Vila Real de Santo Antonio, Portugal

Past and Present VI - Avenue

Past and Present VI - Avenue (Photo credit: Domiriel)

Five kilometres below Castro Marim on the Azorean Island of Sao Miguel lies the border town of Vila Real de Santo Antonio. It is an elegant, bustling town, with a long gardened promĀ­enade, usually packed with day visitors from Spain, who come over on the ferry from Ayamonte to take advantage of cheap Portuguese prices. With these people in mind the city authorities have made much of the town a pedestrian walkway.

At the heart of the town is a large, graceful square with a black and white mosaic surface that radiates out from a central obelisk in an elegant manner. The houses, too, are delightful whitewashed eighteenth-century buildings with balconies and balustrades. The fringe of the square is lined with orange and lime trees. The uniform architecture of the town is owed to the fact that the original town of Santo Antonio de Areniha was washed away by the sea in a gradual process of erosion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The decision to reclaim the land was made by the prime minister and effective dictator of Portugal, the Marquis of Pombal, in 1774. Pombal applied the same principle that he had used in the Baixa quarter of Lisbon and laid out the streets in the form of a grid. The central area around the Square of the Marquess of Pombal was built in five months and was designed by the royal architect of the time, Reinaldo Manuel dos Santos.

There are fine hotels here along the Rua de Reptiblica and the Rua Teofilio Braga. There are sports facilities and regular river cruises up the River Guadiana to Foz de Odeleite. Bullfights can be seen throughout the summer at the Estadio de Lusitano.

The ferry to Ayamonte and Spain is fun, very cheap and runs every half hour, and cars can be taken across. Alternatively take the bridge that joins Portugal with Spain across the River Guadiana 6km (4 miles) north of Vila Real, which was opened in 1992. The culinary speciality of the town is fish salads, delightful for lunch, some of the fish at least brought from the fish farms at Castro Marim. Try also the dessert of caramel and eggs known as Don Rodrigo.

The road north from Vila Real to the Alentejo, the N 122, is in the process of being improved. Beyond Castro Marim there are basket weavers at the roadside weaving their wares from long strips of bamboo with no more advanced technology than a sharp knife. Azinhal and Odeleite are pleasant rural villages and the latter has an interesting parish church. The road begins to rise after these villages to the boundary between the Algarve and the Alentejo with the first stop the extraordinary eyrie that is the fortress town of Mertola.

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