“We would like to live as we once lived, but history will not permit it” John F. Kennedy
This is the first of our ‘Spotlight Series’ where we take you on a tour of a town or city, bringing to life some of the highlights of an area, and suggesting places to go and things not to miss. Each tour will give you enough material and ideas to last at least a day in a particular place – and often leave you wanting to return to find out more. We will of course be including photographs and anecdotes along the way – so come with us as we explore the beautiful Algarve region that we have fallen in love with.
Today is the turn of Silves, the beautiful and enchanting Medieval city tucked just above the A22 motorway, not far from Lagoa and Portimão – it’s very easy to find on the map!
As you approach Silves (driving) and go past the exit to the train station, you turn a corner and suddenly there she is – glinting in the sun and nestling in the hillside, topped off with the most magnificent of castles, which seems to be like a kindly benefactor from a Dickens novel – the master of all it surveys and protector of the city and its people.
Turn left and then at the traffic lights you can either go left or right – right will take you along the river and there is free parking along the road on the left side – all along to Lidl’s. Turn left and you will find car parks (free) along the riverside and beside the sports centre and swimming pool – it’s a short walk from here to the start of the tour! For the brave – there is a pay car park at the top of town near the castle – but you will have to do a lot of wriggling and ‘narrow street’ ‘wing mirror tucked in’ driving to get there!
You could always arrive in style – on a river cruise from Portimão waterfront of course – there are regular tours on the river Arade to Silves – we keep promising ourselves a treat – so… one day! (If anyone has done this please add a comment below and let us know more). The riverside is very peaceful, with birds swooping and feeding over the calm water.
The main feature of the river has to be the old Roman bridge – the Ponte Romana – which crosses the river:
Sports and outdoor exercise
Near the riverfront is a wonderful indoor swimming pool complex and nearby there is an outdoor exercise area with ‘Life Trail Wellness Stations’ which are well laid out and worth a look!
Silves also has its own football team, founded in 1919, which play in the First Division of the Algarve League (I think! – it’s quite hard to find out much information!) The matches are generally played at 3pm on a Saturday (4pm in the April May and Sept) and the football ground is opposite the swimming pool. And try as I might I have failed to find a decent web-site which lists the upcoming matches for you – so if anyone knows one?
Cobbled streets, cafés and shops
The municipal market building is on the main street opposite the river, and you will find numerous cafés scattered along the road with river views. Start wandering along the cobbled streets and you will find more cafés and small shops, galleries and ‘drogarias’, selling all sorts of wares. There are some clothes shops and a few gift shops – most shops close between about 1230/1300 and 1500/1600 – so time your shopping well! The market is also worth a visit – a typical local market with lots of fresh fruit, vegetables and fish. The market is held every morning except Sundays and there is a separate larger street market on the 3rd Monday of each month.
Silves is perfect for meandering, with lots of small side streets, and cobbled windy entrances that call out to be explored – and you cannot really get lost here as all roads lead upwards to the castle! One warning is that the traditional cobbled paving is very smooth and extremely slippery when it rains – and the climb to the top of the castle is very steep!
There is history on every corner in Silves, hinting at its affluent and colourful history as the Moorish capital known as Xelb, capital of Al-faghar, the Moorish province of the Algarve. The origins of the town can be traced back as far as 1000BC, with a strong Roman history, however it was the occupation in the 8th Century by the Moors which brought a lavish lifestyle to the area. By the 11th century Silves was the capital of the Algarve and the Moors were reputed to have imported lions and other wild animals that roamed freely through the exotic gardens. It was ruled by the Seville-based Arabic ruler Al-Mu’tamid (Muhammad Ibn Abbad Al Mutamid) who became governor of Silves (known as Shalb) and Emir of Seville at the age of 13, and was known as the ‘poet-prince’.
