Tavira, like any city, is a place where if you only see it once, you won’t see what matters. Maybe you will see the salt pans, and the beach, or the Roman Bridge, or the ochre hills, or the winding Gilão river, and you might say to yourself, how pretty, how unspoilt, maybe I could live here, and then you will go back to your old life.
That is perfectly fine, but if you are a searcher, like I am, and in a way, all true expats are searchers, in the sense that they are looking for something outside of themselves that reflects or corresponds to who they actually are, then that will not be enough.
You will need a second look, preferably with a guide. This post is the result of seeing Tavira in the company of a professional tour guide, for a period of 3 hours, with no one else present: Luiza.
Her contribution to my understanding of Tavira was invaluable.
After 9 days of being a tourist who was too blind to see what was hidden, as they say, in plain sight, Luiza helped me see Tavira.
Tavira is a city of poets, said Luiza, when we started off on our journey. The most famous Portuguese poets who is associated with this town Is Pessoa, whose relatives lived here. This is why you there is a Pessoa cafe in the old town, for example.
But it is not just Pessoa whom you ought to think about: Tavira has had many other writers and poets and if you should ever go to the Moorish castle you will see right in front of the gate a plaque that has an Arabic name_ Abu-Uthman. Why is that? you might ask yourself. Why should a place where the Reconquista began be named after a Moor?
As it happens, Tavira is a romantic city, a city of doomed lovers, a slow city, a place that even values the inherent elegance of slowness, which is perhaps necessary when you consider she has been home to Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, and Spanish conquerors.
Jews used to live here, too, many centuries ago, but then their synagogue was turned into a convent, then eventually a hotel, as some of the other 5 convents in Tavira remain empty and abandonned, because there are no more nuns. And so they become hotels….
But the Tavira culture of religious tolerance persists, and as you look at the sign that reads Uthman, you may find yourself baffled, until Luiza whispers to you that he was born in Tavira, and was a governor of the realm when it was Arab, and that he was both a patron of literature and a poet himself, and you will start to understand.
And then Luiza will tell you the story of the 7 knights and of Dom Correia, who is buried alongside these knights inside of Santiago church, and she will tell you the church is closed now, because summer is over, but you can come to the 12 o’clock mass in English, and see the magnificence of what is inside these modest looking walls.
And she will point out the Gothic entrance to the doors, and remark on the agricultural motifs that adorn this entrance, where usually you might expect to see angels or other standard Catholic religious symbolism.
From the castle of Tavira you will see the vast sea of orange brick, the roof of waters as they are known, which is the style of Tavira, and later, when you go down by the river, she will point out the round chimneys, which means you come from Tavira, and the square ones, which means that you came from someplace further north, and have come here to make your fortune in what was once a rich city.
As you pass from the Western entrance gate to the old city, which is where the Pessoa cafe is located, and cross the Roman bridge, to what is considered the poorer side of the city, Luiza will tell you the story of the river with two names, Gilao and Sequa, and their tale of forbidden love, and people come to live locks on the railings of the Roman bridge.
There is a concurrence of squares on Tavira, that mirror one another, across the Roman bridge, over which cars would drive up until 1989, and you wind down the streets of Tavira, she will stop you, and show you the houses that still have the mashrabiyya window in the Moorish Islamic style, and she will point the ancient sign in Arabic, on top of a building that is next to the Roman bridge, a sign that few will notice unless they are particularly observant, and notice things the way poets do, and if you know Arabic, you will see that it reads Dar El Kantar, meaning The House of the Bridge.
Lastly, you might knock — as Luiza points out that this type of door knob is known as the hand of Fatma, the prophet Mohamed’s, PBUH, daughter, and they are everywhere in Tavira — on the door of an old, once opulent building, owned by a wealthy philanthropist, who gave his house to Tavira for it to serve as a repository of ancient manuscripts, and you will climbed up stone stairs to see a wondrous medieval manuscript opened for you and it will be a book written in the 16th century about the chronicles of the Algarve as they occurred 4 centuries earlier, and you will be happy, as you gaze at the shepjerd cooling off in the river by an old man harvesting clams, for you will know you have found your town, after all this searching, you will know you have found it at long last.