we had across the balcony from our table.
Rather than choose the tasting menu, we decided to order a la carte. We started with a glass of Portuguese sparkling wine to go with our appetizers. However, before the chef even sent out the amuse bouche, we plowed through the bread and exquisite butter (both regular and truffle-infused) they brought to the table. I’m so disappointed I didn’t get a picture of the amuse bouche before we wolfed it down. It was beautifully presented and an explosion of flavor in a single bite. Our eyes flew open as we looked at each other and grinned from ear to ear. We knew we were in for a treat. Won selected the mackerel appetizer and I chose the salad. They were both masterpieces (note that they peeled my tomatoes)!
Rather than order a bottle of wine this time, we asked our server to choose wines by the glass on our behalf to accompany each of our main course selections. Won was having the Black Angus and I chose the mushroom risotto with pea shoots. Simply heaven.
Won finished his meal with an espresso and we both shared a selection of house-made gelatos: chocolate, plum, and vanilla. The entire meal came to €122,20. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the receipt. We were both amazed.
Now Won wants to move to Tavira just so we can eat at A Ver Tavira more often!! Did we sleep well that night? You bet! I suppose the fact that we had walked 11 kilometres that day, helped just a bit.
The next morning we headed to Barril beach in St. Luzia where an anchor graveyard is located. St. Luzia is known as the “capital of Polvo” (octopus), a local specialty. There is a fun train, the Pedras d’el Rei (King Stones) that runs to and from the parking area through the wetlands and out to the beach. You can also walk which takes about 20 minutes, and many do, but it’s so much more fun to ride which takes about 10 minutes. Two trains run simultaneously moving people back and forth. The cost for the train was €3,20 round trip per adult. The beach was really lovely, but unfortunately, there was a lot of seaweed in the water at the shoreline which was unappealing (maybe it was low tide?). We walked along the beach for a bit, learned more about the anchor graveyard and then headed back on the train to have lunch. The anchor graveyard ties back to the tuna fishing industry when the anchors were used to weigh down the nets. Some of the large anchors took 20 men to move!
Won was hoping to have lunch in St. Luzia at a place called Casa do Polvo (House of Octopus), which is famous for their octopus dishes, but when we drove by, there was a line out the door. Won was hungry and didn’t want to wait so we headed back to Tavira. We chose to have lunch at Gilão Restaurant right on the river front. Lunch was delicious and Won got his octopus (tempura style) and followed that up with a pork dish while I had fish. Did I mention the food in Portugal is amazing? Oh…yeah, maybe once or twice.
We spent the rest of the day wandering the town and stopping in to several cute stores. One that stood out was devoted entirely to cork. Everything in the store was made from it: shoes, hats, clothing, purses, belts, even umbrellas! Portugal is the center of the world’s cork business and has roughly 1.6 million acres of cork forests representing 30% of the world’s cork trees. Cork is very malleable, durable, and takes color stain very well. I purchased a sweet little mirror compact. Next time, I’m going to get those darling shoes in the window!
We also admired the beautiful azulejo tiles on the buildings. There are so many colors and patterns. The variations are endless. I must admit, after awhile I started feeling a little self conscious walking up to the side of a building and taking a picture of the wall.
On our way back to the hotel that afternoon, we took a different path and came across archaeological ruins that date from the 8th century BC through to the 18th century AD. The funny thing is, with all the research we did in advance, these ruins never even popped up. It was a total surprise to find them. I have since learned that the origins of Tavira date back to the late Bronze Age (1000-800 BC). In the 8th century BC it became one of the first Phoenician settlements in the Iberian West. The Phoenicians created a colonial urban center here with massive walls, at least two temples, and two harbors. Phoenician Tavira existed until the end of 6th century BC, when it was destroyed by conflict. Ha! The Roman and Moor periods of occupation seem like current events by comparison!
If stumbling upon ancient ruins wasn’t enough, literally two minutes later I spied the Camera Obscura attraction. Now, this was something we had researched and planned to do on our trip, but, when we got to Tavira we had so much to see, we completely forgot about it. If you don’t know what a Camera Obscura is or does, click here. The cost was €5,00 each. Our only regret is that we didn’t do it on our first day. It was incredibly informative and gives you a live, “bird’s eye view” of the entire town. Highly recommend!
On our last evening in the Algarve, we had finally learned our lesson and called early enough to get a reservation at O Castelo for dinner. It was such a lovely evening we sat out on the sidewalk to dine. After dinner we walked down the main street, which had been blocked to car traffic, and toward the center of town. Music was being piped in through speakers strategically placed on balconies along the way. It was lively with kids playing, couples strolling, and folks sipping espressos or dining on something sweet in the open cafes. The atmosphere was delightful!
The next morning we enjoyed our last breakfast in the cloisters before packing up and checking out. We had plans to stop at another coastal town on our drive home, but we were missing our pup and decided to go straight back to get her.
As it turns out, Sweet Pea was essentially at summer camp! She got to play in the water from the garden hose (one of her all time favorite things to do), romp with other dogs, go to the beach on several days (a new favorite), and play and nap the rest of the days in a large, shaded, fenced back yard. While we were on our road trip, Inés sent us multiple pictures and videos of Sweet Pea every day. It was obvious Sweet Pea was having a great time. When we picked her up, she was just like any other kid who had spent a week at summer camp – exhausted, in need of a bath, and super happy.
One thing is for sure, we are definitely going back to the Algarve – the challenge is, what town do we see next?!?! Once we figure it out, I promise to tell you all about it. Until then, please stay safe, stay healthy and stay in touch.
From Portugal with love,