The Ponte Romana in the picturesque Algarve town of Tavira has a chequered past. For a start the ‘Roman Bridge’ is not Roman at all. The original bridge was built in the later Moorish period (12th century) when Tavira was part of the Muslim ruled region of Al-Andalus. It is likely however that the medieval structure was built on the foundations of the old Roman bridge that formed part of the road between Faro and the pleasant village of Castro Marin so the name is not a complete misnomer.
The Moorish bridge was fortified with stone towers at either end and played an important role in the defence of Tavira. The town would remain under Muslim control until 1242 when Dom Paio Peres Correia reconquered Tavira for the Christian Sancho II of Portugal.
The bridge has seen it’s fair share of disasters over the years. It collapsed in 1665 and was again destroyed during the 1755 earthquake that devastated Lisbon and much of Southern Portugal. In 1989, the bridge was again seriously damaged in a flood and was rebuilt in its current form. Before the flood, cars had been permitted to use the bridge. Thankfully common sense prevailed and the bridge is now closed to vehicles. Medieval Moorish bridges were not really built with 2000 kg petrol engine automobiles in mind.
Today, the Ponte Romana is a pleasant location for a leisurely evening stroll across the River Galão. The cobbled deck is a favourite haunt of folk musicians and offers superb views of the old town of Tavira on the western bank. An assortment of white-washed buildings interspersed with handsome church bell towers rises above the river.
The Eastern quay is lined with a mix of low buildings with arched windows and terracotta roofs. Some have simple white facades while others are adorned with colourful tiled exteriors and intricate wrought iron balconies. This truly a quintessential Algarve backdrop is perfect for simply sitting and people watching while cheerful Portuguese accordion music drifts through the evening air.
I first visited Tavira a few years ago with a group of photographer friends. Our first night was spent in a convivial local tavern were we sampled a range of local Portuguese drinks purely in the name of cultural discovery. It was all very civilised and only one of our party suffered any injuries of note after tumbling on the way home. Thankfully, her nose broke her fall.
The next day we decided to actually put all that expensive camera gear we had lugged all the way to the Algarve to some use. And so after a sufficient recovery period from the night before, we headed into town to the area around the ‘Roman’ Bridge.
We were lucky to be greeted by a gorgeous evening sky full of scattered clouds that reflected the warm light of the setting sun. The perfectly still conditions created some appealing reflections in the shallow waters of the Gilão. Above the bridge, you can see the bell tower and clock on a church sitting on the hill that overlooks the town (Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo Tavira). This was built on the site of a former mosque that was occupied this hilltop location during the Moorish period.
Next to this church is an old water tower that has since been converted into a giant camera obscura that projects live panoramic views of the town onto a concave surface. You basically get to go inside a giant camera! It’s well worth a visit and is of course of particular interest to photography nerds!
As the blue hour period of the evening commenced, I took a few photos on the cobbled deck of the bridge itself. I decided to wait a while for somebody to walk into the frame at just the right moment in order to provide some human interest in the scene. I’ve written before about how patience is a big part of getting the shot you want. You often have to wait quite some time for that ‘decisive moment’ that brings your photo to the next level.
With a successful night’s shooting done, we headed back to our favourite little Portuguese bar for another evening of cultural discovery and witty discussion. I’d highly recommend a Brazilian cocktail called Caipirinha…. purely in the name of cultural discovery of course.
* Only one photographer was harmed in the making of this blog post and I promise we didn’t nickname her ‘Potato Nose’ for the rest of the trip.