This summer I decided to embark on a totally different type of holiday to my usual adventurous trips. Swapping my big red rucksack for a wheelie case, I gathered a couple of friends and we hopped on a short haul flight in search of sun, sea and sangria in the Algarve.
Our eventual destination was Tavira, a quiet gem of a town situated in the east of Portugal's Algarve region, but as we didn't land until close to midnight, we were to spend a night in a gorgeous old hostel in Faro before catching a train along the coast.
After checking in around 11pm we decided to embrace the European tradition of eating late and went for a wander around Faro town centre, which is a mixture of delightful architecture - charming tiled buildings with wrought iron balconies, their doors painted bright colours faded after years in the sun - and touristy bars and restaurants.
We meandered up and down the alleyways for a while, enjoying the midnight warmth and shaking off the cobwebs of a cramped budget flight, before stumbling on "Se7e Pedras" - a tapas and wine bar. Sitting on the wooden tables outside until the early hours, we tucked into a startlingly cheap yet delicious cheese board and bottle of white rioja, talking the night away.
A train to Tavira
The next morning it was time to leave the relatively busy city of Faro behind as we caught a half hour train along the verdant coast, past farms, fields and ramshackle structures that seemed to be tumbling down before our eyes. Although the train was clearly old, the views were enjoyable and the short journey pleasant. If you choose to, you can use this train line to explore most of the towns and cities in the Algarve with ease.
We arrived at the train station and sat down with some cool drinks at a nearby cafe as we waited for our the owner of our rental flat to turn up. The day was really starting to heat up, and for most of our stay the temperature would hover in the high 30s - great for the beach but uncomfortably hot whenever there wasn't a cooling body of water nearby.
Our contact - a well dressed man with strong opinions on the European Union - drove us down to our apartment, which was located on the bank of the Gilao River, near to the bridge that connects the new and old towns. He showed us around our split-level loft before informing us the apartment had neither Wi-Fi nor air conditioning, as was advertised, and left us - now somewhat horrorstruck - to get on with our holiday.
A white city of churches
A traditional Portuguese fishing town, Tavira is elegant, with its delicate architecture, upmarket restaurants and laid-back atmosphere. It was under Arab rule for five centuries before the conquest of the Knights of the order of Santiago in the thirteenth century. From 15th-18th century it was the main shipping port of the Algarve. The bridge - which is central to the city - is thought to be Roman in origin, although it was given a facelift in the 17th century.
The first thing that would strike any visitor to Tavira is the city's gleaming white appearance. The majority of the buildings are painted a bright hue in a bid to reflect the heat and ensure their interiors are cooler than the blazing weather outside. Many of the homes and shops also feature decorative tiles, while brightly-painted wooden shutters cover the windows to rustic effect.
Glancing upwards from Tavira's cobbled streets reveals a world of spires and clock towers from the city's many churches. Indeed, Tavira boasts some 36 churches, although the diminutive size of the town means it can actually feel like more. Visitors are welcome in some of these religious institutions, and you can get a great view of the city from their bell towers that is well worth trekking up the steps for.
An island beach
The next day we set out to get our beach holiday well and truly started. This meant taking a 20-minute public boat ride to Tavira Island. The boat ride itself was smooth, but in the 38 degree celsius heat, sunscreen was a must.
The absence of a beach in Tavira itself is due to the Rio Formosa - a stunning coastal lagoon featuring mud flats, salt lakes and marshes - and the boat skirts this area on the way to Tavira Island, giving passengers a glimpse of the Algarve's natural beauty. Visitors who are particularly taken with this scene can opt for a tour of the national park.
We arrived on the island's jetty and walked past a number of bars and cafes to access the huge sandy beach on the other side of the island. The vibe is generally laid back, perhaps owing to the extreme heat. The beach is huge, with endless rows of sunbeds and umbrellas stretching out into the distance, and an extremely flamboyant doughnut seller bothering sun worshippers every 20 minutes.
The next couple of days were spent on this giant beach, paddling in the sea, eating ice cream and ordering Coronas from the bars nearby. While it's not the most beautiful beach I've ever seen (nowhere will ever beat Bali), it certainly did the job when it came to relaxing in the sun.
Drinking and dining in Tavira
One of the highlights of our holiday was the wide range of cuisine on offer in Tavira. The old town's main square is a great place to start when looking for somewhere for an evening meal. From there, pretty little streets packed with a diverse array of restaurants branch outwards.
During our holiday, we ate everything from burgers, pizza and pasta to tapas, Indian and Mexican food. Tavira's eateries vary from casual cafes on roadsides, where you can embrace your Britishness with a classic fry up, to high-end restaurants where locals and tourists dine under twinkling lights in the town's rustic alleyways.
If you love tapas, it really is worth booking a table at "D'Gusta" ahead of time. This eclectic joint lights up at night, and it's reasonably priced while offering up delicious tapas dishes until late. Tourists who enjoy food with a view, meanwhile, should visit "Tavira Lounge" and ask to sit outside. From a perch on the balcony, there's a lovely view of the river and the old town to get lost in as you tuck into your tapas. As there are relatively few seats on the balcony, this option is perfect for a romantic meal, but does mean you need to book in advance. Meanwhile, fans of Italian cuisine should head to the incredibly popular "Aquasul", which is situated in one of the cute backstreets off the main square of the old town and offers up delicious mediterranean dishes.
There are plenty of options for after dinner drinks - and even dancing if that's your thing. Tavira is a quiet town, but it still has a number of karaoke bars at which you can dance the night away. The most popular places for partying tend to be along the banks of the river, which is a picturesque place to chill out with a drink in hand after a hard day of relaxing!
We were lucky enough to have coincided our visit with "Tavira Wine Festival", where it was just €5 for your glass - and as many refills as you wished! We tried a number of different Portuguese wines - with a sparkling red being the stand-out for me - and got suitably tipsy before heading to one of the aforementioned karaoke bars.
Tavira: The verdict
Tavira is a quiet little town with quaint architecture and great dining options. If you want a seriously relaxing break in the sun then it's perfect, but if you're after somewhere lively, it would be best to look elsewhere, or perhaps mix your trip to Tavira with a couple of nights in Faro.
If I were to visit again, I'd make the most of the train line and visit more of the Algarve. I would also make sure my accommodation had air conditioning, as the midsummer heat did become unbearable at times, and we had to resort to frozen flannels to cool down at night. Overall, however, it was a peaceful and enjoyable holiday, with plenty of sun, sand and food!