Vila real Scenes
Vila Real de Santo António is situated on the Rio Guadiana, in the eastern Algarve which is the river that divides the Algarve from Spain. If you stand on the far eastern edge of Vila Real you can easily see the Spanish coastline and the bridge over the river that connects the town to Ayamonte in Spain. The bridge was built in the early 1990s and has made a big difference to the congestion in and around the town because people can now drive straight there instead of waiting for a ferry.
Vila Real is very easy to find your way around, because it is laid out on a grid system. The town was designed that way by the Marquês de Pombal who was keen to apply the latest concept of town planning after the sea had eroded all of the original settlements in the area at the beginning of the 17th century. The Royal charter founding the town, was signed on December 30th 1773, the marking out of the street plan was started on March 2nd 1774 and by August 6th, the Town Hall, Customs House and barracks had already been completed!
At the end of the 19th century the town was a major canning centre for sardines and tuna, and the port was busy with the ships that sailed the Guadiana. It was also the first place in the Algarve to have gas lighting (1886). It is still a thriving community based on fishing, agriculture and tourism.
The main road runs straight from Monte Gordo to Vila Real, and the Avenida da República runs along the front of the town, adjacent to the Rio Guadiana. The riverfront is attractively laid out with trees and water features and there is also a marina where you can watch the boats.
Vila Real has a large town square, 'Praça Marquês de Pombal', which is edged with orange trees and populated with low white buildings, shops, cafes and restaurants. Just behind the square there is a space called the Centro Cultural António Aleixo, which used to be the old market. Today it is used for temporary exhibits and events. There is also a museum, Museu de Manuel Cabanas, where you can go to see the works of a local painter and wood engraver.
In essence, Vila Real is a relaxed and peaceful town and ideal for anyone who likes the quieter side of life, or to escape the stresses from home. It’s beautifully quaint, with lots to see and do, particularly for those who like to potter around and absorb the local culture. Like Monte Gordo, Vila Real is also very flat, so is ideal for walking and cycling.
Vila Real has a lovely open sandy beach, which stretches for several kilometres uninterrupted towards Manta Rota, near to Tavira. Just be aware though, to get to the beach you do have to go down quite a narrow road, with some rather large speed bumps in it and very little space to manoeuvre, so if you are driving, it’s probably easier to park up where you can and walk the last stretch.
Vila Real de Santo António is one of three municipalities that make up the 'Baixo Guadiana' region. Vila Real, Castro Marim and Alcoutim, are the three Algarvean Sotavento (eastern Algarve) municipalities that have been collectively coined 'Baixo Guadiana'. Linked by the Guadiana River, these places, with a total area measuring 940km², have become recognised for their beautiful environment, where sun, sea, river, mountain and friendly people coexist. Local fauna and flora characterise both the significance and potential of a region that is extremely important for a sustained ecosystem; this includes many marshes and dunes, which are important habitats for the reproduction of crustaceans and bivalves. The two protected areas, Ria Formosa Natural Park and the Natural Marsh Reserve of Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santa António span 20,489ha and are abundant with wildlife, with hundreds of different species of birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles and plants.
Representing this region and coordinating the aims of the three municipalities, is a non-profit organisation, 'Odiana'. Created in December 1998, Odiana is commited to making its contribution towards the sustainable economic and social development of the region and emphasises its potential and natural beauty. Odiana continually promotes the region through various projects and they give support to every project that contributes to the region's development. (For more information about what is available in the Baixo Guadiana region, visit or contact Odiana in Castro Marim, or the local tourist offices in Alcoutim, Castro Marim or Vila Real).
A relaxing way to see this eastern end of the Algarve (and the western end of Spain) is to take a boat trip along the Guadiana to Alcoutim. It passes through some beautiful countryside and changes from the very flat scenery around Vila Real to a backdrop of rounded hills with lush vegetation and a few houses here and there until you arrive at Alcoutim. Here you can see castles on hilltops on both banks of the river as reminders of the past.
If you haven't visited this area before do give it a try. The water is a few degrees warmer, the beaches are lovely and they certainly can't get crowded! It's probably best for couples or families with younger children as teenagers may find it too quiet, although if they are into watersports there are plenty of activities here for them. It's certainly very popular with older visitors during the 'off season' months - a good dose of sunshine, plenty of places for walking and cycling and lots of restaurants to choose from. It's also only about half an hour from Faro, straight down the A22 motorway. There is a good selection of holiday rentals available in both villas and apartments.
