Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 5 – Trincomalee

When preparing for my trip to Sri Lanka, one of the things that cropped up, not only in my guide book, but also in every internet resource I could find, anywhere, was the mention of countless long, white stretches of beach, with the warm Indian ocean waters lapping at the sand. That sounded pretty good to me and, after lots of historical and cultural tourism, now seemed like a very good time to check it out.

After my excellent host from Polonnaruwa had left me on the bus to Habarana, I had a fairly comfy seat for an hour. The only other passengers, in fact, were a group of nuns. As you might imagine, they were not terribly noisy. The bus was also relatively new, by Sri Lankan standards so, somewhat surreally, this was almost what I’d call a pleasant bus journey. Without incident, I was off the bus at Habarana and went in to a local shop to ask where the bus to Trincomalee went from and to buy some water. The owner cheerfully gestured down the road and so I took a walk of about 500m, crossed the road and waited with a fairly large group of people.

The bus arrived after, perhaps half an hour and I immediately realised why the other bus had been so empty. It was to prepare me for the squash of my life. The driver saw my bag and motioned for the money collector to go to the back of the bus and open the luggage compartment. I didn’t even know these buses had one. It was just behind the engine, and so was radiating heat like crazy. I stuffed my rucksack in and jumped onto the bus, standing next the driver, holding a piece of leather hanging from above my head for dear life, while the bus swung around corners, the door – as always – wide open. This was going to be a fun two hours.

Then my luck changed. At some seriously insignificant looking hamlet, a whole host of people jumped off and then some eastern European looking people jumped on and asked, in broken English, for tickets to Trincomalee. By this stage of my journey, I was no longer bothering to book accommodation ahead, so I asked them where they were from. They were a couple from Kiev, in Ukraine and they’d been to Trincomalee at the beginning of their break and had a recommendation for a hotel. We spent the remaining hour of the journey talking about what we’d seen in Sri Lanka thus far, and then we found ourselves on the water’s edge entering the city.

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Trincomalee is an east-facing city, spread out along the Indian Ocean coast. It has a harbour in the south, where there is still a large fishing community and then stretches north, through tourist areas littered with beautiful beaches and hotels and, finally, a nature reserve which is mainly made up of mangroves. The harbour area, as we arrived, was quite polluted but, generally speaking, it’s a very beautiful place. We hopped out of the bus and the ticket inspector swung open the luggage compartment for me to fetch my rucksack. As he did so, he took a huge chunk of flesh out of my arm. I was immediately bleeding all over the place. For now, I covered it up with some antiseptic gel and tissues and followed the Ukranian couple to a tuk tuk. 15 minutes and 600 rupees later, we were at a buddhist community centre hostel, part of the Sarvodaya group who have been doing some excellent work to provide relief to those affected by the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. It was not the most attractive place I stayed in, but it was located right next to the Uppaveli beach and the prices were very reasonable. We found our rooms, signed the paperwork and then we decided to hit the beach for a swim. I didn’t have my camera with me, but here’s a picture of the beach from Wikipedia:

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It’s so beautiful as to be almost unrealistic. The water is also so warm, it’s like stepping in to a bath. The tide here is quite strong, and it was great fun to lie back and be battered by the waves and occasionally completely sucked in by one. As the high season had not yet started, there were perhaps only fifty people on this two kilometre stretch of white sand, a mixture of westerners and Sri Lankans. After an hour splashing around, I got out and dried off in the heat of the setting sun. After a while, the Ukrainian couple also dragged themselves out of the water and invited me to join them for dinner at a restaurant on the beach. I accepted and we went and sat. I ate devilled cuttlefish with rice, which was terrific, and had a delicious spicy zing to it. Sadly though, as dinner progressed, I heard more and more casual racism from them, talking about how it was good to come here, but they didn’t like having to get too close to brown people. Having lived in Poland I was disappointed by this, but not overly surprised, so I retired to my room after dinner and decided it might be best not to spend to much time with them thereafter.

