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TANGO IN TAVIRA

Rajen Bali

I do not really know why I went to Tavira. I just did. Looking back, I am mighty glad that I did to go to this small town in Portugal’s southernmost region, the Algarve. It was one hell of a great experience in one hell of a small place – its population must be less than 30,000. It may be just-more-than-a-village now, but it is big, big on history, happenings and happiness-in-the-extreme for the traveler.

Having already enjoyed Lisbon, Sintra and Coimbra, I was having a whale of a time in Porto. There were the best Port wines in the world – Graham’s, Taylor’s, Croft, Cockburn, Sandeman and others -  to be tasted in the port lodges located in Vila Nova de Gaia. There were the Porto-special ‘sandwiches’ called Francesinas and there was some of the best Bacalhau (dried and salted Cod) in Portugal. My sweet tooth was treated to the heavenly egg tart – Pastel de Nate.  I was having a really good time in Porto.

But suddenly, I started hearing a faint buzz in my ears – “Go South, Man.”  This faint buzz turned into a loud refrain and one fine evening, I found myself occupying a comfortable berth in an overnight train, with a ticket to Tavira.

Why Tavira of all places? I still do not know. What I do know is that I nearly missed getting down at Tavira. I was in Dreamland when I faintly heard a voice intoning, “Tavira,” “Tavira.” Somehow, I managed to grab my few belongings and scrambled down. Dawn was breaking and it was still semi-dark. It was a very small railway station with just one platform. I was the only person who got off the train and there was just one more person pacing up and down on the platform. It was a middle-aged, jeans-clad, short bobbed-hair with a filter-less cigarette dangling from her mouth a la Bogart, approaching me. She confronted me, wearing a broad toothy smile, and said in good English – the cigarette bobbing up and down in her mouth, “I am Rafaella, do you want a place to stay?” I nodded my head in a “Yes,” and told her that I was Rajen from India. With “You are the first Indian I have ever met in my life,” she grabbed my bag and started walking out of the station in a markedly purposeful manner. I followed her. She put my bag in a Maruti-type van, got in the driver’s seat and opened the door for me to sit upfront with her.

The town was still sleeping as we drove through empty streets in a half-light. My first impression was that it was a picture postcard-pretty place. This impression was confirmed during my stay in Tavira and I could understand as to why it is considered the prettiest and most fascinating place on the famously picturesque Algarve coast in Southern Portugal.

After about a ten minute drive, we turned into a small street with traditional white-washed houses – mostly in a Moorish-style – with many walls decorated with Portugal’s famous Azulejos (decorative painted ceramic tiles). She stopped outside a door and banged on the front door. Repeated knocking elicited no response. “This Isabela is a lazy pig, she just sleeps and sleeps. Never mind, we will go to the house across the street,” Rafaella muttered, with the ever-present cigarette in her mouth. She retrieved my bag and we walked across the street through a tiny courtyard with vines having bunches of grapes hanging in a most inviting manner, and an Azulejos-topped table with three wrought-iron chairs. On the very first knock, the door was opened by a very pleasant middle-aged, motherly lady. Rafaela made the introductions and I found that the lady’s name was Idelina. She gave a warm welcoming smile and invited me in to have a look at the room. It was a nicely furnished, spotlessly clean and tidy room with a big bed. Just outside the room was a tiny kitchen and a bath-cum-toilet. It was all mine for as long as I wished. I readily agreed.

Having settled down, I asked for a coffee. Idelina agreed but a bit reluctantly. She had a small conversation with Rafella, some money changed hands and Rafella took her leave, wishing me a pleasant stay in Tavira. “Idelina is a wonderful person and she will look after you really well,’ was Francesca’s parting advice.

I adjourned to ‘my’ courtyard and soon Idelina brought me a steaming mug of coffee and a huge ham-and-cheese sandwich. She informed me with a smile that she generally did not provide food and beverages to her guests. She also told me that there was a small supermarket some 50 meters away. I could buy my food there and was welcome to use the fridge and the kitchen. “This coffee and sandwich are my complimentary welcome to you.”

Idelina really mothered me during my longish stay with her. She was so good to me that when I went later to Saville for a few days, I kept my room in Tavira.

Tavira did turn out to be one of the best places I have ever visited during my decades of wandering about in the world.

Situated on both sides of River Gilao, - the sea too is very near - it has a population of less than 30,000. Though very popular with tourists who prefer peace-and-quiet, it was not really overflowing with tourists, which adds to its charm. Its history dates back to the Bronze age and at various times, Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Christians, Earthquakes and others, played important roles in the Life and Times of Tavira. The original name of the place was ‘Baal Saphon’, after the name of the Phonecian Thunder-and-Sea god. The great local her is the 13th century Dom Paio Peres Correia, who won back Tavira from the Moors after a bloody battle. His statue is one of the important landmarks. Tavira was built and re-built many times over the centuries. Today, the Moorish influence in the architectural style is most dominant, including in the famous bridge over River Gilao, and the ruins of an old castle. Tavira had more churches – 37 – than hotels!

The people were very friendly. The market was a fascinating affair. The place is small enough for enjoying it thoroughly on foot. There are many restaurants serving – especially – freshly-caught fish and seafood dishes, and traditional egg-based desserts. DO NOT miss out on Bacalhau (salted Cod), Arroz de Marisco (a seafood and rice dish), the huge prawns and lobster, Octopus Salad and kid/lamb dishes. Beers and local wines are very good value for money. I could have stayed on in Tavira for all my life, just for its food. Caution. The plate of olives you always find placed on your table as you sit down, is NOT free!

Tavira was so great that I made it my base for taking day trips to various other places on the Algarve coast and in Spain. I still get a glow in my mind when the Mind’s eye travels back to Tavira.

The best memory is of many evenings spent in the town square when there was free music by different bands every evening. This happens only in summer. The whole town gathers and there is dancing in the street. Men dancing with women, boys dancing with girls, women/girls dancing with other women/girls. men/boys dancing with men/boys, even the town’s  dogs appeared to be ‘dancing’ – alone or with other dogs. I still remember the sounds of loud laughter and great merry-making till late in the night. Unforgettable!

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