You're rarely more than a few minutes from a church or cake shop in any town in Portugal, but lovely Tavira in the Eastern Algarve takes the biscuit! Culture, cake, or a bit of both- it's your choice.
Tavira, a charming riverside town at the quieter end of the Algarve, boasts more than its fair share of churches. In fact the number of churches is probably only exceeded by the number of pastelaria - cake shops to you and me. So it's a great place to combine culture and gluttony - consume the calories then enjoy burning them off.
Start out at the Ponte Romana, the Roman Bridge, for one of the best views in Tavira. Nearby Tavira Romana’s pavement cafe is just the place to fortify yourself, on the town's main square, Praca da Republica. It’s hard to choose, but my favourites are the fig and almond ice-cream and the almond topped tarts.
Time to burn a few calories - from the Praca da Republica head up the steps and through Porta de Dom Manuel, the town gate. Directly ahead you will see the Igreja da Misericordia. The graceful façade was finished in 1551 but it is the interior that astounds, with beautiful blue and white tiled panels (azulejos) depicting the life of Christ.
Next, turn right and continue upwards to the Palacio da Galeria, a building on a grand scale, now used to host exhibitions. Step inside to see visible remains of Roman Tavira through glass panels in the floor, while excavation continues at the rear. Pause to admire the view out over the characteristic tessoura tiled rooftops then continue upwards to Igreja da Santa Maria.
Santa Maria dates from the 13th century - the site of a former mosque, it holds the tombs of seven Christian knights killed by the Moors. Like many of Tavira’s churches it was badly damaged by the earthquake of 1755 and rebuilt, in the Gothic style, by an Italian architect. Relax in the beautiful gardens of the medieval castle on the same square. Refreshments are available at the café by the old Water Tower, but the main attraction is the camera obscura, for an upside down look at Tavira.
Downhill again now, though you might want to try the lunchtime special at A Ver (the view) first. It's probably the best time to try out "fine dining" without paying over the odds, and there's no doubting the fineness of that view- Tel. 281 381 363. (If you struggle with hills you can still make it up here on the miniature train, which runs around town. It stops just outside the castle walls)
Our next church, Igreja de Santiago with its Baroque splendour, is easily reached down the steps of Calcada dos Sete Cavaleiros ( Lane of the 7 Knights). From here, a left down Rua D. Paio Peres Correia will bring you back to the main street, Rua da Liberdade, just by the Post Office. If you just want more cake then Casa dos Bules - literally "cake shop" - at 33 Rua da Liberdade will do the job very nicely (281 324 346).
Time for another church? Nossa Senhora de Consolacao is a tiny place of repose on Rua de Liberdade, or take Rua Tenente Couto to your left. Across a green square, Praca Zacarias Guerreiro, two churches face each other - Sao Jose do Hospital, with its trompe l’oeil altarpiece, and Sao Francisco, a monastery from 13th century whose foundation was attributed to the Knights Templar. After two earthquakes, 1722 and 1755, partial collapse in 1843 and a fire in 1881 it is amazing that anything remains. Even if you cannot gain entry to the church its gardens are a pleasure and a lovely tranquil spot. The public cemetery until 1918, old coats of arms and tombstones blend with hibiscus and bougainvillea. Leave the garden by the opposite entrance and turn left towards the Atalaia Barracks, another impressive building, where the troops regularly recline on the roof terrace. A left down Rua 25 de Abril then right onto Rua D. Marcelino Franco brings you back into café territory.
Pastelaria Tavirense at no 17 on this square is a well established cake shop with lots of choice, though relatively expensive. You might prefer freshly squeezed orange juice from the open air kiosk and to sit on a shady bench overlooking Nossa Senhora das Ondas - Our Lady of the Waves. It’s currently being renovated and I can't wait to see the results. Just around the corner you are back on the riverfront where the choice of cafes is staggering. From Bar Gilao in the covered market to Muxagata, the ice cream kiosk, everywhere you look is temptation.
Cross over the River Gilao next - whichever bridge, it doesn’t really matter - the views are all lovely. Pass through Rua 5 de Outubro without hovering over the chocolate selection in Ex Libris if you can. Praca Dr Antonio Padinha is one of Tavira's prettiest squares, and is dominated by Sao Paulo, built in the shape of a Latin Cross. At Cafe Nicola, the bread specialist on the corner, you can buy very good value bread or cakes, to eat in or out.
Uphill again now on the Rua Corujeira Pequena to the Sao Bras chapel. I first spotted this church on a festival day when the gardens were festooned with handmade paper flowers - an enchanting sight. Continuing to the right, the stately Carmo Church is in the oldest and highest part of town. A superb example of rococo art and gilded altarpieces are revealed inside. The large courtyard is the venue for free concerts in summer.
Finally head downhill back to the river, passing the church with the prettiest facade in Tavira, Nossa Senhora do Livramento. A glass of port at Anazu on Rua Jaques Pessoa - the friendliest of cafes - is my preferred way of waiting for that magical moment, sunset. Spotlights come on above the Misericordia and the bell towers throughout the town acquire a gentle green glow.
The churches are mostly open in the mornings or from mid-afternoon. My advice, if it's open go in. They're a little unpredictable - it's part of their charm. The Tavira Tours book, usually free from Tourist Information on Praca da Republica, will help. The cake shops abound. Most are heavy on the almonds and marzipan, few will cost more than a couple of euros with coffee. I have included a Google map with a few more options: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps/ms?hl=en&ie=UTF8&msa=0&msid=103080027103035628230.000485c84fb6a26347663&z=16.
Where to stay
I am a big fan of the pousadas - state owned hotels, which preserve the national heritage. They are elegant and stylish. I watched the Convento de Graca Pousada Tavira being lovingly converted over a number of years and was delighted with the result. The cloisters are beautiful. Not normally a cheap option, you can often get a promotion which will give you a good deal, especially if one of you is over 55 - see www.pousadasofportugal.com. Otherwise expect to pay up to 200 euros per night for a double.
My favourite hotel is the Hotel Vila Gale Albacora. I love the location and often pop in, just to sit on the pool terrace with a drink. If you like boats this one is for you - the hotel has its own for transport to Tavira Island's lovely beach or into town. The video link on the website www.vilagale.pt will give you a good idea what to expect. Not for you if you like to be in the centre of things - double rooms from 60 euros per night.
If you don't mind staying out of town and hiring a car, Fazenda Nova could be for you. Recommended by the Sunday Times, this 10-bedroomed boutique hotel specialises in gourmet food and highly personalised service. See for yourself. www.fazendanova.eu