The area saw many battles between the Christians and Muslims in the 12th and 13th centuries; until Portugal’s King Sancho I and the Knights of Santiago captured the city in 1189 with the help of the Anglo-Norman Crusaders. It was recaptured by the Moors in 1191; and was finally re-conquered during the Christian occupation of 1242 to 1249 during the reign of King Afonso III, who also founded the first Cathedral, thought to have been built on the site of the former Mosque.
The earthquake of 1755 caused great damage in the city and nearly all of buildings were destroyed – it is reported that only 20 houses were left standing in the city.
The museum is a good way of exploring more of the history of this fascinating city, with its displays of Moorish ceramics; and artifacts from the Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age periods and the Roman occupation. The museum is built over an 11th century well-tank and the museum includes stone and iron age tools and surgical instruments from the 5th 6th and 7th centuries; which you wouldn’t expect to see from its ultra- modern exterior. Go through the old city gate and follow the signs to the Museum.
Open: 9am-5.30pm Mon-Sat. Closed Sundays. Admission: €2.
The City Gate
The Torreão da Porta da Cidade (the Turret of the City Gate); is the only one of the four archways to the ‘almedina’ that remains standing today – and it is a very impressive sight, hinting at the historical fortress-like protection afforded to the occupants of the city. It is a magnificently tall structure, creating images of Biblical sized enemies and soldiers attacking each other, although it now has a more genteel purpose, housing the Municipal Library:
The Cathedral of Silves
Further climbing up the narrow cobbled streets will lead you to the Sé de Silves (Cathedral of Silves) which is one of the Algarve’s few remaining gothic monuments and an absolute treat. Entrance is only €1. The Cathedral was originally built in the 13th century, with 15th and 16th century additions, and post-earthquake 18th century repairs.
The exterior is a wonderful mix of whitewashed walls and red sandstone, and the interior does not fail to delight, with a mixture of Gothic, Mediaeval and Baroque traditions. There is an immense sense of height and space in the building, with quiet religious music playing, and a sense of both the sacred – and the human – as this feels like a place of worship in the present – as well as an historical record of the past.
When King John II died unexpectedly in Alvor in 1495, he was provisionally buried in the main chapel of Silves Cathedral, until he was exhumed in 1499 and re-buried in the Monastery of Batalha. His tomb slab with a Gothic inscription is still located on the floor of the main chapel, alongside many other 15th and 16th century tomb slabs, and a stunning portrayal of Christ:
The Cathedral also has a jasper statue of Nossa Senhora da Conceicção, believed to date from the 14th century, and is a place to rest, contemplate, and marvel at the wonder of such a beautiful place of worship.
The Church of Mercy
The Santa Misericórdia Church is situated directly opposite the Cathedral, and has a magnificent Manueline style door – I love the fact it is placed so high up in the wall of the building.
The church is originally 16th century, and still has a beautifully painted altarpiece of Our Lady of Mercy visible on the walls – the building is now used as an art gallery, although it is often closed.
Statue of Sancho I of Portugal
Heading up to the entrance of the castle, you will come to the statue of Sancho I of Portugal, known as the Populator; who was the second king of Portugal, born in 1154. He was the son of Afonso I Henriques and succeeded his father to the throne in 1185.
With the help of the Crusaders he took Silves in 1191, ordered the fortification of the city and built the incredible castle whose remains can still be seen today. As King, he created several new towns and villages and took great care in populating remote areas in the northern Christian regions of Portugal, – hence the nickname the Populator.
If his statue is anything to go by – he was an incredibly statuesque and impressive man! It is a real tourist spot for photography – you can always see someone nestled alongside the statue having their photo taken! He also seems a fitting size to actually be able to make good use of the remaining city gate!
The Castelo de Silves is now the best preserved castle in the Algarve. It is believed to have been situated on top of Roman fortifications from the 4th or 5th century, and was built on the site of the ‘Palace of the Verandhas’ – itself started around 715 by the Moorish occupants. Entry now costs €2.50, and it is open daily from 9am-6pm.
