Silves or otherwise known as Xelb by the Moors, was once the Moorish capital of the Algarve and even up to the 19th century had the grand title of 'Kingdom of the Algarve.' The town stood proudly, high on the hill overlooking grand palaces and lavish estates. The River Arade was the main route into the town and made it accessible for many attackers such as the Romans, Carthaginians and the Greeks. The Moors invaded in the 8th century introducing a wealth of architecture and new ideas such as irrigation for the dry, arid lands. It was only in 1189 that the town was seized by Dom Sancho I with some assistance from the English and the town was wrecked. Shortly afterwards, the Moors reclaimed Silves but it was too late to restore it to it's former beauty and grandeur. Most of the buildings were destroyed in the earthquaqe of 1755 and very little remains of the Moorish architecture although glimpses of it's former glory can be found in the grounds of the castle. Even so, this town is a cut above the others in the Algarve. It is still very regal and has a sense of mystery, it is one of my favourite towns to visit and I would recommend it to any tourist visiting the Algarve as it is a little bit different and has something for everybody.
How do I reach Silves?
This historical town is located in the Algarve in Southern Portugal. It is part of the district of Faro and it is inland from Portimao and Lagoa. The most direct route is to get on the A22 east/west motorway and exit at the Silves/Lagoa junction - head for silves on the N124-1. It's a straightforward 15 minute drive.
For something more scenic, take the road from Portimao in the direction of Monchique and turn right at the Borboletta restaurant at Porto de Lagos onto the N124. From here you will see a myriad of colours of orange and green from the numerous orange groves, carob and almond trees growing in the surrounding valleys. The best time to drive is in Spring when the almond trees are in full blossom forming a sea of pale pink and white delicate leaves.
You can also take a boat trip up the River Arade from Portimao to Silves. My best friend who still lives in the Algarve does this trip regularly. She said, 'Whildt sitting on deck of one of the old sailing boats, with the breeze blowing softly on her face she could smell the sweetness of the oranges and the irresistible Algarvian smell.' Only the Algarve has this smell - pine, eucalyptus, oranges and smoke from the chimneys of the white washed houses in the valleys. She said she could just imagine going back in time and being a Phoenecian passing through but then she is a bit of a romantic. Alternatively, not as romantic, you could visit by bus from Portimao or an arranged coach trip possibly from any town in the Algarve.
Best Time to Visit Silves
Being inland Silves can get extremely hot from May until late September and as it is a hilly town can be uncomfortable for sight seeing. Winters are mild in the Algarve making it an all year round destination. Personally I would visit early Spring and in the month of October.
Silves (pronounced silvush) the Town
As we always approach Silves by road and park the car on the river front we usually take one of the many cobbled streets up to the castle. Although at the front of the town there is a mixture of fish, sea-food restaurants and snack bars open and the aromas of fresh sardines being cooked over a charcoal grill and prawns melting in garlic butter are usually too much for my taste buds so before starting up the steep incline to the castle and town I have to stop, sit and eat. From the front/main road, the town becomes a labrynth of streets; mostly Portuguese shops selling shoes, clothes, food, wine and spirits, as well as a handful of craft and art shops. Until a few years ago I would have described some of the shops as quaint and there was always one or two armazens (small old fashioned department stores) selling anything from the largest knickers to the smallest scewdriver but not anymore as Silves has suddenly become chic and sophisticated. Now some of the stylish shops wouldn't look out of place in Lisboa, the capital city. However, apart from the commercial and touristic side to the town it is habited by Portuguese and the houses that are lived in are very deceptive from the front facades as they look quite small but actually inside there are usually a number of cool, shuttered rooms leading to a top floor where you can sunbathe, watch the tourists go by or hang out the daily washing. Also, there are quite a few spectacular pieces of architecture in the town of Silves which I would like to tell you about so firstly I will start with the Castle.
Castelo de Silves (Silves castle)
The town of Silves is dominated by the Moorish castle. Built of red sandstone, the castle was strategically placed to keep attacks out. It was renovated in 1835 but some of the original stone work remains and even now there are excavations being carried out, digging for artifacts from the times of the Moors but also from the forts built by the Romans and Phoenicians on the same site. The castle is in a beautiful location overlooking the cathedral and the Church of Mercy, the town and verdant countryside. You are able to walk around the castle walls to take in the panoramic views of the River Arade and the vast expanse of citrus and almond trees which the Moors introduced to the area.
Underneath the castle the Moors constructed an underground reservoir which is still used by the city today. It is called, "Cistern of the Enchanted Moorish Girl." A very charming title, don't you think?
The castle grounds are undergoing renovations at the moment and a new stage area is being built but I have two vivid memories of times when it was open in the Summer months for festivals. One was the famous Beer Festival of Silves where you paid an entrance fee and then could sample beers from throughout Portugal. It was usually a rowdy night consisting of traditional music in the form of Fado, traditional dancing and other popular music. Huge pans of caldo verde, sizzling chicken piri piri, scintillating sardines could be smelt all over the valley. It always amazed me how nobody has been killed or seriously injured as I have seen many a drunken youth traverse the dangerous footpaths around the castle walls. Sadly this event has now been moved to the Fabrica do Inglesa which I will inform you about shortly.
