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No bar. No room service. But things that count, in abundance


01 Mar 2010




By Steve Meacham

Senior Features Writer

Sydney Morning Herald

The young, technologically-adept German who greets me at the entrance to our Portuguese hotel is irate.  So irate that he doesn't even pause to ask if I'm Portuguese, or notice that I am carrying several shopping bags full of essentials from the local supermarket.

"We've been looking for you for hours," he says accusingly in English, taking a glance at his beautiful young female partner. "But you are NOT on the GPS.  Why is this?"

For a moment, I think, "Is he saying that this hotel doesn't exist?"

But then reality kicks in.  My wife said that I had to be back within 20 minutes.  No pausing to look at the view.  Or admire the wonderful architecture, dating back to Moorish (if not Roman) times.  Absolutely (italic) NO dawdling at any of those enticing river front bars to "absorb the local culture".

So I say: "I'm not actually on the hotel staff.  I'm staying here myself.  But we found it easily.  Of course, we don't have a GPS.  My wife was reading the map ... "

Welcome to Tavira, one of the most beautiful towns in Portugal, ideally placed on what remains of the border with Spain.  (Thanks to the European Community, it is about as difficult as crossing, say, from NSW to Victoria), just 30 km east of Faro and a mere 160 km west of Seville.

We are staying at Por do Sol Residencial Hotel (, an apartment hotel I booked on the internet, knowing very little about Tavira apart from the fact my guide book described it as the prettiest town on the Algarve.

To be fair to the young German, the residence is hard to find.  My wife had negotiated lots of bridges (including one that claims to be Roman), many plazas and at least half of Tavira's 37 churches before we parked outside it.

The hotel has no view (unless you are fond of supermarkets).  No lift.  No porters.  No room service.  No bar.  No gym.  No business centre.  No parking valet.  No welcome bottle of suspect bubbly from the manager hoping you have a pleasant stay.  No melt-in-your-mouth chocolates when you've just cleaned your teeth and are jumping into bed.

But what it does have in abundance are the things that should count.  Atmosphere.  Comfort.  And genuine attention to guests.  (No wonder that, as we are leaving and I ask Miguel, the owner, where he was before his family bought the hotel in 2008, he answers New York: I should have guessed).

In fact the Carvalho family own two Tavira hotels: The three-star Quinto Por do Sol lies a few kms outside town, a more rustic property with swimming pool and fine views over the Ria Formosa.  The residence, on the other hand, is right in the centre of town, a couple of minutes walk from all the main sites.  (Frankly we didn't really need our hire car).

Our two-bedroom apartment turns out to be perfect for our needs.  It is a quaintly old-fashioned corner suite consisting of a master bedroom, twin beds for our two boys, a family bathroom and three (tiny) balconies opening on to the streets below.  Plus a massive living room-dining room-kitchen with the kind of comfy furniture you loved when you visited your grandma - with the added attraction of satellite TV.

It also has a lovely roof terrace where breakfast is served, allowing you views of the river and other roof tops.  (It is fascinating to see how various individuals have adapted their little piece of private open space: some use it for drying their clothes, others have elaborate gardens and my favourites keep their caged birds adding a tuneful melody to the morning).

But back to Tavira. What is not in dispute is that it straddles the River Gilão, a couple of kms from the place where it meets the Atlantic Ocean.  The town's origins go back 3,000 years to the late Bronze Age, though it was the Phoenicians who put it on the map around 800 years before Christ.  Julius Caesar ordered changes.  So did the Moors whose influence can still be seen in the town's white-washed walls.  In 1755, the town was destroyed by the earthquake which demolished much of the Algarve.

And now? The town is dominated by two structures: the church of Santa Maria do Castelo and a less romantic 20th Century construction - the water tower, obviously practical but unsightly.  The church, though, dates back to the 13th Century, built on the site of a previous Moorish mosque.

The short but steep walk to the church is recommended since it allows you to get a bird's eye view of Tavira's geography.  The marvellous beaches of the sandbar island, Ilha de Tavira, lie across the salt pans which restrict Tavira's growth.  Beneath you, the cobbled streets follow the course of the river Gilao - still dramatically tidal at the Roman bridge.  (At low tide, you can watch fishermen and oyster gatherers wading midstream).

The main square, flanked by many restaurants and cafes and the now converted fish market, also hosts a nightly market in summer.  A three-minute walk to the south brings you to the ferry point where you can regularly depart for Ilha de Tavira, a picturesque and relaxing half hour trip south down the river.

Many experts rate the Ilha de Tavira as the finest beach destination in Portugal.  Some choose to frolic on the more sheltered river beaches, but we followed the boardwalk across the island to the Atlantic Ocean beach, a massive expanse of sand served by an array of bars, cafes and restaurants set a discreet distance back from the waterfront.

I just hope the German found it with his GPS!


Published: 01 Mar 2010