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03 August 2012

Portugal: the Algarve & Tavira

It's easy enough to find a reasonably priced flight into Faro airport on Portugal's bright and breezy southern coast from just about anywhere nowadays. But, instead of flocking west with the mad(ding) crowds to those built-up disco bar towns, jump on the train and head east towards the Spanish border (you wouldn't really want to stay in Faro anyway, it's a bit of a dump). The pretty old town of Tavira and places nearby offer plenty of options to keep you going for a few days of tasteful and tasty sightseeing, eating, wine sampling and Atlantic side swimming too if you must (I did indulge).
Wine-wise, the Algarve has definitely moved on in recent years especially thanks to some well-heeled investors developing new estates or replanting virtually abandoned vineyards. My Portugal archive page features a review of Quinta dos Vales and some of their wines, a winery and leisure resort found in a wee place called Estombar between Portimão and Lagoa (which isn't actually in the Tavira area but to the west of Albufeira...) And Cliff Richard's fairly high-profile wine estate Quinta do Moinho (goes to website) - or Adega do Cantor ("the singer's cellar"), Quinta do Miradouro or simply Vida Nova ("New Life") as the wines are better known - is also in the Albufeira area up in the hills. Vines were planted here in the late 90s, and resident Portuguese Australian David Baverstock oversees the winemaking. I bought a bottle of their 2008 Tinto in the airport for €7.50 (it's cheaper in supermarkets, but I only had hand-luggage and you know the fascist security drill...), which is made from Syrah and Aragonez (called Tinta Roriz elsewhere in Portugal, it's the same as or a close clone of Spain's Tempranillo) in an attractive fruity chunky style.
Back to Tavira (well, physically at least as this wine is also from the Albufeira hills), we ordered a cracking bottle of full-on dry rosé, Barranco 2011 from Quinta do Barranco Longo (quintadobarrancolongo.com currently "under construction") for €12, in a nice little restaurant called Brisa do Rio (brisadorio.web.pt: "ditto"). Deep-coloured, very fruity, crisp and lively, it was a great match for tasty well-cooked sword fish and tuna steaks. The wine, bottled water, those two fish mains and two lovely puds came to €42, by the way (including a fairly common €1 per person cover charge, although you get breads, dips and olives for this here). For a simpler place serving huge portions of very reasonably priced steaks or pork dishes, look no further than Cais da Ponte (it does look across to the elevated new road bridge straddling both sides of Tavira). A local restaurant for local people - not much English spoken but who cares - with limited yet inexpensive wine selection.
Outside of Algarve wines, the neighbouring Alentejo region (to the north) features prominently on all wine lists I came across (mostly reds such as Esporão's well-known Monte Velho brand), usually closely followed by some good Vinho Verde dry whites. You wouldn't have thought it very likely to enjoy a few top notch Argentinean reds around these parts, but you can at wine and tapas bar Malbec y Vos (the owner's from down under, so to speak: facebook.com/Malbecyvos). I didn't - we did sensible lunch with water on this occasion - but chose four tapas "clasicas" (€1.50 each) and four tapas "especiales" (€2.50 each) including a mix of tortilla and another spud dish ("grandma style" I think it said on the menu?), imaginatively cooked vegetables, and nibbles of fishy and meaty things. Some of them were very nice, some were fine although a bit slight. Two serious espressos to finish with weighed in at a bargain €1.20 (for both I mean). Coffee is cheap in Portugal - you'd be lucky to get one for that price in France; we paid just €1 for a large cup in a breakfast and snack café called Pastelaria Ramos (opposite a miniature park by the river on the old old town side), which does e.g. good egg dishes and delicious homemade pastries.
In terms of wine touring in the Tavira area, there's only one winery I could find (you do see scattered patches of vines either side of the town from the train, which could be for personal production I guess) a couple of kilometres down the coast near Luz de Tavira: Quinta dos Correias (yet another "not ready yet" site!) run by Ricardo Silva e Sousa. You'll have to take a rain check on this one though, as I didn't make it there this time but did try one of their reds in a restaurant or somewhere (fairly sure but didn't make a note...). As for hotels, there's the simple clean Viva Rio (€40 per double room in early Maylocated close to the centre alongside the river below Santa Maria do Castelo's church and the Palacio da Galeria. A touch sparse perhaps but you do get a large patio out back: don't bother with the "river view" rooms at the front, as you don't get this or a balcony and the road outside is busy. For more all mod cons and a swimming pool, and not much more money (€52.50, the price goes up quite a lot in high season though), try Hotel Porta Nova over the river and up the hill. Breakfast seems dear at €8.50 per person, but there's a massive self-service spread with just about anything you'd want for brekkie, so you can fill yourself up and skip lunch.
Tavira has numerous picturesque old churches and chapels, bridges and city walls to help you stretch your legs. It's slightly complicated if you want to swim in the sea here, as the town is set on one of the salt-flat lagoons that characterize this part of the Algarve coastline; you have to walk a fair way or get a bus to where a ferry takes you across to the seaside, if you see what I mean. Just as easy to get on the train to, say, Montegordo, which is less attractive and more built up but does have a vast swathe of sandy beach. Not too far from here is the spectacular ancient fort of Castelo de Castro Marim perched up on a hill overlooking Spain on the other side of the river. Again, you can walk there from the rail station, although it's a good trek along a pavement-free main road; or hire a bike.
More Algarve and Portugal posts and features HERE.

Go on a luxury Mediterranean Cruise to Portugal!

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Header image: Château de Flandry, Limoux, Languedoc. Background: Vineyard near Terrats in Les Aspres, Roussillon.