Last week I returned to a beach that I haven’t been to for many years and that I have extremely fond memories of visiting with the whole family when I was little.
It's called the Praia do Barril but we always called it ‘the little train’ beach. There’s just something about going there that feels like an adventure. Maybe it's the fact that you can't just 'step on' and you have to embark on what feels, even now, like an epic journey or quest - before you can even get one foot in the sand.
Cross the bridge when you come to it
First, you have to cross the bridge. I remember feeling a bit like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom on this bit. Luckily, there was never any need to go 'full-Indy' (cutting the ropes with a machete and hanging on for dear life) and anyway, these days it's a lot more sturdy and modern - even Harrison Ford at his most frantic wouldn't be able to make it budge.
But it's still a lot of fun. And the thing you might not realise is that once you get to the other side - you are officially on the Ilha de Tavira (so this might be the perfect way to try out island life if you don’t like boat journeys).
Catch the train
Originally created to support the tuna fishermen, the tracks are now used to run this almost magical little train that ships tourists back and forth to the beach. The journey is a bit more than a kilometre and takes about 10 minutes.
I remember that my cousins and I would eagerly hop aboard with my granny and grandpa, meanwhile, I could never understand why, but my parents and aunts and uncles would absolutely insist on walking.
A walk for the senses
Having grown considerably longer legs since then (and so the journey seems a lot shorter these days) their decision to walk doesn’t seem so crazy or boring anymore. It's a lovely walk past the marshes and through the forest with all kinds of things to see, hear and smell. There are all sorts of interesting fragrances in the air. For instance, there’s a plant called perpétua das areias (Helichrysum stoechas) that during the summer months has yellow flowers and smells like curry.
Wave at the crabs
You also get to study the many interesting inhabitants of the marsh. At low tide you are sure to spot, scuttling sideways away into its mud hole, an unusual crab called the bocas-da-cava terra. You know the ones? The male has one massive claw (there’s actually a great metal statue of one at a roundabout on the way into Faro beach). My grandpa always used to say that if you stay very still they will come out and wave at you .
All kinds of wonderful Algarvian avifauna spend their days wading around there too - so no wonder the crabs never venture too far away from their holes.
Our beloved Algarvian chameleon also lives here (although good luck spotting him).
The sea-side of the island
The sand I had forgotten is remarkably soft and white and with the sea being generally quite calm and shallow makes it yet another reason why it's a good choice to come here with kids.
As I said at the beginning, you are on an island and there are actually three beaches. If you walk east you will eventually get to the Praia da Terra Estreita in the centre and if you carry on you’ll get to the Praia da Ilha de Tavira at the end.
If you decide to walk west instead though, then in around two kilometres there’s a beach called Praia do Homem Nu.
The Anchor Graveyard
Another unusual feature of this beach that makes it so different and interesting is the Cemitério das Âncoras or Anchor Graveyard. Over 100 of these huge old rusty anchors are scattered amongst the dunes making a rather epic memorial to the tuna fishing industry that used to thrive here. An interesting thing to note is that these anchors weren’t used as you might imagine to secure boats, but rather to hold massive fishing nets in place.
From fishing to bathing
Now that there’s no tuna to be found here anymore, the beach has done a wonderful job of using the facilities they previously used to trap tuna and turn the place into, well.. a ‘tourist trap’ instead.
The old and beautiful buildings that the fishermans used to use have now been turned into various cafés, bathrooms (with showers - that's a plus) and there’s even a museum called the Museu do Atum where you can find out more about the history of the beach, as well as see pictures from the tuna fishing days.
So, it's just a suggestion, but maybe now would be the time to embark on this ‘great railway journey’ yourselves? After all, I wouldn't dare call it a ‘hidden gem' in the summertime.