Once the capital of the Algarve region, Silves is one of Portugal’s most historically significant cities.
Quick History of Silves
Though the area has been inhabited at least since Paleolithic times, the town we know today as Silves was probably officially founded sometime during Roman times. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the town fell under the jurisdiction of the Visigoth Kingdom. That all changed in 713 when Arab and Berber Muslims from North Africa (the Moors) invaded the Iberian Peninsula and took over the entire Algarve region, including Silves. The town then became part of the Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba and was known by the name of Shilb.
By the 10th century, Shilb had grown to become one of the most strategic and commercially important cities in all of Muslim Iberia. Being the Moorish regional capital for a time, many referred to it as “the Baghdad of the East” for its wealth and many centers of learning. In 1027, Shilb became an independent taifa (kingdom/fiefdom) until 1156 when it was conquered by the Almoravids. Their rule didn’t last long; in 1189, King Sancho I of Portugal conquered the city only to lose it again.
Christians and Muslims kept fighting for the city until 1242 when it was decisively conquered by the Portuguese with the aid of Paio Peres Correia, the Grand-Master of the Order of the Knights of Santiago. However by this time, Silves’ glory days were well behind her, with the nearby city of Faro becoming the prominent commercial hub for the Algarve region. Today, Silves is a tourist center filled with historic sites and local restaurants serving Algarve specialties.
Things to See and Do in Slives, Portugal
Check out some of the more popular things to see in this historic town.
One of the things that makes Silves so special is that unlike many of the other towns of the Algarve, this one is less touristy and still retains a lot of its old world charm. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the city’s old town. This is the place that the locals come to relax after a long day’s work and exchange news sipping a cold drink or coffee. Most of the action occurs on or around Rua da Sé, and many of Silves’ main attractions such as the city gate, town hall, main square, castle and cathedral are located within its vicinity.
Silves Castle (Castelo)
Silves’ castle, commonly called the castelo, is the grandest structure from the city’s Islamic past. Its foundations go back to Roman rule during the fourth century and it remained a relatively insignificant building until the arrival of the Moors in the 8th century. Silves’ new Islamic rulers expanded the building until over the centuries it became an almost impenetrable fortress. Like many strategically located castles, the castelo is placed high enough that its ramparts offer some awesome views of the city, surrounding countryside and the Serra de Monchique mountains.
The interior of the castle is no less awesome with the relatively well-preserved remains of the old 11th-century Moorish palace. Underneath the castle is a 10-meter tall cistern and well that descends at least 60 meters into the ground.
Sé Cathedral (Silves Cathedral)
This is the town’s main Cathedral (Sé) and dates back to the 13th century. It was once a mosque but later converted into a church after the Portuguese conquest of the city. It soon became the seat of the Bishop and other high-ranking clergy for the Algarve until they were transferred to nearby Faro. With its gargoyles, Crusader tombs and red sandstone archivolts, the Cathedral is a mix of Gothic and traditional Magrebi Islamic architecture. Whether you’re religious or not, the cathedral is a sight to behold.
Archaeology MuseumSilves’ amazing archaeology museum has been built around an old cistern from the time of Almohad rule in the 12th century. About 20 meters in depth, the cistern’s helictical staircase takes you down to the main tank which features many interesting exhibits that span over 8,000 years of history. Most of the artifacts date anywhere from the Copper and Bronze Ages all the way up to the Roman, Visigoth and Moorish eras.
Ponte VelhaPonte Velha literally means “old bridge,” which is exactly what it is. Built in the 15th-century (though some historians believe that there was an earlier bridge dating from Roman times here), the bridge was built to allow people, horses and cows to cross the Arade river. Today though it’s just a peaceful spot in Silves where one can pause and take in the local green hills and scenery.
Mercado Municipal de Silves
The Mercado Municipal is Silves’ main marketplace. Vendors here sell everything from fruits and vegetables to fish, meats, breads and sweets. The best day to come here is on Saturday because farmers and traders come from all over the Algarve and Alentejo regions to set up shop with special items.
Fábrica do Inglês
This is where a lot of Silves’ main events take place, especially in summer. The venue often holds concerts, drama, dance and other performances such as the “Aquavision” laser and light show. Surrounding the Fábrica are a bunch of bars and restaurants popular with the town’s younger and trendier crowd.
Cruz de Portugal
Just outside Silves towards the town of São Bartolomeu de Messines is a mysterious albeit beautiful gothic-style limestone cross. Known as the Cruz de Portugal (Cross of Portugal), its actual origins are a mystery. Nobody knows for sure exactly where it came from, though analysis of the limestone indicates that it probably originated from quarries in northern Portugal sometime in the 15th century. Regardless, it’s a beautifully carved monument to Portugal’s Catholic heritage.
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