Surrounded by green fields studded with almond trees, the photogenic town of Tavira is one of the most attractive places in the Eastern Algarve.
Standing on two hills either side of the River Gilão, which is crossed by a delightful seven-arched Roman bridge located in the centre of town, Tavira lies at the heart of the Sotavento, a rich, unspoiled agricultural belt where the pace of life is quintessentially Portuguese and the countryside abounds with natural beauty.
Tavira was taken from the Moors in 1242 by Dom Paio Peres Correia in revenge for the massacre of seven Christian knights. His tomb and those of his knights now lie in the local church of Santa Maria.
In early spring, visitors to this part of Portugal can marvel at the vast mimosa forests and acacia bushes which at that time of year are ablaze with white and yellow foliage. The local countryside is also populated by a wide variety of wildlife, including civet cat, wild boar and rare birds.
Tavira is flanked by the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve which stretches from Quinta do Lago to Manta Rota close to the Spanish border. In the fertile valleys extending west of the town, carob trees grow very large while countless orange groves typically yield a bountiful harvest.
Some of the older houses on the east bank of the River Gilão have curiously latticed windows of great charm, while one of the more notable features of architectural interest are the Pombaline rooftops – four-sided roofs sloping more steeply than usual with laced chimneys shaped like towers.
Lined with 18th-century houses topped by pyramidal Roman-tiled roofs, Tavira was one of the most important Moorish settlements in the region, along with Silves and Faro. The town’s proximity to the Moroccan coast certainly bolstered its importance and in 1282 it was formally recognised by King Dinis who gave its seamen equal rights to those of Lisbon.
By the 15th century, it had become a commercial port of considerable size and wealth with as many as seventy merchant ships moored in its harbour at any one time taking on wine, fish and salt for export to Africa and north-western Europe. Tavira later received its charter in 1520 after having become one of the largest ports in the Algarve.
The best view of Tavira is from the walls of its old Moorish castle, which rises out of a cluster of houses and gardens. Behind the castle is the church of Santa Maria do Castelo, traditionally built on the site of a mosque.
One of the focal points of Tavira is the Praça da República, a picturesque town square lined with palm trees on the west bank of the River Gilão.
A plaque on the town’s famous Roman bridge marks the point where a Castillian invasion was halted in the 14th century when the valiant residents of Tavira and Faro repelled the forces of King Juan I.
Worth seeing is the church of the Misericórdia which boasts a fine Renaissance door, some exquisite 18th-century azulejo tiles and a beautifully-carved high altar.
The interior of the church of São Sebastião has paintings depicting the lives of Jesus and Mary, while on the other side of the same square the church of Santo António features a life-size tableau of angels and saints attending the funeral of St Anthony.
Salt has been produced in the Tavira district for over two thousand years in the same time-honoured fashion. Seawater flows into large rectangular-shaped evaporation pans located in the town’s outskirts and impurities such as sand sink to the bottom, leaving clear seawater composed of about 3 per cent salt which then evaporates in the hot Algarve sun to leave the much sought-after salt deposits.
Without doubt one of the most idyllic beach settings in the whole of southern Europe, the fine white sands of Ilha da Tavira stretch for eleven kilometres and are easily reached by ferry from the jetty situated 2 km south of the town centre. A campsite caters for visitors who want to recharge their batteries and stay a while.