Portugal City Travel Guide: Silves
Silves is now a sleepy town of 10,000 inhabitants on the silted up Arade River but back in the 12th and 13th centuries it was a thriving and prosperous Moorish city of over 30,000 people.
The Moorish citadel of Xelb thrived when vessels sailed up the Rio Arade to load up with the area's agricultural riches of cork, figs, lemons and oranges. The citrus fruits, figs and cork trees are still here but the Moors have long since departed. First defeated by King Sancho I in 1189 with the aid of an army of English crusaders, who murdered and tortured the defenders of Silves' castle after a long, drawn-out siege. The Moors briefly returned before being driven out for good in 1249 with the fall of Faro and the rest of the Algarve.
Decline set in as the Arade River silted up and became impassable for large boats and the population of the town declined, though dried fruit and, most importantly, cork led to new growth in the area from the mid-19th century. You will find many stores in Silves selling cork products of all descriptions: bags, wallets, shoes, belts etc.
Reminders of Silves' Muslim past are the walls and shell of Silves Castelo and its pleasant gardens. Outside the main entrance a bronze statue of Sancho I stands guard.
There are great views of the surrounding countryside and the grounds of the Castelo include a 5m-deep water cistern and well, known as the "Cistern of the Dogs." There is also a pleasant cafe here and the grounds of Silves Castle also serve as one of the main venues of the annual summer Silves Medieval Fair.
Only parts of the city walls in Silves still survive. Made of red sandstone and taipa - a mix of clay, gravel, lime and sand - they make for a distinctive sight. The impressive Torreão da Porta da Cidade (Tower of the City Gate) is one of the best preserved sections from the 12th and 13th centuries and gives access to the narrow streets of the former Muslim "medina". It is the only one of the three original Almohad Period gates to survive and is a National Monument.
Close by in Largo do Município is a 16th century pillory (pelourinho) the symbol of civic authority and the City Hall (Câmara Municipal de Silves).
The Museu Municipal de Arqueologia (Tel: 282 444 832) is near to the Torreão da Porta da Cidade on Rua das Portas de Loule and has Phoenician, Greek and Roman remains and another wonderfully preserved Moorish well.
Uphill from the Tower of the City Gate, the Gothic Sé de Santa Maria (Cathedral of Our Lady; Silves Cathedral), close to the castle, has been renovated over the centuries but contains the tombs of several of the Crusaders who so bloodily "liberated" the town in the 12th century. Silves Cathedral is built on the site of an earlier mosque. Close by is the 16th century Igreja da Misericórdia with an intact and highly-decorative Manueline doorway.
The other church of note in Silves is the Ermida Nossa Senhora dos Mártires (Church of Our Lady of the Martyrs) which dates from the 16th century in the Gothic style with Manueline decorations. Inside is a Baroque altar and ancient tombstones from the 14th century. The church is located to the west of the old town on the way to the Largo da República and the Casa da Cultura Islâmica and Mediterrânica (House of Islamic & Mediterranean Culture), which was formerly the old municpal abbatoir built in the Islamic style in 1914. The building is used as a cultural center hosting conferences, exhibitions, debates and small lectures.
The Ponte Velha (Old Bridge), sometimes referred to as the "Roman Bridge", actually dates from the mid-14th century. Spanning the River Arade, the bridge is now pedestrianized and is 76m in length and 5m wide.
The Mercado Municipal de Silves (Silves Municipal Market) sells fresh fish, meat, fruit and vegetables. It was built in the mid-20th century during the Salazar period in a New Statle (Estado Novo) style of architecture.
The Biblioteca Municipal (Municipal Library) preserves within it the remains of parts of the old Moorish town including walls and cisterns. The Praça Al'Mutamid is a modern reconstruction of an Islamic period water garden with pools and fountains. It is named after a child ruler of Silves, Al'Mutamid, who wrote a poem lauding the city before he was forced to return to his capital Sevilla in Spain. The area is much used during the annual Medieval Fair.
