Silves appeared to be asleep when we stepped off the bus on the riverfront road. As we walked along the riverfront past the market and the smoky outdoor-grill restaurants to the charming white thirteenth-century Ponte Romana (Roman Bridge), which crosses the River Arade, there was still nothing to dispel the thought that Silves was a pretty, but unexceptional small Algarvean city. Tour operators run boat trips up the River Arade from Portimão to Silves, but the water level was very low on the hot June day that we were there and I couldn’t see how a boat would make it as far as Silves. The river played an important role in the history of Silves. The Phoenicians established a port there around 1000 BC, followed by the Romans (who named the city Silbis) and then the Moors, who turned Xelb (the Arabic name for Silves) into a thriving city of artists and artisans. The city lost its importance when the river silted up.
A short walk from the Ponte Romana we stumbled across some magnificent gardens, which raised Silves above the level of an ordinary small city. The Praça Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad is a peaceful park with a tranquillity pool containing calming sculptures, created by António Quina in 2001, honouring the Arabic people who lived in Xelb during the time of Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad, an eleventh-century governor of Xelb, by depicting scenes of their daily life. The statues are incorporated into the reflective pool and the pastel colours of the marble and stone of which they are made blend with the water, making them look like reflections. There are two seated figures, one of whom could be Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad (who was also a poet and is considered to be among the best of the Andalusian poets), observing the other figures. Placed in the water are tablets made of steel with Arabic writing engraved on them. The whole scene is very meditative. Further in the tree-lined gardens are fountains and benches. Apart from someone walking their dog, surprisingly there was no one else about.
From the Praça Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad we climbed a steep cobbled street to discover Silves’ Moorish past. Silves today is a complete contrast to the Silves of the 11th century, when it was the capital of al-Gharb, the Arabic name for the Algarve region which was under Moorish rule from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries. Xelb was a walled city with an outer wall protecting the centre. We entered the historical centre through a very narrow doorway, the Torreão da Porta da Cidade (Turret of the City Gate), a surviving section of the twelfth- or thirteenth-century outer fortification, which leads from the Praça do Município, a charming square which houses the city hall and still has a pillory at one end. Once we passed through the Torreão da Porta da Cidade the noise and bustle contrasted with the peacefulness of the riverfront. So, this is where all the tourists were!
It was a short walk to Silves Cathedral. Built on the site of the former Grand Mosque in the thirteenth century, it is an austere building, cool and dark inside with rose-pink granite columns. The cathedral was the bishopric until 1577 when it was moved to Faro. It still has tombs of former bishops, along with crusaders who died during the battle against the Moors.
From here we walked to Silves Castle, with its distinctive red sandstone walls, which can be seen from miles away and which is one of the best-preserved castles in the region. During the Moorish period the castle housed the governor of city, including the aforementioned Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad. There is not much evidence of the castle interior left, except for a huge vaulted water cistern, intriguingly named Cisterna da Moura Encantada (Cistern of the Enchanted Moorish Girl) after the legend that at midnight on the festival of St John a Moorish princess who has been put under a spell appears in the cistern in a silver boat with golden oars looking for the prince who can break the spell. At the entrance to the castle is a large statue of King Sancho I, the Portuguese king associated with the Christian recapture of Silves from the Moors. In 1189 he gathered an army of Portuguese soldiers and crusaders to invade the city. It is believed that the population of 30,000 took refuge in the castle and managed to survive due to the water in the cistern. Eventually, when the water ran out, they agreed to meet with King Sancho I, who promised they would be safe if they allowed the city to pass over to his control, but he had also promised the crusaders the spoils of war and they ransacked the city, killing 6000 Moors. Although the Moors won back the city in 1191, they been weakened to the point that the city fell to the Christians in 1249. On a lighter note, from the castle walls we got wonderful views of the surrounding fields of orange, almond and carob trees; all of which are a legacy of the Moors. Silves celebrates its Moorish past every year in August when it holds a Medieval Festival in the historic centre, the streets leading from there and the Praça Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad, which lasts 10 days and includes parades with people dressed in Moorish costumes, jousting and street entertainment, market stalls and street food and even a banquet in the grounds of the castle. A fee to enter the historic centre is charged on these days, but I am told it is worth it.
From the castle it was a short walk to the Archaeological Museum. The museum contains a variety of objects found in the Silves area dating back to pre-historic times. The highlight is a well-preserved well dating from Moorish times, around which the museum has been built. It was only discovered in 1980 and is the focal point of the museum. After a much-needed cool drink in a small café in Largo Jerónimo Osório, near the cathedral, we walked back down Rua do Cemitério past the entrance to the municipal cemetery, heading to the eastern outskirts of the city, where we discovered a large cross on a piece of wasteland on the side of the N124. The Cruz de Portugal (Cross of Portugal), which depicts the crucifixion of Christ and the descent from the cross in a mixture of Gothic and Manueline styles, is a late-fifteenth/early sixteenth-century symbol which was placed on routes of pilgrimage. It is believed to have been donated to the city by Manuel I as a thank you for interring the body of João II at Silves cathedral before his body was taken away for burial at Batalha. Not realising how far from the bus terminus we were we had a hurried walk back to the riverfront road to catch our bus back to Lagoa, which I’m pleased to say, we caught!
Silves can be reached by bus from Albufeira, Armação de Pêra, Lagoa and Portimão – the bus terminus is near the market on the riverfront – and by train from Faro and Lagos (the Algarve line) – the railway station is 2km south of the city.
Silves Cathedral (Sé de Silves), Rua da Sé, Silves. Open to the public Monday to Friday 9am-5pm (except public holidays).
Silves Castle, Rua do Castelo, Silves. Open April, May, September and October 9am-8pm; June to August 9am-10pm; November to March 9am-5.30pm (closed 25 December and 1 January). Entrance costs €2.80 or a combined ticket for the Castle and Archaeological Museum €3.90.
Silves Archaeological Museum (Museu Municipal de Arqueologia de Silves), Rua da Porta de Loulé, Silves. Open daily 10am-6pm (closed 25 December and 1 January). Entrance €2.10 or a combined ticket for the Castle and Archaeological Museum €3.90.
(Times and prices as of June 2017.)