The other memory I have will stay with me forever. It was on a a sultry evening in September when I went to see Madredeus, a famous Fado group form Portugal. The auditorium was set up in a semi-circle and every person was absolutely silent. A message came over the tannoy - please switch off your mobile phones and everyone obeyed immediately. I am sure that wouldn't happen anywhere else. The sky was dark and you could just see the full moon shining into the castle grounds. A litle bit spooky! Then the smoke and dry ice began and on stage entered this delicate lady with waist length hair wailing and singing in such a beautiful way - one could not help but feel emotional. The concert was a sell out and a standing ovation was given for Madredeus. They had won the hearts of the Portuguese audience. Bravo! Bravo! The crowd cheered.
The castle is impressive and worth a trek up the hilly road and steps. You can park outside but it usually is very congested. The best thing to do is park at the bottom of the road and walk up the hill. Outside the castle are numerous cafes and restaurants so you can always have a breather afterwards and rehydrate with a cool glass of vinho verde or Super Bock. The cafe which is directly opposite the gates of the castle has the most beautiful hand painted tiles on the walls. They are prussian blue in colour and the whole wall is covered. Each tile fitting into a jigsaw sort of puzzle telling stories of the descrobamentos.
Castle opens from 9am until 5.30pm. and it costs 1.25 euros (last year's prices)
Se Catedral de silves (Silves Cathedral)
This cathedral is a mixture of architectural styles; Gothic and Baroque. It stands next to the castle and opposite the Church of Mercy (Igreja da Misericordia). An earthquake in 1352 damaged the cathedral and parts had to be rebuilt. The apse was rebuilt from 1440 until 1470 and is Gothic in style consisting of three chapels, a transept and a main portal and it is quite an awesome sight. Personally I think this part of the cathedral makes the whole building a little ungainly and I don't think the red sandstone and white washed walls fit together. The big earthquake of 1755 again damaged the cathedral - this time the nave, which was repaired and modified changing the style again to incorporate a touch of rococco especially on the main facade. Work has since carried on in 20th century replacing the baroque additions to give the cathedral a more gothic and medieval appearance.
Igreja da Misericordia (Church of Mercy)
This is a beautiful church which sits directly opposite the cathedral. It was built in the 16th century and has a beautiful Manueline doorway. Manueline architecture is a style of Portuguese architecture which has been used in the construction of churches and monasteries. It is astyle influenced by the Spanish and Italians but mainly incorporates maritime representations of the great findings from voyages of the discoverers like Vasco de Gama, Pedro Cabral and Henry the Navigator. When you visit Portugal take a look at some of the churches and you will spot these doorways and windows straight away. Personally, I adore them and whenever I am out painting it is one of my favourite subjects.
Fabrica do Inglesa - Musea da Cortica (Cork Museum)
Silves was one of the main areas in the Algarve for producing cork and in the valleys there are an abundance of very old cork trees as well as in the Monchique region. You will notice from the gift shops that a lot of the novelties are made from cork and of course we must not forget wine and port bottles need corks. Saying that, now a lot of wine bottles have those awful plastic corks which I find difficult to get out and usually have to stand the bottle between my feet and pull. With the decline of the cork industry came the decline of the cork factory in Silves which was actually owned by English people.
For many years this factory stood in disrepair which was quite sad but in 1999 it was renovated and re-opened as a modern cultural and leisure centre incorporating a cork museum dedicated to the history of cork in the Algarve. The outside walls have been painted ochre with bright red painted windows. It has given the building a modern but fresh outlook and it is one of the most popular buildings visited in the Algarve.
The grounds of the Fabrica do Inglesa host theatre shows, exhibitions, music and dance concerts, the famous Beer Festival and lazer shows. Something for all the family.
Opening Times: 9.30 - 12.45/14.00 - 18.15 . Closes Sunday and Monday.
At the western end of Silves the whole riverfront has been renovated. For a long time the area alays looked a bit scruffy and a bit of a wasteland. The Camara (council) suddenly decided it was time to regenerate and they have certainly made a good job. There is a play area for children which is perfectly safe as it is fenced in and the ground has been covered in soft sand. There is a football pitch and the municipal swimming pool is near by as well as a car park.
Silves council decided not to leave the elderly visitors or inhabitants out and as part of the regeneration project of 1997 decided to build an adult's play area. This is a series of trails where you can walk for a short distance and then stop at a wellness station to do some gentle exercise. I think it is a really good idea whether the old Portuguese will use it or not I doubt it as they love to sit and talk.
Well I think I had better finish my review before it gets too long. Some of the details of dates etc have been sourced from various websites but nearly all details are from memory..
I have tried to cover the most interesting aspects of the town. Silves is not a beach resort but it is a very picturesque town filled with history, chic cafes, shops and seafood restaurants. There is a travelling market which comes every 3rd Monday of each month and before I forget there is an inside market which sells fresh fruit and vegetables and is a very colourful spectacle indeed. This is situated on one of the side streets leading up from the riverfront. You can't miss it as it is next to a liquor shop. Ooops! Nearly finished. Would I recommend this town - you bet. Muito bom!
Bienvendo ao Silves.
Silves / Algarve / Portugal