On Portugal's Algarve coast, pretty Tavira is a place to stroll around, sit at waterside cafes, eat pastries and watch the boats bob. It's also holiday heaven for beach-lovers.
Tavira, in the eastern Algarve, is a beautiful small town at the mouth of the river Gilao, just 20 minutes by car from the Spanish border. The riverfront is lined with cafes and restaurants,small shops and houses, many of them attractively tiled to keep the buildings cool in the heat of summer. The town rises gently on either side of the river, and a wander upwards to the remains of the castle walls and pretty enclosed garden will reward you with views out to the saltpans, across the red-tiled distinctive tessoura roofs typical of this part of the Algarve.
Back down the hill stands the Igreja da Misericordia, one of more than 20 churches in Tavira, many of which are graced with beautiful azulejo panels and pretty bell towers, mysteriously green-lit by night. On Saturdays throughout the summer, free hour-long evening concerts take place here at 7pm - an opportunity to rest your feet and admire your surroundings.
Tavira is big on free entertainment. In the Praça da Republica, the main town square, I have seen everything from fire-eaters and parades of mounted caballeros to ballroom dancing and concert orchestras during the six-week long summer programme. Real excitement hits the town in May with a Harley Davidson parade and aeronautic display. It's one not to miss. An evening stroll across the Roman bridge and through the riverside gardens is a more sedate pleasure.
Out and about
Where Tavira really comes into its own is when you take to the water. One of my favourite ways to see this lovely place is on a boat trip out to the Ria Formosa, birdwatching or just enjoying the view. From July to September, you have a good chance of seeing flamingos. The direction the boat takes will depend on the wind and tides, so if you have a preference you should ask - the skipper is very accommodating. His leaflets are on display at the quayside.
The main beach on Ilha de Tavira is also accessed by a boat ride and is a 5km swathe of glorious sand. In summer, mid-May to September, the ferry leaves the quayside at regular intervals, and year-round a short drive through the salt pans to Quatro Aguas will bring you to a shorter ferry crossing. The restaurant Quatro Aguas specialises in flambéed red shrimp, but it's the views hereabouts that are really special. If you don't have transport, you can get here on the little green train, which first makes a circuit of the town. It leaves from outside Anazu on the left bank of the river - friendly staff and great views make this a favourite spot for a glass of port in the evenings. This is good biking terrain, and bikes can be hired (canoes, too!) just a couple of doors down from Anazu. A cycle track through the Ria Formosa extends almost the full length of the Algarve.
A short ride to the west of Tavira brings you to the pretty village of Santa Luzia. Another ferry crossing to Tavira Island can be made from here, but if you're not a beach person, this is a great place for a seafood lunch. Restaurant O Capelo sits plumb in the middle of the front street and the food is as good as the location. At Casa do Polvo ( Av. Eng. Duarte Pacheco no.8- tel.00 351 281 328 527) you can sample locally caught octopus cooked in an impressive variety of ways. I'm not really an octopus fan but I recently attended a brilliant Fado evening with a 5 course set menu for 17euros. Among the appetisers were a couple of octopus based savouries and they were quite tasty. I also had the best creamy bacalhau I've tasted in quite some time.
On towards the salt marshes, you will reach Pedras del Rei, a tourist complex of small white villas. From here, when the tide's in, you can almost "walk on water" - over swaying pontoons to catch a small red diesel train across the Ilha's widest point to the beach at Barril. It's a good spot for a hot day, as there's usually a breeze here, and the beach bar is a fine retreat for a good range of snacks and salads. I love the crab and kiwi fruit, while my husband will always go for a tuna salad. A regular bus service operates from the bus station on the riverfront, just below the castle.
Where to stay and eat
Back in Tavira, Shell Beach, as it's known by the locals, is out by my favourite hotel, the Vila Gale Albacora. The hotel has beautiful grounds and a fine swimming pool, and is the perfect setting for the t'ai chi classes regularly conducted here. It is a little out of the way, but it operates a bus transfer to the centre, and has its own boat for trips to the island or into town - a stylish way to travel. The shoreline here is a good place to idle and watch the comings and goings of the ferries and myriad small craft.
An inexpensive and central option is the Hotel Porta Nova. Perched on a hill, its sun terraces and pool have a wonderful outlook over the rooftops and marshes to the sea beyond. With more money to spend, you would have to opt for the pousada - the Convento da Graca. This is a wonderful convent renovation, with stunning cloisters. You can dine well here, with the fountains for company, or, if you prefer, inside the restaurant, with its impressive wooden ceilings. Close by, A Ver (literally "the view"; Calçada da Galeria 13) is another fine dining opportunity, with beautiful modern decor.
Finally, a real treat for the senses, the 18th century country house hotel, Monte do Casal, near to Estoi, has lovely romantic grounds and spa if you're feeling the need for indulgence.
Don't be afraid, though, to sample some of the smaller local bars and restaurants back from the riverfront. The Portuguese love good food and sweet sticky pastries, and your money will go a lot further here. O Xico (Rua Alvaro de Campos) is my regular haunt, seduced by the salmon whenever it's on the menu.. After a stroll you might have space for a luscious cake or icecream at Tavira Romana, by the Roman Bridge, or do like the Portuguese, with a cone from Muxagata in the riverside gardens.
So you see, Tavira has something to tempt most people - and if you fall in love with it, as I did, you might just have to keep coming back for more.