Some search for the perfect place for their next chapter and then, once settled, head off to discover everything about their new surroundings – the opportunity to adventure is always there. Right now, get to know the treasure that is Tavira

Given the choice, we usually lay our roots in a place that fulfills most of our needs, be it a bustling city or a quiet country hamlet. Having done a bit of both, something in-between seemed to be the perfect antidote to an unexpected early retirement.

Tavira ticked the boxes, mostly because of its authenticity, fascinating history, colourful café culture and pristine spacious sandy beaches. Clearly, the obvious attractions are what you first hold onto and flaunt when visitors come calling – the 30-something churches (although I’ve never counted), the castle, the winding cobbled streets, the Moorish/Roman bridge, the salt pans and the tidal River Gilao which takes you to Tavira Island beach.

All this I still love, but scratch just below the surface and a city begins to reveal its true soul. I’ve discovered an understated artistic flair, a keen culinary revival, a taste for the traditional and a playful spirit – all enveloped in a strong sense of community.

So, these are a few of my favourite (and mostly, until now, somewhat secret) things.

The 11th century castle with its Moorish and Christian ancestry is where most tourists get a bird’s eye view of enchanting Tavira, but many miss the walk down past the archeological diggings, which perfectly represent the turbulent history of this fabled town.

If you exit the castle walls (because that’s all that really remains) and turn right onto Rua D. Paio Peres Correia, you’ll find yourself in an alley way that takes you past the excavation believed to be the medieval residence of the noble Corte-Real family.

Famous for its involvement in the maritime discoveries during the golden Age of Exploration, the family came from Tavira and lived here in the 15th and 16th centuries (AD). Underneath the Corte-Real manor, were also found a Phoenician wall (8th century BC) and Turdetonian layers, including an ox hide-shaped alter (4th century BC) and Islamic residential structures (12th and 13th century AD).

Then finding yourself on the Praca da Republica with its cafes and pretty gardens, cross the River Gilao via the pedestrian Moorish Bridge (although the locals still insist on calling it the Roman Bridge) and wander through the little alleys, where amongst the ubiquitous tourist trinket shops, under an arch of bougainvillea, you’ll find my favourite Kozii shop.

I might not always be able to buy, but browsing is just as inspiring as this brand is all about “honesty and sustainability”, unique and truly local. Kozii began its life in Tavira in 2015 as the vision of Cecilia and her partner Nuno, both of whom aspire to deliver “slow fashion in organic cottons, modal, silk, cashmere and other natural eco-friendly fibers”.

If you’re hunting down the perfect locally-made gift Kozii offers everything from jewellery to clothing and home textiles, all in exclusive prints.

A little stroll down the road and you’ll pop out on Rua Almirante Candido dos Reis, almost straight into the doorway of the quaint Berker Bazar shop. Unlike so many of the tourist-trap stores, this little hidey-hole stocks a thoughtful range of leather bags and belts, kilims, stained glass lamps and hand-painted crockery.

If it’s a different kind of art you’re after Tavira D’artes Gallery at TV. Jacques Pessoa 8 (8800-374) is a gem, showcasing around 17 local, Portuguese and international contemporary artists.

Featuring paintings, photography and sculptures, Tavira D’artes is all about making art accessible and affordable, rather than elitist. A little like the town itself.

A little walk away, across the road from my favourite church, Ermida de Sao Sebastiao, is Artina at Campo Martires da Republica 8800-378, an Aladdin’s cave of everything arty and crafty. Besides being the best picture framers in town, the shop offers extensive art supplies; a large range of fabrics, wools, zips and buttons; everything hobbyist and some beautiful home-grown gifts, from porcelain pottery to paintings and more.

Talking beaches, Tavira Island is obviously a favourite as it includes a ferry ride, which adds to the attraction of an adventurous family day out. However, if you’re a local and want to miss the crowds, there’s a little stretch of paradise colloquially known as “the poor beach”. Its real name is Praia dos Tesos and its on the banks of the Ria Formosa across the way from the Praia de Tavira ferry landing.

Access to this beach near the historical Forte do Rato is by car or bike, as it is quite a walk from Tavira town, especially on a hot summer’s day. Its beauty is that it’s sheltered, with warmer and calmer water, ideal for kids and not-so-mobile people. You can also take your dogs and it rarely gets very busy. But take a picnic, as there are no shops or restaurants nearby.

No Tavira tale would be complete without at least some mention of food. There are literally hundreds of snack bars, coffee shops and restaurants, very few of which disappoint if you want simple, tasty and traditional food. I wouldn’t dare single out any, except to say that almost hidden on top of the hill near the Castelo is the city’s one and only Michelin-star restaurant.

A Ver Tavira, 13 Calcada da Galeria, 8800-306, is the love child of chef Luis Brito and sommelier and hostess Clauda Abrantes. Their Michelin star (earned and kept over several years) pays homage to the couple’s goal to provide “the perfect experience”, from the sweeping city views to the contemporary take on traditional cuisine with two tasting menus and a wine pairing. For a special occasion it doesn’t get any better than this.

On the other end of the scale, if you like cooking yourself and want that extra special zing that only organic vegetables bring, look no further than the Maria Flaminga Organic Farm (down the lane from the Aldi supermarket on the N125 and away from the bustle of the local market.)

Offering a huge range of seasonal organic produce, this no-nonsense farm stall is my go-to for everything from veggies and herbs to just-laid eggs. There’s something soulful about filling up your basket with fresh farm-to-table produce.

One last suggestion, try to catch a sunset over the River Gilao at least once. It won’t be your last.

In our March issue we have included the popular sites that are on every tourist’s checklist. Secrets they are not, but definitely worth seeing if they are new to you.

Words: Debbie Reynolds

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