They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but I’m afraid my first impression of the Ria Formosa, as viewed from Faro railway station, did not immediately impress. It was cloudy, the tide was out and the vast expanse of tidal flats looked anything but appealing.
On that first trip to the Algarve in May 2015, we were too busy walking the Via Algarviana to even think about exploring the landscape that the Portuguese people voted one of the seven natural wonders of their country. This time it was different: we were here for three whole months and, although Harri was working as a translator/editor during the week, we were determined to see as much of the Algarve at weekends as possible (weather and public transport links permitting).
Thus, at the beginning of January, we decided to head east to Tavira, a city 17 miles to the east of Faro. It’s a beautiful place, located inland from the Ria Formosa on the Gilão River, with amazing architecture and evidence of centuries of Moorish occupation everywhere. Tavira’s castle was built by the Moors and so was the ‘Roman’ bridge with its seven arches.
Unfortunately, we’re not very good at wandering aimlessly around cities – however impressive they are – so Harri had planned a bracing, circular walk to Ilha de Tavira, one of the ‘barrier’ islands which protects the Ria Formosa coastal lagoon running from the east of Tavira to the west of Faro. There are just six inlets for boats to pass through and one of those – the Faro-Olhão inlet – is actually artificial.
Our first challenge was getting to the island. During the summer months, boats come up the river into Tavira town to pick up tourists, but this was January so we had no option but to walk the two kilometres to Quatro Aquas and hop on the regular ferry. The crossing only took a few minutes (thankfully not long enough for Harri to get seasick!) and was an absolute delight.
I adored Ilha de Tavira from the instant we landed, though whether the sandy trails between the pines are quite so idyllic at the height of the tourist season is another question. Tavira Today describes the isle in summer as ‘a vibrant location that the locals and tourists alike flock to’ so probably not! In early January, however, the landscape was blissfully peaceful. We stopped for the obligatory lager on the terrace of a vast but empty restaurant among the pine trees and enjoyed the antics of wild birds who kept flying inside the restaurant and perching on the back of the traditional wooden chairs.
The Portuguese have what is – in my view at least – a strange way of naming their beaches. In the UK, it’s usually quite obvious where a beach begins and ends, i.e. when the sand runs out in either direction. Here, the beaches are so long that more than one name is required for a stretch of sand which might run for several kilometres.
The Ilha de Tavira extends for 12 kilometres along the Ria Formosa and there is a wide, sandy beach along its entire sea-facing length. Our coastal wanderings began on Praia de Tavira (Tavira beach), but it wasn’t too long before we found ourselves splashing around in the waves of Praia do Barril where the outgoing tide was attracting locals hoping to catch plenty of cockles. (There is another beach – a nudist beach – farther south but we didn’t get that far!). The fishermen weren’t alone in their determination to catch something either … groups of sanderlings were searching for food at the edge of the ocean. These little birds certainly didn’t want to get wet … every time a wave broke, they came charging up the beach as fast as their little legs could carry them.
We’d had the beach mostly to ourselves until now so we knew we were approaching some kind of public ‘stop off’ when other walkers started to appear (remember the ‘ten-minute rule’: it’s usually a car park, but in this case we were nearing the station for the miniature railway which links the island to Pedras D’el Rei and was once used in the fishing industry).
As we made our way up the beach, we were intrigued by the lines of enormous rusted anchors in the dunes ahead. It was only later that we learned this was the Cemitério das Âncoras, (anchor graveyard) and it was created as an unmissable memorial to Portugal’s long-lost tuna fishing industry and specifically, the lost livelihoods on Praia do Barril where in times past the bluefin tuna was caught in abundance.
It seems this wasn’t a planned memorial instigated by the town hall, but something which evolved naturally as tourists started taking an interest in the massive anchors rusting on the sand. Consequently, local people decided to line them up and have assumed responsibility for taking care of the ‘cemetery’.
The small village behind the beach was built in 1841 for the tuna fishermen and their families. At one time, around 80 people spent their summers in the whitewashed houses, but the demise of the tuna fishing industry resulted in the village being abandoned in the 1960s. Thankfully, the properties have survived and now provide facilities for tourists. Only the toilets were open on this sunny afternoon, and it was difficult to imagine the thriving community that existed here half a century ago. Talking of communities, if you were thinking of buying a house on the Ilha da Tavira, forget it: the building of houses and selling of existing homes is forbidden.
It goes without saying that we walked along the footpath than ran alongside the railway rather than joining everyone else on the miniature train! A small floating bridge took us over the last watery vestiges of the Ria Formosa and then we were back on the mainland.
The Ilha da Tavira and the Ria Formosa had completely surpassed our expectations and we knew we would be back to see more.
By the way, if you’re wondering what the other six natural wonders of Portugal are, click here (who knows, we might get to visit all seven in time).
The Via Algarviana – an English guide to the ‘Algarve Way’ by Harri Garrod Roberts is available from online bookstores, included Amazon’s Kindle store and is priced at £2.99.
The Via Algarviana: walking 300km across the Algarve by Tracy Burton is available in paperback (£5.99) and Kindle edition (£2.99) from Amazon.