Hidden Gem: Exploring Vila Real de Santo António

Hidden Gem: Exploring Vila Real de Santo António

By: Ana Tavares

Photo: Hélio Ramos

Often overlooked by tourists, Vila Real de Santo António is one of the Algarve’s best-kept secrets

Border town, city of the Age of Enlightenment and of the Guadiana River. Vila Real de Santo António (VRSA) has as many labels as the tins of canned goods that came out of its prolific canning industry, which settled in the Pombaline town in the 19th century. Today, the industry may be gone but the fearless spirit remains.

VRSA has history, culture and the authentic charm of Algarve towns forgotten by tourism. With a beach, salt panes, muxama (cured, sliced tuna) and Spain right next door, it has, above all, time. And it is not difficult to take advantage of that: for a not-so ‘touristy’ destination, there is a lot to see and do.

Let’s start with its history: the skeleton of VRSA as we know it today is mostly the work of the famous Marquis of Pombal who, after the 1755 earthquake, decided to intervene in the Kingdom of the Algarve. As a commercial hub, thanks to its privileged position, it was important to avoid contraband and control commercial transactions, which is why the Customs building (located on the city façade, in Avenida da República) was the first to be finished, in 1776.

In fact, Marquis de Pombal, whose statue can be seen on the main avenue, wanted to use VRSA as a model-city, which explains the diligence in its construction, similar to Lisbon’s centre, with a geometric plan, regular layout and proportional dimensions.

Levelled and airy, with meticulous details, such as the wrought-iron fish on the drainage grates, the town centre flows out to the Praça Marquês de Pombal square (former Praça Real), where you will find city hall and the main church, Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Encarnação.

Like many national churches, its modest and neoclassic exterior hides a rich and baroque interior with stunning side-altars, a collection of 18th-century religious art and the main altar was designed by Joaquim Machado Castro, Portugal’s top sculptor at the time. The stained- glass motifs, added in the 1940s, were created by painter Joaquim Rebocho and replaced the original transparent glass that allowed for more natural light in the worship area, which is still in use today.

Outside, in the centre of the square, you will find the obelisk erected in 1775; the city hall building, recently renovated according to its original design but whose overall look is extraordinarily modern; and, perhaps even more important for visitors, several stands from local producers where you can buy typical products, from ceramics to honey, tea, cork and figs.

If you would like to stop for a coffee, there is nothing more authentic than Cantinho do Marquês, one of the town’s classic establishments, located on one of the square’s corners as the name hints.

VRSA is, par excellence, a walking city, with its inviting flat and wide Pombaline-style streets, along with the many existing shops in a flawless blend of modern retail (with world-renowned brands) and traditional trade — the many towel shops, seemingly lost in a past century, are a must, offering good-quality textiles at agreeable prices. Surprisingly busy — especially at the end of the week or on Saturday morning, when groups of Spaniards flood the city to shop — VRSA’s streets are unexpectedly lively.

Stop by the António Aleixo Cultural Centre, an old military barrack, which was converted into a produce market between 1925 and 1998. Today it hosts a flurry of exhibitions, theatre productions, music and dance shows, as well as conferences. There are several shops and small eateries around, perfect to wander about without a schedule.

António Aleixo Cultural Centre

When your stomach starts ticking, the best option is to enjoy the best of local gastronomy — fresh fish. Beloved and recommended by the locals, Restaurante Cuca, on Doutor Sousa Martins street, is a simple restaurant serving traditional Portuguese food, with a special focus on freshly caught fish cooked perfectly on the grill. Besides the typical sea bass, sea bream and sardines, there are also other delicacies depending on what the sea provides, such as beautiful mullets or anchovies, paired with a jug of house wine and complemented with a homemade dessert.

The many Spanish visitors in the street also remind us — as if you could forget — that Spain is right on the other side of the bank. A trip across the border to Ayamonte is almost mandatory when staying in VRSA. A word of advice: ignore the modern bridge over the Guadiana.

“If you’re going to Ayamonte, you must take the ferry!” says the receptionists at Grand House Hotel, the first five-star hotel in VRSA. The ferry connecting the two towns is a classic that has remained current and provides a 10-minute crossing for under €2. Ayamonte exudes medieval charm and Moorish influences, with several bars and cafés to snack on tapas and have a beer. A popular stop-off point is the Nuestra Señora de las Angustias church, which gives its name to one of the town’s best-known festivities, and has undergone several renovations after the 1755 earthquake.

Evidencing the typical bourgeois colonial architecture of Andalusia, Casa Grande, facing Plaza de Rosario, was ordered in 1745 by merchant Manuel Rivero and is a cultural hub, with an exhibitions room on the first floor (entry is free). Back on the Portuguese side, you can finish this cultural tour on the António Rosa Mendes Municipal Historical Archive, which details the story of VRSA and its once thriving canning industry. In 1941, there were 24 canning factories here alone — today there are only three in the entire Algarve.

One of the curiosities of this part of the region is that a lot of people travel by bicycle. Of the 12 councils travelled by Ecovia Litoral — a 214km cycling trail that crosses the entire Algarve, with stunning natural attractions — VRSA registers the largest number of bike-users, and plenty of people ride to neighbouring regions, such as Monte Gordo. There 25km of bicycle lanes in and around the two parishes.

Speaking of Monte Gordo, this family destination, popular among the Portuguese, is well known for its vast sand banks and warm waters. However, few know that the VRSA beach shares that same sand, offering equally enjoyable conditions. Now with a boardwalk, all you have to do to get to this hidden paradise is follow Avenida da República all the way towards the pier and turn to the road on your right-hand side.

If you wish to explore the surrounding beaches, there are endless options from the scorching Fábrica beach in Cacela Velha (a mandatory stop-off), to the famous Verde beach and the beautiful pine forest it got its name from. The area also has river beaches, such as the one on the Barragem de Odeleite dam, or in Alcoutim, at Ribeira de Cadavais.

Cacela Velha

The unknown heritage of the surrounding villages and towns truly deserves to be explored. Countless memories await you: from Castro Marim, rising with its castle over VRSA, to Alcoutim, the stop-off point of the world’s first cross-border zipline — which allows you to cross the Guadiana river at 70-80km/h on a 720m cable linking Sanlúncar de Guadiana to the Algarve town.

Castro Marim

Don’t listen to what they say — this is not where the Algarve ends, but rather where it starts.

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