Today, whilst still constrained by limitations brought to bear by the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, I’ve managed to remain somewhat optimistic about the prospects of future visits to Portugal. I sought to comfort myself during these dark days of enforced confinement by dreaming about further epic road trips around the country in the hope of discovering even more hidden gems. Places that quietly conceal so much of the intriguing culture and flamboyant history of this fascinating land.
Today, my focus (as before in Monsaraz) remains close to the Spanish border. In these lockdown times, I hope to get there by evoking my minds' eye to imaginatively revisit the south eastern corner of Portugal. Here we shall find the busy but decidedly unhurried city of Vila Real de Santo António (VRSA) - an Algarvian gem with a unique appearance more reminiscent of Lisbon than other nearby Algarvian towns. It’s a city of Lisbonesque blocks featuring impressive Pombaline architecture, of regimented streets and large open spaces such as The Praça Marquis of Pombal in the centre of town.
Off the beaten track, Vila Real is a great place to enjoy in its own right or as a conveniently situated base perfect for further exploration. Despite not being as outwardly touristy as some other Algarvian locations such as nearby Monte Gordo or Faro, Vila Real does nevertheless boast some pretty splendid beaches such as Ponta da Areia. Towards Castro Marim, there are wildlife-rich wetlands and salt marshes, complete with large flocks of the pinkest flamingos as well as an entire phylum of other avian species.
Vila Real also boasts a navigable river, Rio Guadiana, which forms a natural slow-flowing border between Portugal and neighbouring Spain. It doesn't really feel much like a border, just a line which defines two distinctively individual cultures.
In Vila Real, we can walk down to the riverside promenade and hop aboard a ferry which regularly crosses the Guadiana to the Spanish town of Ayamonte where a truly authentic Tapas lunch along with a couple of equally authentic glasses of nicely chilled Tio Pepe can be savoured. But hurry up! Make sure you get there before 'siesta' commences because this REALLY will be Espanha in the truest sense. That means that during siesta, the whole town seems to fall into some sort of deep, unshakeable slumber. Of course, Spain is fully an hour ahead, so it's lunch time an hour sooner over in Ayamonte. It's also siesta time before you know it, especially if you still happen to be in ‘Portugal mode!’
Spending time on both sides of the Guadiana is quite a unique experience. That's because Vila Real isn't remotely Spanish any more than Ayemonte can be regarded as being in the least bit Portuguese. But as soon as we step off that ferry and onto Spanish soil - everything changes in an instant. It immediately sounds different because of the language as well as the unmistakable vibe of Spanish music flowing out of some of the bars and restaurants.
In Vila Real, there’s a huge choice of eateries offering anything from delicious tosta mistas to super savoury hamburgers. There are ice cream parlours, bakeries as well as plenty of traditional coffee shops. You can also enjoy full-on Portuguese gourmet meals and all manner of other fine dining experiences should you so choose. An array of bewildering options await in this vibrant corner of Portugal.
So. Why not wile away a convivial evening sitting at a pristinely set table beneath a white canvassed parasol in the well lit streets of Vila Real’s attractive town centre? Or perhaps wander off a little further afield to find a traditional seafood restaurant on the riverside promenade? The promenade option comes complete with great views towards the nearby marina with those distinctive metronomic "clink-clinking" sounds made by countless yacht masts as they gently sway on a balmy evening breeze. See the twinkling street lights of Spanish Ayamonte clearly visible across on the far side of Rio Guadiana and the mood is absolutely set for yet another truly memorable night.
Following morning we can head north, inland from Vila Real to experience some more rural Portuguese towns and villages. It will be a very different experience from what’s offered in the busy Algarvian resorts. Discover unique wines in quirky tascas which serve some wonderfully rustic local fayre. You will be utterly charmed by an uber-chilled way of life. I find myself feeling very envious each time I visit.
Northbound, along the banks of the Guadiana, we come across the picturesque market town of Alcoutim. Gaze over the river and behold the pristine whitewashed Spanish town of Sanlúcar de Guadiana which lies almost within touching distance. Listen to the church bells chime one o'clock on the Portuguese side whilst the bells on the Spanish side cantankerously declare that it’s in fact already two o’clock!
A bit further north, we can spend a lazy afternoon visiting the historic town of Mértola famed for game hunting including wild boar, hare and fowl. Expect to find them on the menus! Mértola is also renowned for the finest grilled lamb chops to ever grace a platter. Well worth a try.
Then, just relax with a gentle afternoon stroll to take in some of the amazing views over the Guadiana valley. And it’s all there within the environs of the town. Simply, sublime.
Mértola is yet another ancient Portuguese settlement brimming with history, from Roman times to the days of the Moors and all that went in between. It's tangible history that helped shape this place; crafting it into the beautiful place that it is today.
In a nutshell, Vila Real de Santo António brings us the whole of the Algarve and a great deal more besides. Whether we whizz along the A22 towards the busy resorts or take a more leisurely potter along the region's many highways and byways, it's ALL right there in Vila Real de Santo António. It's another ideal spot to help forge those precious Portuguese memories.