Despite its inland position, TAVIRA, 30km east of Faro, is the most interesting and attractive of the eastern Algarve’s towns. It straddles both sides of the broad Rio Gilão, the old town made up of white mansions with hipped roofs and wrought-iron balconies. Many visitors stay longer than planned – particularly after a visit to the superb island beach of the Ilha de Tavira, which lies within easy reach of the town by year-round ferry. There are also several quieter spots in the area, such as the holiday village of Pedras d’el Rei and nearby beach at Barril and, for some excellent seafood, the fishing village of Santa Luzia.
Founded as long ago as 400 BC, Tavira was a powerful port trading with North Africa until the river began to silt up in the seventeenth century. It was also an important religious centre, with most of the town’s 21 churches built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Following the Great Earthquake of 1755, Tavira was largely reconstructed, hence the graceful eighteenth-century townhouses and mansions that you see today. The old bridge was mostly built in 1667 on the foundations of a Roman structure; the other central bridge was put up by the army in 1989 as a temporary measure, but has held firm ever since. In the old-town streets on both sides of the river, numerous houses retain fine old doorways with traditional knockers in the shape of hands.
The Ilha de Tavira stretches southwest from Tavira almost as far as Fuseta, some 14km west, and the beach is enormous, backed by tufted dunes. The main path on the island runs from the jetty through a small chalet settlement to the beach, where there are umbrellas and pedaloes for rent, and half a dozen bar-restaurants. In high summer this part of the beach is packed, though you only have to walk fifteen minutes or so to be clear of the crowds, and out of season you’ll probably have the place entirely to yourself.