There are lots of places to explore around Vila Real but one to make top of your agenda is Cacela Velha. It is a very small village with a handful of typically Algarvean whitewashed houses around a Church and a fort situated on the waterfront just past Manta Rota (heading west from Vila Real - it is signposted from the N125). There isn't a lot to do there it has to be said, but the village and the views are truly delightful. There are a couple of restaurants if you want to linger for a while - the one on the right just as you come into the village has an upstairs terrace giving great panoramic views across the beaches of Manta Rota and Monte Gordo to Vila Real all set against a backdrop of lush green countryside. About the only sounds 'disturbing' the total peace and quiet are from the birds and a few chickens!
Vila Real de Santo António - History
The origin of the town was as a small fishing port and dates back to Phoenician times when the "Conii" tribe populated the area. Due to the topographical flatness of the area the neighbouring hill of Castro Marim lent itself to a stronger location to fortify. This frontier town with Spain was especially designed and rebuilt after the terrible earthquake of 1755 by the Marquês de Pombal, an very influential Royal Minister in the 18th Century who redesigned the centre of the City of Lisbon due to the same earthquake.
Vila Real de Santo António - Description
Today, these townhouses around the main square are showing serious degradation with the passing of time. With the construction just to the north of the town of a new bridge in 1991 across the River Guadiana provides rapid connecting with Seville and the rest of Spain. The obvious diminishing of the popularity of this town will have further effect if steps are not shortly taken. Between the town and the Ocean is a popular beach resort area named Monte Gordo that offers the tourist kilometres of sea washed beach lined with a pine forest and safe bathing.
The population of approximately 14,000 inhabitants tend to gain their living either working in the tourist industry, fishing, or, trading across the river with their Spanish neighbours. Attached to the Town Hall is a small but interesting museum which is mainly focused on the designs for tins for packaging in the fishing industry. It is a very pleasant and relaxing experience to cross the river by the original ferryboats and visit the Spanish town of Ayamonte. Visitors can take a boat trip upriver to the charming small unspoilt Portuguese town of Alcoutim.
Vila Real de Santo António - Nearby Locations
North of Vila Real de Santo António is Castro Marim that due to its location has played a considerable part in the history of Portugal. This later town was originally chosen as the founding headquarters in 1319 of the 14th Century movement of the Order of Christ. Although the buildings are now in ruins from the effects of the 1755 earthquake it still has the unusual feature of having a castle built within a castle. In the 17th Century a stronger and more defensive stronghold was built on a hilltop just to the north that also still remains. The castle acted as a well-known haven to escapees in the early days from the Spanish Religious Inquisition until the Portuguese also introduced their own Religious Inquisition. From the walls of the castles the view is to the south across the flat lands that are now a nature reserve for birds and plants and this area is known as the Reserva Natural do Sapal.
Near to Vila Real de Santo António are the holiday destinations of Manta Rota, Monte Gordo and Praia Verde, all purpose built to provide accommodation for visitors to the long sandy beaches.See map Vila real de Santo Antonio.
Inland, and up river is the interior small unspoilt administrative town of Alcoutim with its ruins of two castles that date back to the Moor occupation of the Algarve, and of which one that is even older dating back at least 1000 years. The King Dinis rebuilt the main castle in 14th Century but it was liberated from Moor occupation in 1238. This small town looks across the River Guadiana at the Spanish town of Sanlúcar and has a local museum. It was at this town that Dom Fernando I signed in 1371 an important Peace treaty with Don Henrique II de Castile. Even further up river is the town of Mértola with its 13th Century castle ruins. The Phoenicians founded this historic town as an inland port, later successfully used by both the Romans and Moors. Perched on a high spur overlooking the River Guadiana this town has many vestiges of the past and a museum housing one of Portugal's best collections of Islamic art.
Back on the coast the small beachside village of Cacela-a-Velha dates back to Phoenician times and has an 18th Century Fort that overlooks a small natural lagoon between itself and the protecting sandbar
Information courtesy of general internet research and algarveuncovered.com, portugal-info.net, tripadvisor.com, algarve-guides.com and many more sources
Vila Real de Santo António
Villa Rentals in Vila Real and holiday rentals in the Algarve Portugal in general are big business so you should expect to be treated with professionalism and with courtesy.