Water in Tavira

Peter Kingdon Booker


All those who have accompanied Rita Manteigas on her tours of Tavira will know how informative are her presentations. Rita is one of the historians employed by the Câmara Municipal de Tavira. On Monday, 18th April Rita added yet another tour to her repertoire. She spoke about the supply of water in the town through the ages. The tour was not for those with weak knees because it lasted for more than three hours. Beginning in the Palácio da Galeria, we passed the site of the original source for the Phoenician town under the sacristy of the Igreja Matriz, toured the Muslim archaeological site within the Pousada and discussed the Phoenician remains in the open archaeological site of the Corte Real palace. We learned that although it is believed that the Pousada is sited on the old judaria and there is little archaeological evidence to support this idea, the documentary evidence is strongly suggestive.


In the Travessa da Fonte, we passed the rear door of the new Islamic museum (which faces the Praça da República and which is not yet open), and found our way down to the town pumping station. The display in this new museum details the efforts of the twentieth century town council to improve the supply of water to the inhabitants. The station itself is located in the square which occupies the site of one of the major gates in the town walls, and the Chapel at this gate is Nª Sª da Piedade. The original main spring for the town´s water here was just inside the city walls, and watching at the bicos giving water today it is easy to imagine that their supply was plentiful. Regulations indicated that drinking water for human consumption had first call on the supply, followed by water for washing, for animals and for industrial use. The riverside road is even today known as Rua dos Pelames (Tanners´ Street) because of the main industry carried out there. It is odd that the less clean uses for the water occupied sites which were further upstream. Inside the museum there is a picture of women doing their washing at this location in the river during the 1970s.


The pumping station is located here in Rua Gonçalo Velho and not in Atalaia, which also has a strong spring, because the original spring on the hill of Santa Maria is slightly higher (at 20m above sea level) than that at Atalaia (at 19m). The station pumped to the water tower next to the Igreja Matriz from the early 1930s. This water tower became a very popular feature of the town and when the new water supply from the barragens was instituted in the 1990s, popular opinion fortunately voted to retain the now redundant tower. It now of course houses the Camera Obscura of the town and is well worth a visit.


Moving in our crocodile up Rua da Liberdade, we learned that most houses in the town had their own private wells, some of which still exist. There is one under the bank opposite the Correios. The Post Office building itself is on the site of the former jail (on the ground floor) and Câmara Municipal (on the first floor). Close by was a spring which was known as the jail spring, since it supplied water to the prisoners. In 1910 the Câmara proposed to install a sewer beneath Rua da Liberdade and the outfall would have been in the river near the Praça da República. Political difficulties at the time fortunately precluded its installation. Such new fangled ideas were unpopular with ratepayers who preferred the cheaper old system of night-soil collection. Another notable town spring was that in the Largo do Cano; the water from this spring was valuable to livestock on the move along that particular entrance to the town. On the nearby railway arch there is an azulejo panel commemorating the importance of this chafariz.


Moving into Rua Dr Augusto Carlos Palma past the Horta d´El Rei shopping complex, we learned that the new buildings to the south and east of Rua da Liberdade occupy the space of the King´s Garden which was built over from the 1970s. The law court, the modern flats and the shopping centre occupy an island of modernity in a sea of much older buildings. The water for this garden used to be stored in a large tank in the centre; latterly, the garden was split into three different ownerships. We moved past the Fonte do Bispo and the Bishop´s Garden, which was reclaimed for building land even later. Moving up the hill towards the Atalaia barracks, we passed down the street named after the date of the Battle of la Lys in the Great War (Rua 9 de Abril) and arrived in sight of the Clube da Vela in Rua da Atalaia Pequena, at 19m above sea level. The Clube occupies a 19th century building which formerly housed a thermal bath – the spring water emerged from the ground at 25º. Inside the building is a café and the old bathing cubicles and the water pump are still in place.


Water was – and still is – an important resource and this tour of Tavira gives insight into how the previous inhabitants of the town managed that resource. If you ever have the chance to accompany Rita Manteigas on one of her tours of Tavira, please take it. You will improve your knowledge of the history of the town, and you will also get a free lesson in excellent and clear Portuguese.