Away from the coast, the countryside is unspoiled and consists of a great rolling succession of hills, covered in wild Mediterranean scrub, interspersed with cork oak trees. Near the coast, the broad flat valley of the River Guadiana, with it's bird -filled shores and reed beds, is endlessly fascinating, and the town of Vila Real offers a gateway to the very different Spanish region of Andalucia. The coastal towns include the port of Olhao, the city of Tavira, and the resort of Montegordo with it's glorious expanse of golden sandy beach.
Tavira is a lovely old city, full of character,which stands on either side of the River Gilao. It's two halves are connected by a seven-arched Roman bridge. A small, medieval castle on a low hill in the centre of town presides of all. From the castle rampart, there are superb views over Tavira's ornate chimneys, roof-tops and church towers, and to the few short stretches of the towns ancient walls that survived the 1755 earthquake. Tavira also has numerous churches, the Misericordia, Carmo, Sao Francisco and Ondas churches are decoratively the most interesting. If you stroll along the riverside streets you can see some rare, 16th century houses, distinguished by stone doorcases, and across the river by Sao Paulo church, you will find a square with bars, street cafes and restaurants. Just offshore from Tavira, reachable by ferry-boat is a 10km-long island called Ilha de Tavira - the most accessible of the barrier islands in the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve. The island has long sandy beaches, camping areas, and on the far side a row of seafront restaurants - very popular during the summer months. You can also walk to the island across the footbridge from Santa Luzia, the seafront fishing village 3km west of Tavira.
Alcoutim sits sleepily on the right bank of the Guadiana River opposite the Spanish village of Sanlucar. Castle ruins high up on either side are reminders of former days of hostility between Portugal and Spain. Total tranquility reigns today - Alcoutim has the atmosphere of a timeless town. Life here moves at the pace of the horse-drawn ploughs that are still used to till the surrounding fields.
The most scenic approaches to Alcoutim from the south are by boat up the river from Vila Real de Santo Antonio, or by road which runs alongside the river about 2km south of the village of Odeleite. From the west it can be approached by the N124 through the villages of Cachopo and Maritim Longo. This whole north-eastern section of the Algarve is remote and rural with scattered hamlets and low rolling hills.
At Castro Marim there are two huge castles to explore, spreading across the two hills that rise above the salt flats either side of this fishing town. For many centuries it was a place of key strategic importance because of it's location overlooking the broad estuary of the Guadiana River, a frontier between warring factions at least since Roman times. The main castle, north of the town, built in 1319, has a rampart walk which allows visitors to walk round the castle, with views down to the fishermen's houses below, and the acres of salt pans, many of them in use since pre-Roman times. Also within the castle walls are the offices of the Castro Marim Nature Reserve, from where walk leaflets are available. The Sao Sebastiao fortress on the opposite hill, dates from the 17th century and is part of a much bigger complex of defensive walls that survive only in parts around the town. Today, the two countries have abolished their common border and the modern suspension bridge, which crosses the river, carries the IPl motorway, 2km northeast of the town.
OIhão is, along with Portimao, the biggest of the Algarve's fishing ports. The fishmarket along the seafront, has now been modernised to meet EU regulations, but it has lost none of it's vital character. Equally colourful is the fruit and vegetable market, it's stalls piled high with dried figs, almonds, honey, herbs and local cheeses, as well as fresh fruits. Opposite the seafront promenade, Olhao divides into two distinct districts. To the east is a dense warren of narow, cobbled alleys where the houses are distinctly North African in style - cube shaped with undecorated facades. By contrast, the west part of town has some of the Algarve's most attractive and ornate buildings. Shops and cafes line the pedestrianised Rua do Comercio which leads from the church to the seafront.
Two islands in the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve are easily accessible by boat from Olhao: Ilha do Armona and Ilha do Culatra. Both have lovely sandy beaches, and except in peak season, are quiet and relaxing islands with few inhabitants.
Montegordo has one of the Algarve's finest beaches - a vast broad sweep of fine golden sand. Numerous seasonal seafood restaurants sit along the sands, offering fresh fish provided by the local fishermen. The resort has a wide, cafe lined avenue facing the sea, and it makes a pleasant place to wander, do a spot of shopping and generally take life easy.
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