Not to be put off by my bad experience of the night before, I woke up and jumped into the shower, having missed the VERY early breakfast slot of 7:00 – 8:30. While showering myself in the not-especially-clean communal bathrooms, I noticed that my wound from the previous day’s bus had gone quite bright yellow. This probably wasn’t a good sign. Dying of an infection or septicaemia was really low on my to do list, so I vowed to keep an eye on it. Unperturbed, I got dressed, daubed myself in sun block as it was already 38 degrees, at just before 9am, and left the hostel complex. I approached the first tuk tuk I could find, on the other side of the road and asked him how much it would be to go to Swami rock. He had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. So we rode down the main road and then into a small residential neighbourhood, where he found an older fella who spoke immaculate English and sorted out the whole confusion. We agreed a very reasonable price of 350 rupees and were on our way.

Swami rock is a large peninsula, jutting out from just above Trincomalee’s harbour. It is mainly made up of the expansive Fort Frederick, a fortress first built by the Portuguese in 1624, then occupied by the Dutch, then the British, before finally becoming perhaps the most important combined army and navy base in Sri Lanka. Most of it is fenced off to visitors, but you can still get some impressive views of the colonial era buildings. Before all that though, I wanted to see the temple of Shiva at the very tip of the rock. Just before it, you walk through a market which sells, almost exclusively, cheap and useless tat. It felt seedy and unpleasant and the hawkers here were particularly in your face. I had a really bad feeling about the place but, rounding the last corner, I saw this and all the bad feeling ebbed away:

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I’d always been impressed by the clean lines & tranquillity of the Buddhist complexes I’d seen all over the country to date, but this was my first Hindu temple experience of note. The lurid, technicolour madness of it was a delight. Looking at the photo now, some months later, it all seems a bit over the top, but it all fits perfectly, when you’re there. Before entering, I decided to have a walk around the rock garden to the right of the temple, where many statuettes of deities are stationed. It’s also from here where you can supposedly see sperm and blue whales at almost all times of the year.

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It was an amazing experience, to be inside the temple, with the smell of incense filling the air and a throng of pilgrims circumambulating, leaving offerings at the many shrines and chanting. There were no whales to be seen around Swami Rock, but still, the views were quite marvellous. It was only on leaving the temple that I realised, some 4 hours after waking up, I’d yet to have breakfast. I grabbed a king coconut, to drink as I made my way back down the rock towards Fort Frederick. At the bottom of a hill, I found an army café with my now firm favourite Sri Lankan snack: toasted, spiced vegetable stuffed roti triangles. So I bought two and a cup of milky (and, frustratingly very sugary) tea. It made a good breakfast and set me back a grand total of 80 rupees (about 60 euro cents).

From here, I walked down to the harbour front, where lifeguards were giving kids sea safety lessons on the beach and a large number of fallow deer were tamely relaxing under the shade of whatever trees they could find. The temperature was now in the low to mid forties. I grabbed an ice cream and went to sit by the water for a while.

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Across the road from the water, there was a fairly serious looking game of cricket going on. There were a lot of military vehicles around the makeshift stadium and so I decided to walk in to the Buddhist temple next door instead. As I did so, I discovered that the temple was connected to the Cricket pitch and, in front of me, under a gazebo, a handful of men in uniform were watching the game and cheering. Perhaps foolishly, I decided to approach and see if I could watch the game. One of the men stood up and explained that this was the officer’s area and it was an All Sri Lanka inter-regimental armed forces tournament. He then asked me if I would be their guest in the officer’s area. So, in spite of my slightly muddy shorts, trainers and t-shirt, I joined the men and was told a lot about the best players, the different parts of the country that the regiments were all from and, from my main host, about his family too. The cricket was played ten overs each way, so the batting was frenetic, making for quite high scores and also quick wickets. It was very exciting. The funniest part, though, was the waiter who was there to look after the officers and insisted on bringing me glass after glass of cold orangeade, on a red velvet cushion with gilt edges. He must have been baking hot in his uniform, complete with waistcoat and more!

