Visiting Tavira, in the eastern Algarve region of Portugal, it’s easy to lose track of the time, the day and, indeed the century. Neatly bisecting one of the most gracious cities in the province is the Gilao River which forms high in the Serra do Caldeirao Mountains from rivulets and tributaries and flows southward down to the Atlantic Ocean. At its mouth are numerous mariculture clam beds, salt pans and the golden, finely-grained sand beaches worshiped by the tourists, all of which bolster the economy of this ancient fishing village through which it runs and which gives entry to both banks of its historic urban center. Spanning the river is an arched bridge initially believed to be of Roman origin but recently revealed to be of Moorish construction in the 12th century.On the western shore the city climbs the slopes of hills where the twenty plus churches are scattered around and about its narrow, winding and cobblestoned streets, many of which are steeply pitched. A short climb up the streets will give you a view of the roof-scape and the many short hipped, traditionally tiled roofs with the truncated ridge poles, a signature characteristic of Tavira’s charms. It’s thought that this roof style may have originated due to the shortage of timber in the area although another theory is that the slightly oriental appearing roofs may have just taken the fancy of long ago residents. Overlooking the city are the well-preserved walls of its castle, Castelo De Tavira, a great vantage point and a lasting gift from the Moors during their lengthy occupation of the Algarve, intended to consolidate and extend their Islamic power over the region.On the eastern shore is the level area. A thoroughfare fronting the river provides more housing, trendy shops, churches and a mix of spacious walkways and meandering streets which attract the locals and visitors alike as a place to sample the local food, savor a coffee or glass of Portugal’s fine wine or view life next to the river in a shaded area during the mid-day lull. Here vendors, musicians, merchants and patrons mingle easily in a slow-paced ambiance.Tavira, by almost any yardstick, is ancient. But in truth and to be more precise, it is an iteration upon iteration of cities, great and small, which have risen and fallen according to the vagaries of the inhabitants and nature across the ages. Its origins date back to the Bronze Age (2300 BCE – 700 BCE approximately for this region) when it rose as one of the first Phoenician settlements in the western Iberian Peninsula. The village grew into the massively fortified city of Baal Saphon with temples and a harbor which was destroyed in the sixth century BCE by conflict, perhaps internal. The Tartessos people, traders in tin as well as copper and gold, all prized metals in the Bronze Age, next occupied the site. Their time was brief and by the arrival of the Romans in the early part of the Common Era their presence was all but forgotten. In truth, the Romans paid scant notice to the ruins of Tavira and built a town they called Balsa a short distance from the small city that sat atop the ruins of the once proud Phoenician city of Baal Saphon. The new city and the region prospered and decayed parallel to the fortunes of the Roman Empire and by the time the Moors arrived with their new religion of Islam, Balsa was already an extinct town.The Moorish occupation of Tavira between the 8th and 13th centuries left its mark on the architecture and culture of the area and its influence can still be seen in Tavira today with its whitewashed buildings and Moorish style doors. The Moorish occupation was a good time economically for the city which established itself as an important port for sailors and fishermen. In the 11th century Moorish Tavira started to grow rapidly, becoming one of the most important towns of the Algarve. This prosperity continued but evolved again “under new management” during The Reconquista – the expulsion of the Moors – in 1242 which unified the fledgling nation of Portugal under the banner of Catholicism. In 1755 an even more formidable foe arose in the form of a massive earthquake, perhaps as large as magnitude 9 on the Richter scale, and subsequent tsunamis which virtually destroyed the city. Slowly it rebuilt itself amidst the remaining ruins and the 18th century historic city of Tavira is much as it appears today.And now this charming center of certainly less than 30,000 souls finds itself in flux again, a situation perfectly suited to the history of this magnificent locale which has endured so much change. During the off-season many of its businesses shutter their doors although there is a modern shopping center operating year around. And, like the rest of the Algarve Region, masses of summertime tourists descend upon this city with its excellent restaurants, miles of nearby beaches, and rising real estate prices. With the growing popularity of the area there won’t be any hope of holding back change. Just as invasion and conquest, growth and abandonment, tsunami and quake have swept over this land and altered this city, the future of Tavira with its river running through it will be sculpted by the hand of 21st century modernism. Hopefully, its touch will be gentle.
By Richard and Anita