Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tavira, Portugal - Sun, Surf, Sand and a short trip to Spain

boats at the waterfront in Cabanas
Hauke and I took the train from Faro to Tavira, 30km east, around midday. It only cost a couple of euros, so I was expecting the same level of service as I experienced in Sicily, but apart from the trains being several decades older than the majority of others in western europe it was great, having an actual timetable and sticking to it!

Tapas on our balcony in Tavira
Tavira is a smaller town, of around 10 000. Unlike Faro, its a small, sleepy town, with no big office buildings and a smaller amount of tourism. I found it much more beautiful than Faro, with old Moorish architecture and castle ruins perched on a hill that gives an amazing view of the town. After lunch at a cafe, we headed to Viva Rio to check in, a new guesthouse on the riverbank with cheap but really nice rooms with a bathtub that I made the most of, our own balcony, and a bigger rooftop balcony with a great view - I really recommend the place!

Me and Hauke on the beach in Ilha de Tavira
The best beaches near Tavira are located on islands a little out at sea past sea pans, so after dumping our stuff we took the ferry to Ilha de Tavira, which is claimed to be one of the best beaches in the Algarve. There are some tiny houses, built in the early 1940s there, and a bunch of restuarants and bars. It was later in the afternoon when we arrived, and I did have sunscreen on, but I still managed to fall asleep and get badly burnt. After a quick mojito, we headed back to the village and spent the rest of the evening enjoying tapas and wine on the rooftop watching the sun go down. Unfortunately, my level of discomfort increased to the point where sitting was painful and after the sun went down I ended up back inside lying facedown with the airconditioning system pointed at my back begging for more applications of aftersun every ten minutes of so!

Old church in Tavira
The following morning was Hauke's birthday so I headed out early to grab food for breakfast, and after deciding to go to the next town over, Cabanas, to reach the Ilha de Cabanas, we killed some time waiting for the bus by exploring the old section of the town on the hill next to our hotel. There is a couple of beautiful old church, a freshly painted convent and many amazing houses on steep lanes or small plazas, but the most incredible is the castle ruins. There is a section of walls still standing, with a beautiful garden planted inside. From there, you can climb up, walk around the walls and have an amazing view from the towers.

Ilha de Cabanas
After a quick beer, we headed to Cabanas, a small village just 7km away. While originally a tiny fishing village, it has been recently developed for tourism, with a new broad walk along the harbour and big resort hotel buildings along the shore. We took a boat to the Ilha de Cabanas only a couple of hundred metres away. This was one of my favorite beaches in Portugal, with raised wooden bridges leading up to a restaurant perched on the top of the island, and down to the main beach on the other side. I was much more liberal with the sunscreen this day, and we had a great time - I'm jealous that I've never got to spend my own birthday lying on the beach!

Tavira by night
For dinner we headed to A Ver Tavira, an upmarket restaurant next to the castle ruins, where we could again pass the evening sitting on a balcony watching the sun set over Tavira. I attempted to surprize and embarrass Hauke by getting the wait staff to stick a candle in his desert but failed by talking too loudly! But it was a nice meal, and we finished the day off with a walk around the city by night, and a few more glasses of wine back at the hotel. Its definitely convinced me to head away for another trip on my own birthday next year!

Convent in Tavira
After talking to a couple at our guesthouse, we decided to take the train east along the coast to Vila Real de Santo Antonio, a town of about 18 000 on the river that is the border between Portugal and Spain, and cross over by ferry into the spanish town of Ayamonte. They'd assured us that both were beautiful, but I'm not sure what they saw in Vila Real - being founded in the 1700s it doesn't have the amazing architecture that Faro and Tavira possess, and has been in decline for the last 50 years. We walked down the main shopping street of stores selling mass-produced straw hats and baskets and cheap chinese plastic crap and past an uninteresting town square to the harbour without spotting anything worthy of interest, and we both grumbled when we had to wait quite a bit for the next ferry, as there really was nothing more to see to kill time.

Main square in Ayamonte
Ayamonte however, was a different story. This town is a similar size, but is much older and still has a beautiful medieval old town with the narrow alleyways that I love! The town square, and many other areas, are filled with palm trees and seats covered in brightly coloured and intricately designed ceramic tiles. We walked around for a while, checking out some old churches and monuments, and stopped in the city zoo to eat a picnic lunch accompanied by the spanish Shandy beer that I had missed so much! Being able to talk Spanish again for a day was great, it was kind of infuriating listening to Portuguese, as it sounded so similar but I could only understand snatches of what was being said. The whole town was dead during siesta time, so we walked up the hill in the scorching heat to yet another church, and were rewarded by an amazing view over the little town, and across the river to Vila Real and Portugal.

Me in Ayamonte
You can notice the difference between the whitewashed walls of the more moorish-influenced southern Portugal, with the bright colours of southern Spain, although the colours of both countries seemed to stand out a lot more against the amazing blue sky and sunlight of the South compared to back in western Europe, and I took a lot of photos of little architectural details - having not had amazing experiences in Spain before, it was great to visit such a beautiful place and have such a nice day. Finally, after one last beer it was time to take the ferry back to Portugal, grab our things from the hotel in Tavira, and head back to Faro for another two nights.

More photos of Tavira are here, and of Ayamonte here.

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