It is a most impressive site, with eleven square towers and red sandstone walls which enclose an area of 12,000m². Some of the towers have Gothic doorways and there are some small exhibition rooms housing artifacts and displays. There were originally two entrances to the castle grounds; the main gate defended by two towers and a so-called ‘traitors-gate’. You can see many areas of excavation, historical and archaeological importance as you walk around the ramparts.
The view from the top is stunning, with panoramic views across the city and surrounding countryside, although the walkways are not for the faint hearted or young – in many places there are no railings and there is quite a drop!
The main centre area is a well tended garden area with trees and seating. There are also two Roman cisterns, the larger one is reputed to be called ‘El Moura Encantada’, after a legend that says you can hear a Moorish princess mourning her beloved at the well where he committed suicide. You can view this cistern underground, it has clear Perspex glass walkways over the water – it is quite eerie.
At the end of the 19th century, the castle had prisons installed in its four towers, and was used as a prison until the extensive rebuilding and restoration we see today which was undertaken in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It was opened to the public in 1947.
The Cross of Portugal
The ‘Cruz de Portugal’ (the Cross of Portugal), is an intricately carved 3m tall cross dating from the 15th or 16th century, just to the right of the roundabout that leads to the castle at the eastern end of the river front. The cross has the crucifixion on one side and Our Lady of Sorrows on the other side, and the base is dated 1824.
Fábrica do Inglés / Cork Museum
The Cork Museum is on the site of the former cork factory called Fábrica Inglés. The museum shows the history of cork, with displays of azulejo paintings of the cork farmers, machines and tools used to create the corks for wine bottles. There is an entertainment area and café/restaurant, and apparently they have an ‘Aquavision’ night show where the history of Silves is told through a ‘water and lights’ show. They have a Children’s Park and they also host the Silves beer festival held each July. At the time of writing this it is closed – I cannot ascertain whether this is just for the winter?
Praça Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad
This large park is located along the main road that runs along the river (before Lidl’s) and is named after the Arabic leader and member of the Abbadid dynasty in the 11th century that ruled the area from Seville. He was considered to be one of the finest of the Andalusian poets; and there is a plaque inscription of one of his poems in the gardens.
There are also some fine modern statues situated in the middle of the water feature which are well worth a close viewing:
Silves is a great place to see the famous White Stork. They build their large nests on the top of the old Moorish chimneys and the corners of buildings – there are some enormous nests near to the old city gate. The sound they make to each other is quite amazing – a real loud clacking of those enormous beaks which can be heard across the city. They are quite shy of humans and you will need to be patient to photograph them well – well done Dave on a great shot here:
Places to eat
There are a wide range of cafes and restaurants to choose from in Silves – most offer local Portuguese fare and you can choose from a range of different settings and prices. These are some of our favourites:
Chicken piri-piri restaurants – there are a number opposite the waterfront near the market which do very reasonably priced main courses. You can watch your chicken (or fish) being grilled, but you are next to the main road.
The Moorish square (with fountain) next to the old city gate has a lovely traditional old coffee shop – their cakes are very yummy! The tiles inside the cafe are amazing. Watch out if you order the cake with almonds on top – the old lady that serves you is quite likely to steal some off the top! The square also proudly advertises that it is a free wi-fi zone – but I am not sure how far the range extends beyond this square.
Near to this square is the Casa Velha Marisqueira restaurant – it has a traditional menu and you will need to book in the summer.
Cafe Ingles – near to the castle and has an international menu – they do lovely salads – and they often have live music.
So there it is – the ‘Spotlight on Silves’ guide – the lovely thing is that I am sure there are still more things you could write about Silves, it is a most charming and interesting place, and you could spend a day here and not even scratch the surface – please add your comments below and let me know your favourite part of Silves – and if there are other places in the Algarve you would like to see featured in a future ‘Spotlight on…’ then do let me know!
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