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After a couple hours, which comprised some 4 games of cricket, I decided to take myself off for some lunch, after thanking the officers for their lovely hospitality. I had read about a restaurant, in the Lonely Planet guide, not far from a smaller Hindu temple, near the railway station which was excellent and decided to check it out, for lunch. It was all vegetarian, but this is a part of the world where I find vegetarian food is king, most of the time. I helped myself to a mustard seed-laden potato curry dosa, a portion of mixed vegetable curry, some kind of doughnut shaped, gram flour based snack and, because I didn’t have five rupees in change, the lady gave me a small chocolate square which, by some miracle, hadn’t melted in the heat of the day. Of course, I also took an Elephant ginger beer. It was delicious and, once again, came in at some ridiculous price, like 160 rupees, or about 1.10 Euros. The temple was also quite attractive, but too crowded, due to an early afternoon puja, so I couldn’t go inside.

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The rest of the afternoon was a quiet reading session on the beach, recharging my batteries. At nightfall, I decided that I would commit the sin of going in search of western food. I’d seen a huge billboard for “Trincomalee’s First Pizza Restaurant” in the first tuk tuk on the way to the hostel on the first day. I decided to go up the nilaveli road and find it. When I arrived, I was astonished to see a real stone oven in the corner. The (brand new) door was nearly falling off its hinges and the handle was like a fairly dull blade, but the sight of the oven and the smell of ‘real’ pizza was encouraging. Encouraging enough for me to overlook the inflated prices. The small few tables in the place were all occupied, but the waiter gestured for me to sit with two middle aged gentleman, one of whom looked like an academic on holiday and the other looked like a slightly portly Crocodile Dundee type. He had 4 or 5 teeth and a long, grey pony tail, while he was balding at the front. He was wearing a leather waistcoat, with no t-shirt.

I sat down and said hello. The holidaying academic turned out to be a holidaying academic. A social scientist, to be precise, who was there on holiday after completing a PhD on social integration (or the lack of) in the wake of the Sri Lankan civil war. The other fella was a resident. They had been friends in the anthropology department of a university in the Netherlands and made very interesting dining company. They told me a lot about the war, how Trincomalee had been quite badly affected, with the now local man told me of how he had a number of bullet holes in the wall of his house as a reminder. They also told me about Portuguese and Dutch burghers in Sri Lanka – something which I’d learn more about in Mannar. All importantly, the pizza was excellent. Afterwards, I headed back to the hostel, ready for a trip to Pulmoddai, the next day.

Pulmoddai is a miniscule village in a clearing in the aforementioned giant mangrove forest. Why was I going here you may ask? Certainly every person I encountered in Pulmoddai asked me that. Well, it was mainly because it was accessed by a very picturesque bus route through the mangroves, over rivers and so on and secondly because the guide book told me there were no tourists there, almost ever, so you could have a more authentic experience. So off I went.

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No more than half a kilometre beyond the side by side hotels of upmarket (too upmarket for my budget!) Nilaveli and you cross this bridge over the startlingly blue water, from where pleasure boats go out for snorkelling trips to Pigeon island. After this it’s into the dense forest, with various hamlets appearing and disappearing with increasing speed. The road seems to be poker straight. From nowhere the forest opened and suddenly we were hurtling along through rapidly changing scenery. First pasture, heavily populated with animals, then salt mines, with the occasional lady walking with a parasol to protect her from the sun, then natural harbours with more motorboats moored up and then more mangroves. Then we arrived in Pulmoddai.

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At first glance Pulmoddai is a single crossroads. A single crossroads with heavy roadworks going on at one end when I arrived. This is not ideal. I decide to take a look at Google maps. It showed me a rather intriguing path, through one of the narrower streets, near the road works, to the ocean, so I decided to follow it. I walked past countless carts being pulled by cattle, highly confused children going home from school, and a surprising number of girls in their late teens who seemed compelled to stop and talk to me, probably more in disbelief than anything. At the top of the road, I happened upon a rust coloured, dusty cricket pitch. Before I was anywhere near it, the gathered teenage boys started running towards me, clutching bats and ball. They demanded I play with them, so I dropped my camera and my water in their pavilion and played a few overs with them. Then we got a few snaps.

