The bustling west-bank city of Vila Franca de Xira, 45km downriver from Santarém, makes a rival claim to be the capital of the Ribatejo, but it’s a poor second to Santarém and only worth the effort of a visit for aficionados of the Portuguese bullfight. The rearing of bulls and horses dominates the local economy: there’s a School of Bullfighting here, and posters everywhere announcing forthcoming fights, while Vila Franca celebrates its obsession in café names and statues.
The two great annual events are the Festa do Colete Encarnado (“Red Waistcoat Festival”, which refers to the costumes of the mounted horsemen of the plains), held over several days in the first two weeks of July; and the Feira de Outubro (October Fair), in the first two weeks of the month. On both occasions there are bullfights, with the animals running through the streets chased by the bold (and drunk) – inevitably, injuries are sustained.
Without a bullfight to detain you, it’s hard to linger long in the few restored streets around the town hall; it’s nicest down at the riverside gardens by the train station, where there’s an old fisherman’s bairro with a couple of restaurants – in March and April local restaurants in town all celebrate the shad, a Tejo river fish.