VILA REAL DE SANTO ANTÓNIO (aka Vila Real) is a pleasant border town, the terminus for the trans-Algarve railway line. The ferry across the Guadiana from here to Ayamonte is still the most fun way to cross the border, but the construction of a modern road bridge just north of the town in the 1990s greatly affected the town’s former role as the Algarve’s main access point to Spain. Nevertheless, it’s still an interesting place to spend a few hours, exploring a central grid of streets that radiates out from a handsome main square, Praça Marquês de Pombal, ringed by orange trees, low, white buildings and pleasant outdoor cafés. The square is named after the king’s minister, who helped rebuild the original town after it was destroyed in a tsunami following the 1755 earthquake. Indeed the grid plan, built in 1774, is very similar to that of Lisbon’s Baixa.
On the north side of the square, Rua Teófilo Braga, the pedestrianized main drag, leads inland from the riverfront Avenida da República to the Centro Cultural António Aleixo, the town’s former market building now used as an innovative space for temporary exhibits and the occasional film. The streets surrounding the cultural centre have a certain low-key charm, bristling with linen shops, electrical retailers and grocers, while the riverside gardens offer fine views across to the splash of white that is Ayamonte in Spain.