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We chatted a little about their city, what there was to see, which premier league football team I supported – a surprise in this cricket dominated world – and what I thought about all things Sri Lanka. They were a really nice bunch of lads and they pointed me in the direction of a nice river walk and told me of a great place to grab lunch time rice and curry, near my bus stop.

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It wasn’t until I was on my way back to the main street to get lunch that I realised that the water here didn’t smell. It wasn’t stagnant and there were a lot of fish swimming about. This was a wonderful change from the inland water I’d found in most of the rest of the country. I cheerfully ambled to the inappropriately named City Hotel and asked for a rice and curry lunch. It took a few moments for the proprieter to get over the shock of me being there, but he then offered me the choice of chicken and fish and so, remembering the clean looking water (I hoped) I plumped for fish. When it showed up, it was terrific and came served with drumstick curry, spiced beans, waday – more on that later – and dhal. Everything was wrapped in newspaper, but the owner went out to the kitchen and fetched me a spoon, I suppose psychically knowing that I was utterly useless at eating rice with my fingers!

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I snoozed on the mid afternoon bus back to Upaveli and got an early night ahead of my next stage of my journey. Another normally unvisited place was next, in the shape of Vavuniya. I checked out of the hostel the next morning and stopped off at the unfortunately named City Hotel and Cream House for a bit of breakfast and then waved goodbye to the Indian Ocean, at least for now.

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Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily upon the Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can get your copy, here:

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Tavira – The ‘Other’ Algarve

My first weekend off work in almost four months, so what on Earth was I doing not just out of bed, but in a train station at 8:00 on a Friday morning. Of course, it was time for another adventure. I don’t know how it happens with my readers, but whenever I go to a train station and need to buy my ticket from a human being, I invariably have to wait for my 50 second transaction by people who take so unfeasibly long to get through their business, that I imagine them asking questions like: “so this train, what’s that?” or “which is quicker..?” and then producing a list of 40 or 50 different options for their journey. But anyway, with a couple of minutes to spare, I made my way to the front of the line, submitted my simple request – to the salesman’s relief – and headed up to platform four or Entrecampos station to wait for my train.

More or less bang on time, the Alfa Pendular to Faro rolled in. It was to be my first time on this, the flagship train of the Portuguese network. Even at that ungodly hour and with limited coffee propping my eyelids open, I was fairly excited to jump on board. I pretty swiftly found my seat, got settled with my magazine and we were off. The train took off, speedily charging through Alcantara and sweeping out across the 25th April bridge. I gave Lisbon a wave goodbye and by a quarter to nine, we were speeding through Setubal and onward to the south.

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Owing to the raft of people who didn’t know how to interface with a ticket office, I’d been unable to buy any refreshments for my journey before boarding and my experience of such disasters on British trains had taught me that I was in store for an unpleasant and expensive pseudo coffee and water which cost more per millilitre than molten gold. Thankfully, this is Portugal and for only 3 Euros, I returned to my seat equipped with a decent cup of coffee, an orange juice and a bottle of water for later. I got comfy and read my magazine, occasionally glancing out at the countryside roaring past my window or left, up to the LED speedometer, informing me of our rapid rate of advance – often around 235kph. In what seemed like a very short time, we rolled in to Albufeira and, finally, Faro.

The last time I’d been here, I was 9 years old. On my first family holiday abroad, landing at the then still quite new Faro airport and staying in the British micro colony of Praia da Rocha. It had been lovely as a 9 year old boy, sunshine, scorpions (which I cruelly poked with sticks at every opportunity) and warm(ish) sea. But in retrospect, it was something of a hellish vision. For all the beauty of the beach, with it’s starkly cut rock-grandeur and the mildness of the climate, it was exactly the kind of Brits-abroad chicken burger fest I was hoping to avoid. So this time, I jumped off the train and took my extra 26 years of wisdom on to a train east. To Tavira.

