It was a sunny afternoon in Lisbon when I rushed out the door to catch the 2 o’clock train heading to Vila Franca de Xira. A spontaneous decision? Yes. Was it worth it? Most definitely!
You know all those quaint places you pass in between road trips and long train rides but you never actually stop there? That was my first encounter with Vila Franca, a town I spotted from the train we took to Tomar a few weeks ago.
I’ve heard about it before but for some reason I thought it was farther away. When I checked the train schedules back home I realized it was only a 30 minute ride from Lisbon.
Portuguese holidays don’t often collide with the British, so while Nick had to work on the 1st of November, aka All Saints’ Day, I was left with a taskless day, the perfect opportunity to travel somewhere new.
I went through my list of unexplored places and found Vila Franca de Xira. A few hours later I was in Santa Apolónia buying my getaway ticket…
THE TRAIN STATION
Vila Franca might be considered a city but it has the charms of an old town, starting with its beautiful train station.
Similar to the São Bento station in Porto, this one is also covered with blue and white tiles and various representations of rural life.
When you arrive you have two options, either head to the riverfront or go towards the town. I knew I wanted to watch the sunset by the water, but I had 2 hours left for that, so I decided to wander around the city for a bit.
Since it was a holiday most of the places I wanted to go were closed, including the tourist information centre, which I thought would give me a clear idea of where to go.
I had no map and nowhere I needed to be, so I let my feet lead the way.
From abandoned buildings, to old tile façades and a weird-shaped mall, the architecture in Vila Franca was beyond what I expected.
I started walking down one of the main streets, Rua Serpa Pinto, but as soon as I spotted a unique building I would quickly cross to a side street to capture it. I’m sure I got some weird looks from the residents, but I didn’t care.
Out of all the buildings in the city, I was awed by the Vila Franca market! Its striking green gates mixed with the tile structure are a match made in heaven.
It’s rare to see a local market with this sort of style in a city. Most of them have either been abandoned or turned into food stalls like Time Out, which gave a new life to the Ribeira market in Lisbon.
Set in the middle of a square, the Vila Franca market can be admired from 4 different angles!
After my 360º tour of the market, I kept walking down a road that lead me to the cemetery.
I went in slowly and noticed that it was quite busy. I completely forgot All Saints Day was the day everyone brings flowers to their departed loved ones. I felt like I should have brought some even though I had no one there to leave them with.
In between graves there were walls filled with flowers, it was a magnificent sight! If it was Père Lachaise I wouldn’t be ashamed of taking pictures at a cemetery, but I didn’t know what the etiquette was. I tried to sneak a couple of pictures and was surprised that no one made a comment.
From the top of the cemetery you can spot the bull arena, the river and the buildings I walked past on the way. I am not sure if I’m allowed to call it a nice viewpoint, but I do think it’s worth a visit.
When I exited the cemetery I saw some flower vendors and couldn’t help but buying a bouquet. I didn’t leave it there, instead, I brought it home with me as a special reminder of the trip.
One thing I didn’t know about Vila Franca was its connection with bullfighting.
Besides the bull arena, there are bullfighter statues in roundabouts, tile representations and even a street with a bullfighting-inspired design on cobblestones.
Bullfighting is definitely a part of Vila Franca’s identity, in fact, one of the city’s main events, Festa do Colete Encarnado (Red Vest Party) is solely dedicated to this old tradition.
Finally it was time for the main event – the sunset.
I walked through the Constantino Palha’s garden, located right in front of the train station and sat down in one of the benches to relish the view. On one side you could see Vila Franca’s bridge, also known as Marechal Carmona bridge, on the other, colorful boats floated on the dock.
I sat quietly for a bit, listening to the water hitting the wall, the ducks quacking and the children playing in the background, it was the most serene moment I’ve had in awhile.
As the sun started to set, the buildings’ reflections got even clearer and I remembered why I wrote down Vila Franca in my bucket list in the first place…
WHAT I MISSED?
- Miradouro de Monte Gordo – established in between two deteriorated mills, this lookout point boasts one of the best panoramic views of the city!
- Museu do Neo-Realismo (Neorealism Museum) – founded in 1990, it features great examples of Portuguese neorealist art.
- Evoa – Evoa is an open-air nature museum located on the other side of the margin, but it’s still considered part of the Vila Franca district. Here you can observe birds, lagoons and even a small saltern.
HOW TO GET TO VILA FRANCA DE XIRA:
- Train: Probably the easiest way to get there if you don’t have a car. Get the train from Santa Apolónia or Oriente heading to Tomar and get off in Vila Franca de Xira. There are ticket discounts for under 25 and seniors, so make sure to ask for them when buying your ticket!
- Bus: You can get a bus from Campo Grande to Vila Franca de Xira provided by Boa Viagem or a Ribatejana but make sure to ask at the Ticket Office which is the quickest bus.
- Car: Follow the directions here.
WHERE TO EAT IN VILA FRANCA DE XIRA: