It’s not hard to find the ruins of the Moorish castle as you enter the town of Silves, Portugal. Perched on a hilltop high above the town it dominates the landscape, its presence looming as the castle and remaining walls that surround it are easily visible from wherever you are in the city.
The castle is like a picture in a kid’s storybook with its stereotypical, crenellated silhouette, narrow slits and gaps for the defenders to guard against intruders or rain down arrows and boiling oil upon enemies, massive red sandstone walls and the turrets where sentries stood watch. It’s not hard to find yourself imagining the hoof beats and neighing of horses, the sound of armored soldiers clanking by, dark robed men silently skulking about in the shadows, tradesmen mixing with peasants going about their business, the blare of trumpets and flags unfurled in the wind.
Our reaction when we first saw the Algarve’s biggest and arguably best preserved castle? Big grins and what we later tried to describe to each other, a feeling of little kid wonder as we remembered tales read long ago.
Silves (pronounced the Portuguese way in one slurred syllable SilvSH) has archeological remains that go back to Paleolithic times and has been known by many names – Almohad, Cilpes, Shelb, Xelb – depending on who was occupying it at the time. Located on the Rio Arade (pronounced with a g sound that sneaks its way in, A rad gee) which connected the hinterland with its riches of copper and iron to the Atlantic, it was an important trade route for the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans. Silves’ prosperity really took off with the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 713. The city became an economic rival to Lisbon for over two centuries claiming the nickname, “The Baghdad of the west” with its bazaars, shipyards and port. With its strategic location overlooking the river and built upon one of the largest aquifers in southern Portugal, Silves had a lot to offer and everyone wanted it. For a few centuries a tug-of-war existed between factions of the Moors themselves, the Spanish and the eventually victorious Portuguese aided by crusaders who stopped by on their way to the Holy Land. In 1249 the Portuguese had the Moors fleeing for the final time stripped of their possessions including, according to some accounts, the clothes on their backs. In the following centuries Silves’s fortunes waned with the loss of its North African trade routes that the Moors had established and as competition grew from other ports along the coast. The gradual siltation of the Arade River formed a swamp which bred fevers, disease and epidemics like the Bubonic plague, which contributed to its downward spiral. The 1755 earthquake that destroyed much of the Silves along with the rest of Portugal’s cities seemed to seal its fate.
Silves is a city of living history with its fabulous Moorish Castle, declared a national monument in 1910, but there are a few other reminders that testify to its former greatness as you wander through the historic part of this picturesque city. Rising up near the castle is the second most striking building of its skyline, Sé Velha, the Old Cathedral. A national monument since 1922; the original structure was built in the 13th century by the conquering Portuguese on the site of a former mosque. Over the centuries it’s become an eclectic blend of many architectural styles with a Baroque façade and Manueline style doorways and windows as well as the great entrance, an arched, Gothic doorway of yellow sandstone with its balcony above embellished with corbels of animal and human faces.
Nearby is the Municipal Archeology Museum which has exhibits from the Paleolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages to Roman artifacts, displays of ceramics from the Moors and finally pieces from the Portuguese victors of the 13th century. The museum itself is built along a section of the old city walls and incorporated an existing Islamic cistern-well originating from the 11th century that is 18 meters (59 feet) deep within its structure.
It’s hard to imagine that Silves was once a bustling port or that the Vikings war ships attempted an armed, exploratory excursion bent on looting and plunder in the 10th century up the Arade River. Known as the Old Bridge or the Roman Bridge of Silves (although the Roman road that crossed the area would have existed several centuries earlier) the original structure was built in the 14th century. Historically, one of the main entries into the city connecting Silves to the coast, it has five semi-circular arches that span the waterway, now heavily silted. Today, benches have been scattered along it in the city to make it a charming place to sit and admire its beauty.
While Silves will never regain its former glory it still has a lot going for it: a pretty city spread over hills in a beautiful countryside. Its economic prosperity began to improve in the 19th century as cork and dried-fruit industries were established and many residents enjoyed an increased level of affluence. Today its economy is fueled, like many of the towns in the Algarve, by agriculture and tourism. It’s exactly the kind of city we love to visit and return to with friends to share its magic.
By Anita and Richard