Stand between the fragrant orange trees that line the main square in Vila Real de Santo António, surrounded by charming 18th century town houses and a mosaic of bold black and white cobblestones at your feet and you could be forgiven for thinking this little town’s claim to fame lies in its looks.
In many ways you would be right, for travel the length of the Algarve and you won’t find a prettier, more ship-shape, town. But Vila Real de Santo António which stands right on the River Guadiana which separates Portugal from Spain has hidden depths.
It was only a small fishing village when engulfed by a tsunami in the 18th century but because of its importance as a border town, it was rebuilt with a certain grandeur. The terrace of elegant white-washed houses that front the river are uniform, in order, goes the story, to make the Spanish, peering through their telescopes, think it was actually the façade of a magnificent palace. The energetic Marquis of Pombal (after whom the main square is named) who had just rebuilt Lisbon after the same devastating earthquake and tsunami of 1755 constructed this town in a mere two years using his Pombaline orthogonal grid and, at ruinous expense, ashlar transported from Lisbon.
In 1835 the town became the birthplace of canned fish, at one point having 27 canning factories in town. Look inside your kitchen cupboards today and you might well see the name Ramirez on your tuna or sardines. It was that family, resident here then (now in its fifth generation running the oldest canned fish business in the world) who founded the first purpose-built hotel south of Lisbon, Hotel Guadiana, which opened here in 1926. Designed by Swiss-born architect Ernesto Korrodi it brimmed with Art Déco elegance, encapsulating the style of the Roaring Twenties , hoping to attract those travelling to the 1929 Expo in Seville, less than 100 miles away.
Then came the Second World War; the Ramirez family moved their production to the north of Portugal to benefit from the more efficient rail network and business in the town centre dried up, leaving the tall red chimneys of the canning factories to the storks that nest here year after year.
But some 10 years ago a local boy became Mayor and started a serious drive to restore the town’s deteriorating heritage and now it gleams, resplendent with everything except British tourists.
The Hotel Guadiana is now the Grand House, its light-filled rooms recreate the glamour of its past and its bar delivers the best Martini in town. Last year saw the opening of a Pousada within four of the historic 18th-century townhouses, right on the orange tree-lined main square where from the rooftop pool you can look across at the characteristic sloping terracotta roofs. Following hard on its heels came an outpost of The Addresses, a beautifully restored three bed roomed house to rent with concierge services just off the main square.
The hotels have added restaurants to those there already which mostly serve Portuguese regional food from chicken piri-piri to grilled octopus. In between the restaurants, shops abound including the Soares wine store on Teófilo Braga Street where you can explore the very rich world of Portuguese wines.
And then there is the beach. Praia de Santo António is reached through a pine grove rich with the smell of resin and across sand dunes decorated by yellow-flowered succulent plants and the occasional basking chameleon. The Atlantic Ocean, warmed from the nearby Mediterranean, can reach a balmy 26 degrees, making it the Algarve’s hot spot. What’s not to love?
Visiting Vila Real de Santo António in summer 2022
Where to stay
Grand House (00 351 281 530 290) stands on the river front and offers old world elegance throughout its 31 rooms. Doubles from €313 (£265) including breakfast.
Pousada Vila Real de Santo António (00 351 281 249 120) offers a choice of swimming pools and a restaurant which spills onto the town’s main square. Doubles from €75 (£64) including breakfast. Casa Três sleeps six with three double bedrooms and a swimming pool. From €1,200 (£992) for a week.
What to eat
Live like a local and dine on Algarvian clams. The best, with garlic, olive oil and coriander are to be had at the Grand Beach Club with your feet in the sand.
A visit to the neighbouring salt pans at Castro Marim. Recently restored by artisanal salt company Sal Marim, they now supply many of Portugal’s best restaurants. Their nicely packaged salts make the perfect souvenir to bring home, particularly if you opt for the piri-piri.
How to get there
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