Having made the comparison in my last blog between Tavira in the Eastern Algarve and the lovely city of Durham, it must be time to introduce you properly to Tavira. At this time of year we rush towards Christmas but, when the cold nips and the nights are dark, I can’t help longing for the skyline that I love.
I first arrived in Tavira on an October day when the streets were full of puddles. Blue sky peeped around the fluffy white clouds, but I had eyes only for the buildings. Rainbow coloured tiles washed their faces, and I had my first introduction to the azulejo- a blue and white tile used throughout Portugal for telling a story. And I do love a good story.
Parking and the one way system wasn’t easy for a newcomer but we found a space by the Igreja do Carmo, the mother church, and happily abandoned the car. The cobbled streets wander erratically down to the river. Gardens line both riverbanks, and across the River Gilao a tempting panorama of churches and castle walls awaits. Two bridges provide easy access- one to admire the other from, with Ponte Romana effortlessly winning the beauty contest.
Off the main square, Praca da Republica, steps lead up to Igreja da Misericordia (Church of Mercy). Here I was to discover the power of the azulejo. The life of Christ and Works of Mercy are depicted in blue and white panels on the walls. Our Lady of Mercy looks down from above the imposing main entrance.
On up the steep steps, I pause to admire the fine building that is the Palacio da Galeria. Stepping inside I am entranced to discover that I can see through glass plates, down to the foundations. To the rear, excavation continues slowly into Tavira’s history. Restoration has created a beautiful museum, with sloping wooden ceilings.
Just a little further up and you can rest in the gardens within the remains of the Castle walls. A peaceful spot, the views from here out over the river mouth and the salt marshes are lovely. The traditionally styled tessoura roofs are everywhere below. Opposite the gardens another church, Santa Maria, contains the tomb of Dom Paio Peres Correia and the seven knights for whom he took back the town from the Moors in 1242. The town had been ruled from Moorish Cordoba since 711 but the treacherous murder of his knights during a time of truce provoked Dom Paio. Much of the town was destroyed during the conflict, and the church of Santa Maria was built on the site of the razed Mosque.
The name Tavira is thought to be derived from Arabic tabira, “the hidden”, but its history is long, dating back to the Late Bronze Age. It was one of the first Phoenician settlements on the Iberian Peninsula and later the Romans built a port nearby. The 17th century was a boom time for trade; salt, dried fish and wine were shipped. The massive earthquake of 1755 destroyed much of the town, which was largely rebuilt in the 18th century, including the Misericordia church.
Behind the Santa Maria, the landmark water tower has been converted for use as a Camera obscura. On sunny days it is quite amusing to look up at the ceiling to view all of Tavira reflected there. The charge is small and refreshments can be taken while you wait your turn. Much grander refreshment is available at nearby restaurant A Ver, “the view”. Outside tables provide one of Tavira’s finest, but at a cost. The lunchtime menu is more reasonable, if you can’t resist the experience.
Conversion of fine buildings is almost a compulsion in Tavira and I watched with immense pride the reconstruction of the Convento de Graca, now a pousada– a state owned hotel. The cloisters are stunning and it’s a place I would love to stay if I didn’t have a home here.
I can wander for hours in the back streets, noticing the detail on different buildings and choosing from the endless supply of pastelaria, the cafes the Portuguese love so much. Almost all of the cakes are almond based and sticky sweet, delicious with a bica, the small strong hit of coffee. My favourite remains the traditional pastel de nata, the custard tart- I was hooked from that very first bite.
Tavira repays wandering, with many peaceful small squares and unpredictable buildings: the Military Quarter on Rua do Poeta, with its soldiers reclining on the roof and the immaculate parade ground within; the new library with its designer-look corten steel wall; the old Mercado beside the river, now home to restaurants and shops and quirky exhibitions. Most of all, the numerous churches, each so different in character. These days I regard it a personal triumph if I can find open a church that I have not been inside. The opening hours are somewhat unpredictable. Another lovely place to linger with a book, or just to sit – the gardens of the Igreja de Sao Francisco, off Praca Zacarias Guerreiro.
Always, as evening descends, I’m drawn back to the waterfront, stilled from the bustle of the day. Seated outside our old friend, café Anazu, many evenings have come and gone, watching the swifts dart about, and sipping at a port wine. It isn’t easy to do justice to this place, and the calm I feel on my return. Nor have I yet mentioned Tavira Island and our numerous boat trips, for they are the subject of a different blog. To be fair, I suspect that the more northerly Tomar with its winding river and Convento, of which I have already written in Festa dos Tabuleiros, is a better comparison with Durham. Nao faz mal as they say in Portugal- it doesn’t really matter.