Just outside town on the N124 heading towards São Bartolomeu de Messines is the Cruz de Portugal (Cross of Portugal), a 3m-tall carved, limestone cross that dates from the 16th century. One side shows the scene of the Crucifixion, the other the Descent from the Cross.
The Museu da Cortiça (Cork Museum) which was housed in a 19th century English cork factory (Fábrica do Inglês) is now, unfortunately, closed.
There are a number of golf courses within easy reach of Silves.
Silves Tourist Offices
Silves Municipal Tourist Office, Rua 25 de Abril, near the Largo do Município (Tel: 282 442 255) also incorporates the Algarb Islamic Heritage Interpretation Center (Centro de Interpretaçao do Património Islâmico) which traces the network of Islamic culture that spread from and connected North Africa, Spain and Portugal.
The main Turismo (Tel: 282 440 800) is housed in a modern, glass building by the river, the main car park, the bus stops and just opposite the Mercado Municipal de Silves.
Medieval Fair (Feira Medieval)
Silves' big bash is the annual Silves Medieval Fair lasting over 10 days in mid-August. The event began in 2004 and now attracts over 130,000 visitors to watch the historical dramas and re-enactments, horse tournaments, music, dance, juggling and other street entertainment and circus-style acts. Visitors also have the chance to dress up in historical costumes and join in the fun. The fair takes place at night from 6pm-1am and a ticket or wristband is required to enter the area.
Bales of straw, flaming torches and lots of people in period dress add to the medieval atmosphere and the fair attracts scores of market traders from all over Europe selling everything from singing bowls from Tibet to nuts and dried fruit from North Africa. There's even a local "currency" - the Xilb - which can be exchanged for Euros. The main stages are in Praça Al'Mutamid and Silves Castle.
Getting to Silves
Silves has rail connections with Faro (just over an hour) via Tunes. There are local trains to Albufeira (30 minutes), Ferragudo (12 minutes), Portimão (16 minutes) and Lagos (35 minutes). There are also trains to Lisbon via Tunes.
Silves connects with the motorway IC4 near Portimão which then joins the IP1/A2/E1 for journeys north to Lisbon. Travel east to Faro and Spain on the E1/IP1.
There are buses from the city centre to Silves train station and also buses from outside the Tourist Office near the river to Portimao (30 minutes with Frota Azul), Albufeira (45 minutes with EVA) and Lagos (change at Portimao). For Faro change buses at Lagoa (15 minutes with Frota Azul).
From the Airport
The nearest airport to Silves is Faro Airport.
Quinta do Rio Country Inn
Located in beautiful countryside a few kilometres outside Silves.
Another recommended hotel is the Colona dos Mouros on the other side of the river from the town with a pool and open-air terrace. Also on this side of the river is the well-liked Casa do Cerro with views of the castle from its glamorous hilltop perch. Similarly the new Horta Grande hostel has a loyal following.
Outside of town on the N124 going north the Residencial Vila Sodre has 12 rooms.
Also about 6km outside Silves is the British and Irish, husband and wife-owned Duas Quintas, set in 15 acres of orange trees, with a large swimming pool.
Book Hotel Accommodation in Silves
Silves has a number of good eateries and a market near the old (now pedestrianized bridge). Just below the cathedral is the Cafe Inglês popular for its fine food, delicious desserts and outdoor terrace. In the evening during the summer season there are also musical and fado events. The English-run Café da Sé also near the cathedral has good drinks, snacks and cakes.
There are some good bars and cafes in and around Largo do Município including Café Da Rosa and Restaurante Marisqueira Casa Velha. There's a line of pavement cafes on Rua C. Figueiredo. Try Art'aska.
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There is a Wifi hotspot in the Praça Al'Muthamid as well as one in Largo da República.
The average high June temperatures for Portugal is between 22 degrees Centigrade and 26 degrees Centigrade.
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