Thursday, 26 October 2017

Tavira, exceedingly Portuguese.

If you attempted to extract 'essence of Portugal' from our guidebook by choosing its most clichéd phrases and stereotypical photos perhaps the list might include, 'palm shaded squares', 'tangled alleys', 'terracotta tiles roofscapes', 'tile-clad pasteleria', 'the haunting sound of fado drifting from a shadowy café. I could go on (the guidebook does) - about 'gleaming white palacios with rococo facades piped like sugar craft'.... But to come up with such a list you would need to filch a phrase from the chapter on Lisbon, a bit about Porto's azulejo and a snippet from the effusive entry on Nazaré's ancient centre, and even then a suspicion would grow that the authors had gilded the lily somewhat.

Astonishingly, we clocked up the entire checklist in less than two hours wandering around Tavira. Perhaps you suspect that I too am exaggerating, but I have the photographs to prove it. However, before we reveal the delights of instant Portugal a note about transport. 

Camping Ria Formosa is a five minute walk from the station. Confusingly although we are in Cabanas, the station is called Conceição, which is impossible to pronounce without a smattering of Portuguese, which we lack. Tavira is two stops down the line, however the first stop, Porta Nuova, is actually closer to the old town.

A small gaggle of us gathered on the platform at 13:00, blissfully unaware that the timetable given to us by reception was provided purely for purposes of reassurance and had no relation whatsoever to actuality. Luckily, as the appointed time came and went we all could watch with growing fascination three distant figures, dressed in hi-res vests, approaching from down the track haltingly. It was only after some minutes that the reason for their intermittent progress became clear. Two of the young men were clutching six foot white calibrated poles, while the third lugged a hi-tech theodolite perched atop a yellow tripod. Checking that the tracks have not become hillier overnight is clearly top priority in Portuguese railway management circles, more important than punctuality, and probably easier to maintain.

Now the much anticipated express was not merely a tad late, but somewhat delayed. The handsome surveyors moved on, boredom set in and we both started taking random photos of interesting design features to be found in rural Portuguese railway halts.

Ping! went the nearby level crossing. The barber-pole barriers lowered and moments later an ancient diesel, liveried in shabby chic blue squeaked and clanked arounded the bend. It was so old that even the graffiti had faded. Alighting, we stepped from blinding sunlight to a yellowy penumbral gloom; the carriage windows had not been washed for a decade or two. However the conductor was cheerful and boasted a beautifully handcrafted leather money pouch and proper ticket machine. No contactless here.

We reached our stop in a matter of minutes and  soon walked to Tavira's famous Roman Bridge. It's called the Roman Bridge, but in fact there is evidence that its abutments may even be older, of Carthaginian or Greek construction.

The settlement itself is even older. Archaeological evidence from the castle area suggests that this hill above the estuary of the river Gilão has been occupied continuously since the Neolithic era.  People have lived a continuous settled existence here for more than 6000 years, an astonishing statistic.

Anyway, back to the claim that Tavira can provide total Portugal in an afternoon...

1. Palm Shaded Squares

This particular palm shaded square by the river out-hipstered our Lonely Planet by having cool live Bossa Nova drifting across it from a mysterious source.

Well, not wholly mysterious as it turned out, the guitarist was hidden behind a kiosk...he was very good.

2. Tangled Alleys

3. Terracotta tiled roofscapes

The best place to admire the undulating roofscapes is from the vantage point of Tavira's ruined castle. A couple of added bonuses thrown-in. Firstly, entry is free. Secondly it has a pretty garden full of exotic plants.

Including this one from Central America called Angel's Trumpet. It's deadly poisonous apparently and should have warning notices next to it.

4. Tile-clad Pasteleria...

OK, point taken, our venerable pasteleria lacked tiles, but crispy almond cake was a divine concotion and solace enough for any weary traveller pining for azulejo.

5. 'the haunting sound of fado drifting from a shadowy café.

It's true, the haunting sound of Fado did fill this flower decked street as we walked through.

6. 'gleaming white palacios with rococo facades piped like sugar craft'

Yes, I realise it's Renaissance not Rococo, but it does gleam and the twiddly bits do look like piped icing sugar,

Of course it is a fanciful, preposterous claim that one small town could ever contain the highlights of an entire country. Tavira makes a good stab at it -  an alluring place.

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