Blessed by the Sun
Time Past and Time Present in Southern Portugal
written by Grove Koger
photographs by Maggie and Grove Koger
Like most other visitors to the Algarve, Maggie and I got our first taste of Portugal's southernmost region in Faro. And although we’d armed ourselves with a few key words in Portuguese—por favor and obrigado (or obrigada if Maggie were speaking) for “please” and “thank you”—we weren’t prepared for the city’s madhouse of an airport. But Faro also lies at the heart of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, a complex ecosystem of marshes, low-lying islands and shallow channels, and it was the lure of this fascinating region that induced us to linger.
The small boat tour we had booked with Islands 4 You the following morning threaded us through the Ria's maze at low tide, stopping here and there to let us swim in the warmish lagoon and eat lunch on Culatra Island, the site of the towering 151-foot Cabo de Santa Maria lighthouse. Along the way we passed storks and egrets and scurrying shorebirds, but by the time we made our return journey a few hours later, the few landmarks we remembered from our voyage out had disappeared beneath the tide.
That interplay between land and water was also at work in the small city of Tavira, an hour east of Faro near the mouth of the Gilão River, whose level rises and falls dramatically with the tides. At this point the intricate patchwork of wetlands has given way to a narrow channel separating the mainland from eight-mile-long Tavira Island. Ferries operate between the city's wharf and the eastern end of the island, where a seemingly endless expanse of fine white sand—the stunning Praia da Ilha de Tavira—draws hordes of swimmers to the Atlantic’s waters on sunny summer days.
But for those who can tear themselves away from the beach, Tavira offers much more. Aside from the picturesque Gilão itself, most of the city's attractions are concentrated near the ruins of its castle. The lowest reaches of the site date to the Bronze Age (we're talking about 1,000-800 BC), while the Phoenicians, who arrived near the end of that period, seem to have built their own fortifications on the same spot. The castle itself boasts the tomb of Dom Paio Peres Correia, who wrested control of the Algarve from the Moors in the mid-thirteenth century, but more appealing to us on the hot afternoon of our visit was a refreshingly cool botanical garden tucked away within the structure’s massive stone walls.
A few minutes from the castle we found the Igreja da Misericórdia, whose carved stone doorway depicts an unlikely menagerie of mermen, griffins, hippocamps (mythological seahorses) and saints. Inside we were greeted by a sumptuous gilt altar bursting with cherubim and a series of large azulejo (colored tile) depictions of the Works of Mercy. Usually pale blue, azulejos are one of the glories of Portuguese art and we encountered them again and again throughout our trip.
The Romans reached the Algarve in the second century BC, but few traces of their presence remain in Tavira. It’s a different story with the Moors, however, who ruled the city beginning in the eighth century and whose heritage is celebrated by the displays in the Núcleo Islâmico. That heritage, we learned, lay all around us—in Tavira’s whitewashed houses, for instance, and in their latticework doors and tiled pyramidal roofs. The foundations of Tavira's picturesque “Roman” bridge are actually Moorish, and even the city’s name is Moorish in origin.
A few steps away we enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of the attractions we'd just visited from the Torre de Tavira, a water tower converted into a delightful camera obscura. A modern version of an ancient device, the camera projects a real-time image of the city down onto a circular concave screen.
We thought we’d finished with Tavira's attractions, but the nearby Palácio da Galeria presented us with two unexpected treats. The first was a large traveling exhibit, O Surrealismo em Portugal. Surrealism was an international movement, but Portugal's involvement came as a surprise just the same. The pieces ranged from flippant to mordant, and recalled, here and there, works by the movement’s well-known masters, but theses artists' names were entirely unfamiliar. Another surprise was the continuing vitality of the movement in Portugal, with some of the best pieces dating from the twenty-first century, including striking metal sculptures by Isabel Meyrelles and Manuel Patinha.
The other exhibit at the Galeria couldn't have been more different—a celebration of the Mediterranean Diet, which the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has proclaimed an “intangible cultural heritage.” In UNESCO’s formulation, the diet is something much more than a shopping list of healthful ingredients. Instead, it’s seen as a lifestyle involving “crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food.”
Portugal doesn’t have a coast on the Mediterranean, of course, but it’s made a significant contribution to the region’s cultural heritage and enjoys its own distinctive cuisine. Among its tastiest creations are pastéis de nata. Small crusts of puff pastry filled with dollops of rich custard, they’re a national delicacy carried by every restaurant and snack bar in the country for consumption morning, noon and night.
After Tavira Maggie and I moved on to the little port of Santa Luzia for a week of swimming. The barrier islands lying off the coast of the eastern Algarve are famous for their magnificent beaches, which offer gentle slopes, playful swells and water temperatures similar to Laguna’s. A ferry and a boardwalk gave us access to the nearest, Praia da Terra Estreita, while a pedestrian bridge a mile and a half down the coast coupled with a miniature train carried us to Praia do Barril. The latter is famous for its cemetery of anchors, a tribute to the region's once-thriving tuna fishing industry. Kabourophobes should beware, however, for when the tide’s out, the channel between the mainland and the islands is reduced to a mudflat teeming with thousands upon thousands of small fiddler crabs.
From the Algarve we headed north into the Alentejo region for a glimpse of Portugal’s earliest history. We had signed up with Ebora Megalithica for a tour of Neolithic sites near the small city of Évora, and, led by archaeologist Mário Carvalho, we visited a large field of standing stones known as the Almendres Cromlech. Dating to some 7,000 years ago and weathered smooth by millennia of sun and wind and rain, the stones stood silently amid rolling acres of holm and cork oaks.
Évora also boasts an elegant Roman temple from the first century A.D. as well as examples of Manueline architecture, an ornate style that grew out of the Portuguese voyages of discovery of the early sixteenth century. The city’s narrow cobbled streets are a jumble, though, and finding our way through them proved to be hot, hard work, so every evening we relaxed outside a tiny bar to drink gin and tonics under feathery jacaranda trees. It was an opportunity to look back on the wonders that Portugal had shared with us, from the magical Ria Formosa to the stones of Almendres biding their time patiently beneath the dazzling blue sky of the Alentejo.
Obrigado, Portugal. Obrigado.
Islands 4 You, https://www.islands4you.pt/, firstname.lastname@example.org