Inifinitely less finessed and filled to bursting with (mainly) Portuguese tourists, our ageing little train pulled out of Faro station within a matter of minutes and started the gentle stroll along the coast, hugging the water as it went. As if a metaphor for the slower pace at which every element of life chugs along here, in the heart of the Algarve region, no-one – myself included – seemed to mind the trains slow and steady progression through Olhao, and other places, finally stopping off at Tavira. A large handful of us jumped off and, with a quick consultation of my map, I was off down a street named after a doctor, towards the heart of town. A leisurely 10 minute stroll, and a couple of beautifully flowered squares later, and I was buzzing my way in to the Tavira B&B.

A quick chat with the owner, a quicker change out of my jeans – it was a full 10 degrees hotter than Lisbon – and I was out and off to a recommended local restaurant to try some fish. I was, after all, on the Mediterranean/Atlantic coast. I found myself in the Avenida restaurant. Described to me as being just like it was 30 years ago, it seemed like it was a restaurant from 30 years ago, whcih was just fine with me. I ordered some bread and olives to start and my travelling companion ordered a plate of mixed grilled fish, while I had octopus and vegetable stuffed pancakes, simply because I’d never even heard of such a combination before. The olives were obviously local, the main courses excellent and the bill, considering we were now well and truly in tourist country, during the Easter weekend no less, was more than acceptable.

With lunch done, it was time to wander a bit. Tavira is a really tiny place and consists of just a small few streets on one side of the river, with a further few across the other side. With much of the old town on the side nearest the station, I decided that was the best place to explore first. At the bottom of the main road into town, you are abruptly stopped by a pedestrian zone, which backs on to the river. In the middle is a column, with a water feature to one side with cafés and restaurants dotted around. It’s from here that, if you bear left, you can walk up one of the oldest streets and find the old castle.

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Beyond the stairs, you end up at a community culture centre, where an enthusiastic woman came out to tell me, in beautiful English, about the programme of culture and music they had for the weekend. I thanked her for the information and walked on up a narrow street of near identical whitewashed buildings, but for one with a door with a cute piece of street art on it. Every now and then a glorious view would peek at you from between the buildings on the left, as you got higher up over the city.

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Reaching the top of the hill, I saw that there was a camera obscura here. While unable to take any photos inside, for obvious reasons, it was a really nice thing to do, especially as I’d never been in one before. I found myself regularly forgetting it was a live picture of the city, projected onto the lens in front of me and then, as a person moved, the realisation hit me squarely in the face again. The lady giving the tour also a slightly vicious way with the cane she was using to point to different landmarks, so I made sure not to make too much eye contact. The other really nice thing about it was that it was set up inside the old water tower. A great way of utilising architectural heritage in an effective way.

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From here, I wandered the streets at the upper end of the city, looking for the way in to the castle. When I eventually found it, I was quite amazed to see that the entire centre coutryard had been turned into a beautiful flower garden. There were several men at work even as I walked around, keeping everything pristine, and I’m really not sure that any of my photos do any of the flower beds justice. I was also able to climb up various sections of the battlements – no British-style health and safety here, folks – and the rugged nature of the ruined parts, destroyed like so much in Portugal in the great earthquake and tsunami of 1755, was quite a sight.

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Love the sentiment, but that grammar... yuck!
Love the sentiment, but that grammar… yuck!

With the castle fully inspected, it was time to cross the Roman Bridge over the river and to take in the views from the tallest building in the city, the only high rise hotel, which had been recommended to me by the cane wielding woman in the camera obscura. As the only multi storey building in a city of duplexes and bungalows, you might fear that the Porta Nova hotel would be something of a monstrosity, but happily enough, it’s quite elegantly put together and sits behing much of the riverfront property, on a little plateau, so it doesn’t look too bad at all. I walked in and sat at the pool garden bar out the back and had a beer before the cocktail bar on the roof opened. When it did, I jumped in the lift and made my way to the 10th floor, for a quite breathtaking view over the city.

