The scent of orange blossoms in the air was intoxicating.
Low, rolling hills form the countryside around Tavira, making bike rides a delight. And while riding on the rural roads through the region, we could not help but enjoy the fresh, heady, and delightfully aromatic orange scents as we passed the numerous groves.
Besides the blossoms on the trees, the oranges were ripe as well. Flooding the markets, they afforded us a glass of fresh, squeezed OJ each morning. And in the orchards, the flowering fig and olive trees also looked to make bumper crops for this coming summer and fall.
Fish were likewise in good supply. The nearby town of Santa Luzia, 20 minutes by bike, specializes in octopus. Tenderized, diced, and cooked in garlic and olive oil, they are wonderful, served simply with new potatoes or rice. Further afield, a train trip to Olhāo, a town closer to Faro, showed some of the many varieties of fish available. One of its two covered, town market buildings is totally devoted to fish. Within it, fifty or so vendors have stalls brimming with shrimp, skates, eels, tuna, bream, mackerel, cod, fish roe, and all kinds of glistening and un-named fish, as well as the bacalhau, the salted cod. A second building, right next door, had the stalls bulging with fruits, vegetables, meats, and dried foods.
Just following our arrival was Semana Santa, Easter week. Tavira hosted a series of free concerts, as part of their Arte na Primavera series. Each was held in one of the town’s various fifteen or so small churches. We attended several: an organ and soprano concert of 15th to 17th century sacramental music; two guitarists playing fado music, and a soprano, accompanied by piano, who sung more current arias. With their intimate atmosphere and superb acoustics, these church venues provide an ideal setting for the small but appreciative crowds – a mix of Portuguese and expats - in attendance.
Another concert was to be jazz, held in a small park. When we arrived the band was setting up, complete with a serious sound system. Then, all of a sudden, they were taking things down. Apparently some city official came along and told them they could not play on Good Friday. The notification at the last minute seems strange since the concert had been on the calendar of events posted all over town. One of the quirks of Portuguese culture?
On Palm Sunday, we observed the town’s procession of the religious statues. Groups of men and women held the saints high, as they paraded through the town, on a route laid with lavender. It started at the square in front of the Church of Our Lady of Carmo.
There was a ‘holiday’ atmosphere as the spectators waited for the people carrying the statues to emerge from the church. A cart was doing brisk business selling ‘Farturas and Waffles’. Farturas are a long, donut-like deep-fried patisserie. Needless to say, the name, and then seeing them lying in the deep-fat fryer, turned us off trying them.
Our apartment is comfortable, spotless and substantial. It is well located, just 1 minute of the town square, on the east side of the small Rio Gilāo. We are surrounded by other apartments and houses, sited on narrow, angled streets; all either walking streets or with just one-way traffic. With a wall enclosing the back patio and just the living room window on the street, the lack of scenic views encourages us to get out and about; for lunches, cultural activities and an aperitif of local wine or beer before dinner.
The housing and apartment styles have not changed for years. In a local museums ‘Cubist’ painting and photos were featured; done in the 1920s and 30s by European artists visiting the region. They portrayed the two-and-three-storied, squared-off, whitewashed buildings so characteristic to the area. Perhaps the only modification has been the addition of lovely pale blue or green pattern tiles; facades fronting a number of the buildings.
Throughout the town, all the sidewalks are cobblestone; tiny squares of white and tan limestone, polished smooth by the years of feet. Even a number of the streets in the town’s old section are still cobblestone.
While Tavira has a long history, it was neither grandiose nor history-changing. Protected from the Atlantic behind a string of sand dune barrier islands, before the tourism, the Tavira people made their livelihood from fishing, and in the estuarine flats, the production of salt. In the 50s and 60s it was an important port for tuna. With these products, along with olives, fruits and vegetables, they supplied the ships which sailed along this southern reach of Portugal. Their products were traded further afield or for the various navies entering and leaving the Mediterranean, or later venturing forth to the western European coast, the Americas, or around the world.
As evidence of Tavira’s history, daily we walk across the Roman-era bridge. And, on the hill across the river, we can see the fortress built by the Arabs when they ousted the Romans. Most of the churches were built in the 13th to 17th centuries. From historic photographs, we can see that the centre of town, that running along the estuarine river, has changed little over the years; perhaps a few more tourist restaurants and gift shops, and a few less fishing nets spread out to dry or be repaired. The influx of mostly European expats, due to the pleasant climate and low cost of living, has pushed the town outward. Now apartments, modern housing blocks, large supermarkets and department stores, and sports fields, take up what previously were agricultural fields and orchards.
Nonetheless, Tavira is still small by some Algarve standards, at only 13,000 population. And thankfully, there are no rows of high-rise apartments and hotels hogging the views and shutting out the sunlight.
One link to Tavira is the couple who own the apartment we are renting. Recently we met them for coffee in the patisserie/bakery/café across the street.
Speaking in a mix of English, French and Portuguese, and using the maps on their phones and notes on napkins, they introduced us to some of the nearby sites and history of the Algarve and Portugal.
Coincidentally, I had just been on a bike ride near the town where they live and seen a cork factory and marble quarry. Inquiring about them, they told us that at one time the cork production in the Algarve – for wine corks to flooring, handbags and shoes - was the most important in all of Portugal. Additionally, our host’s father had worked in the quarry. But currently, with marble prices depressed, the cutting the processing of the marble at the factory had slowed down.
They mentioned that the Algarve, compared to other areas in Portugal, is doing much better economically. This is due the influx of tourists, for both short and long term stays, as well as the general mix of Europeans and other visitors creating more businesses.
Most of the spots they suggested visiting were accessible on our bikes, including the venue for a well-known fado singer in a town only 4 kilometres away. However, with him starting at 10 PM, even taking a taxi didn’t sound that appealing.