Silves is a city with a glorious past. You can’t fail to know this from the second you set eyes on the rust red hilltop castle, dominating the town and its surrounds. Always a sucker for faded glory, it was one of the first places I visited in the Algarve. On my recent return, I wanted to inspect the castle gardens development.
From earliest times, the Arade River was the route to the Portuguese interior used by Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians, drawn by copper and iron, mined in the Western Algarve. With its strategic hilltop position, Silves was bound to attract the Romans, but wealth and prosperity began with the Moorish invasion of 714AD. By the 11th century, Silves was capital of the Algarve and a rival in importance to Lisbon.
Nothing lasts, and with the power struggles in the Muslim world, Silves was briefly restored to Portugal in 1189. King Sancho 1 laid seige to the city in a brutal and gruesome episode, only to loose it to the Moors two years later. By the 1240s the tide was turning again. The river began to silt up, cutting off the trade route to North Africa. In 1534 the episcopal se was transfered from Silves to Faro, and the power transformation was complete.
The riverside, where there is ample parking, is a good starting point for a journey through Silves. The narrow 13th century bridge is a little reminiscent of that at Tavira, which perhaps explains my fondness. Wandering slowly upwards through the historic centre, the streets are still laid out as they were in Medieval times. The 16th century pillory, or pelourinho, is a reminder of harsher times.
With its back to the ancient city walls, on Rua das Portas de Loule, you can find the Archaelogical Museum. It contains an Islamic water cistern, or well, from the 11th century. 18metres deep, a spiral staircase now leads to the bottom.
Climbing steadily on Rua de Se, you come to the cathedral, a stern looking structure. In red sandstone, like the castle, it sits on the site of a former mosque. The grandeur and sobriety continue inside. Opposite is the Igreja de Misericordia.
It is when you finally arrive at the castle that your imagination can no longer resist the temptation to recreate the past. It is the finest military monument in Portugal to survive from the Islamic period. Of the eleven towers, two are “albarra”- solid structures, joined to the walls by an arch that supports the walk around the castle walls. They defend the double entrance gateway. The doorway of the “traitor’s gate” still exists.
The castle once housed the Alcacova, the Moorish “Palace of Verandas” so described in poetry of that time. A huge subterranean water tank is the main feature of the surviving remains, but excavation is ongoing. An attempt has been made to recreate the feel of those Moorish times, but with a modern twist. The rills and fountains beloved of the Moors today exist in 21st century red brick, and a restaurant has been installed, with modern seating. I think it’s a brave effort.
The cork industry, dried fruits and tourism were Silves’ salvation. In high season expect it to be a very warm place. Whenever you visit, the Mercado, near the riverside, will be bustling. You could purchase from its numerous stalls for a picnic. But the delicious barbecue smells of the neighbouring restaurants often prove irresistible.
I could hardly wait to get out of bed this morning to write this piece, having arrived back yesterday evening. Hope you like it. Thanks, as always, to Julie Dawn Fox for the A-Z personal challenge.