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After a few minutes of staring out over the horizon, I went back down and walked through the town, past the Roman bridge and the huge Irish bar opposite, past some really interesting architecture, including one huge, arched building, of which all but the facade has completely caved in.

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After the walk, I was beaten. So, suffering with a cold – always during the holidays!!! – and having woken up stupidly early, I retired for a nap. In the evening, I went to a Portuguese Goan restaurant, ordered the firiest thing on the menu to chase away my running nose and beat a hasty retreat back to bed.

Friday started with two pieces of excellent news. The forecast cloud cover existed only in my weather app’s imagination and my cold had indeed been beaten into submission by the brute force of chilli and ginger. I went out onto the B&B’s lovely terrace for breakfast with a smile on my face and tucked into my melée of cheeses, hams and breads, washed down with Algarve orange juice and powerful coffee. After a quick shower and remembering to put my swimming shorts under my regular shorts, it was off to the town and the trip to the beach. A quick covering of sunblock, making sure my book was in my bag and I was off.

Tavira is a city where the beach is actually somewhat disconnected from the city itself. The river flows all the way down to a small inlet of water that sits behind a small ‘island’ which separates it from the sea. The easiest way to get there is to board a ferryboat at a pier, just along from the Roman bridge, next to the old fish market, now a food hall for artisan local cuisine. But as I arrived, there was some commotion. The boat, it seemed, was not running, other than every 2 to 3 hours, as it was not yet high season. So it was a 2km walk down to the jetty, where boats still left every 15 minutes or so, even at this time of the year. At first it seemed like a hardship, but the pleasant weather, sea breeze and the chance to get a closer look at the thing that Tavira was originally founded for – salt mines – made it quite an enjoyable walk.

Salt has been mined here using much the same methods for a couple thousand years
Salt has been mined here using much the same methods for a couple thousand years

Arriving at the jetty, after a 30 minute walk, I bought my ticket for the unbelievably low price of 1.50 Euros and boarded the waiting boat. I watched a crab acrobatically climb along a wooden pillar belonging to the pier at water level while the boat filled up with other tourists and then we were off. The short glide across the still water to the island was quick and before long we were at the huge beach island, dotted with huts and small houses which people from far away evidently used as holiday homes.

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Jumping off the boat and wandering through scrubby pathways among the trees, I saw a huge number of these little holidays homes and, after a few minutes, passed by a row of restaurants and cafés, before coming to a huge stretch of beach. Way down to the right was the beginning of the national park – the Ria Formosa – home to a huge number of northern Europe’s migratory birds during the cold season – but before that was an enormous stretch of beautiful sand. I put down my towel, read my book and relaxed, just what was needed. I also afforded myself a wander, a very brief splash in the freezing cold Atlantic water and a lunch at one of the grill restaurants – at less than 20 Euros, including a huge caneca (mug) of beer, not bad for a resort town. There are also a couple of attractively painted lighthouses, dotted along the coastline. Despite the fabulous weather, there were surprisingly few people on the beaches. The lady who owns my B&B told me that the resort has become really choked during July and August in recent years, but in April, it’s just perfect for a relaxing break.

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After catching the boat back and finding something for dinner, I had a few drinks in a couple of different bars, mostly half full and not holding any tourists, due to the season. Eventually, I found a hugely lively place, full of locals, playing Pink Floyd loudly and filling glasses with whatever you wanted for very little money. It was a great, friendly atmosphere, in spite of my limited Portuguese. I sadly can’t recall seeing any sign for the name of the place, but it was just along from the bridge, on the castle side and was certainly the night life highlight. Before I knew where I was, it was 3am and I was just 7 hours away from my bus to Faro, to connect with my train home and it was time for bed. But for Tavira and I, it was definitely not good bye, but more “See you later”.