The ancient capital of Portugal’s Algarve, Silves may sit inland 10km away from the golden beaches and rocky coastline, although don’t be fooled, this town packs a mighty punch. Whether it is history, archeology, bird life, street art, walking or cycling, this Algarvian town has it all. And Silves is definitely worth a diversion away from the sand between your toes.
Like so many coastal destinations, the real joy of a country’s culture and natural beauty can often be found just a little way inland. We found the same in Spain and France. And Portugal is no different. At one end of the Algarve you have the lure of Loulé and at the other Silves. Both will delight you and transport you back in time as you immerse yourself in just a little bit of Portuguese history.
Our first visit to the Algarve was not blessed with joyous memories; in part I think this was just the space we were in 15 years ago, deep in the seat of our corporate merry-go-round. So revisiting of this part of the world seemed important to test out our past perceptions and reconnect with the country’s true values.
As we approached Silves after a week along the Rocky Algarve, the hilly fortress and cathedral stood proud and providing a vista that we were sure would surprise and delight. Although as we drove over the bridge and along the outer rim road, there was definitely a deja-vous moment. Slowly memories popped in my mind as we moseyed past the Parça Al-Mutamid and flash backs of our previous visit tumbled back to me. We had been here before…. so what new adventures could we have all these years on? Well plenty I can tell you, so if you’re ready, let me tell you a bit about what you can experience in two or three days in this little gem of a town.
What to see in Silves
1. The Castle
Well as obvious as it might seem, the castle is an instant draw. What is it about castles and their ancient history that bring out the intrigued historian in us? With its renovated walls that surround a large part of Silves in a protective embrace, you instantly get the feeling of tales of old. Battles, slavery, and torture – who would have thought that this tiny town could have such a story to tell. A story that takes us back as far as 8th century when the Moors were the dominant force building their fortress on Roman fortifications. Although it has had some renovation work through 20th century, the castle is the largest in the Algarve. For €2.80 you can enter the castle and walk around its walls and take in the panorama in front of you. Or simply keep the statue of King Sancho 1 company, slayer of the enemy in 1189 and admire the castle from the outside with its blossoming cherry tree and blue sky background giving instant photographic appeal.
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2. Sé de Silves
Whilst you are perusing the magnificence of the castle’s conquests, you cannot ignore its Gothic neighbour. Silves’ Cathedral requires some neck straining as you gaze to is tower pinnacle. It was built in 13th century and despite being damaged by the earthquake in 1755, it has been rebuilt keeping its Gothic features. It is now on the Portuguese National Register of Monuments list and is thought to be one of the most significant Cathedrals in the region. Reason enough to take some time to admire it.
3. Street Art
As you wander around this compact and bijou town, you will be impressed by its colourful facades. The streets are undoubtedly full of history which somehow still feels etched into their brickwork. Although a more modern feature stands out from the ancient tales; the street art. Now I must stress this isn’t graffiti, this is genuinely beautiful pieces of art. From the Firestation, to the Electricity boxes and the walls adjacent to the Parça Al‘Mutamid. They each have their own narrative to tell and demand to be admired.
3. Roman Bridge, Parça Al’Mutamid and Artaska Café
With a town so steeped in Arabian legend, it seems hard to imagine the role the Romans had on the area well before they conquered Portugal. Although their legacy is still in tact by way of the Ponte Romana, which today is being restored. It is a grand feature of the town, spanning across the Arade River and creating a stunning vista along the river walkway.
Immediately opposite there is a famous landmark, although not in the same guise as its historical cousins. The Café Art’aska is a huge building that whilst dishevelled in nature has a real vibe going on. On a Sunday night this is the place to hang out and listen to some jamming and even partake with your own penny whistle if that takes your fancy. Imagine on a warm summer’s night, strolling along the Arade with the rhythm of music floating through the air. And add to that the chatter of storks that fly above you, who also call this place home, and you will instantly notice the appeal of this ancient capital grow, slowly and surely.
A short walk up the road will bring you to the Parça Al’Mutamid. This long stretch of park is so characterful and colourful. With its palm and pomegranate trees, fountains with floating figurines that depict characters from Silves of yesteryear and Muslim buildings that transport you back to an Arabian night, it feels quite surreal. It was created as a tribute to the Lord of Seville, Al’ Mutadid who conquered the Silves in 1053 and his son Al’Mutamid who was put in charge of the town at the tender age of 12! It’s Islamic feel is evident everywhere and you can almost imagine that you are not in Portugal at all.
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What to do in Silves
Apart from the obvious walking tour around the town or may be the Archaeological Museum if that’s your thing (37.188967 -8.438888), there are a couple of other things to whilst you are in this area.
1. Partake in a Port Experience
You can’t come to Portugal and not dabble in a bit of Port. When I saw the advert for a Port Experience, I was in! This is part of the culture and it had to be done! Well that was my excuse anyway. Crazily we didn’t ask the price and being next to the castle we did give a momentary thought to the bill at the end, although hey! So they arrived at our table with three ample sized glasses of port to try; a Tawny, a White and a Rosé. And we ordered a fig cake, which is also a local delicacy. Figs are super important to the Portuguese economy. Well the Port was delightful and we enjoyed it enough to purchase a bottle of the Rosé which appealed to both our palettes. The whole experience, which whilst sat underneath the shade of the castle walls, listening to the storks go about their business, cost us €10.00. The bottle we took home was only €9.50. One word of warning. If you’re going to order the fig cake, make sure you share it with someone otherwise the laxative effects the next morning could have you running for the loo.2. Take a walk up to the windmill
The walks in the area have huge potential for those who love a good ramble. It’s not far out of town before you find quiet roads, gently rolling hills and miles of hiking opportunities. To reach the windmill (37.203102 -8.435254) you wander through countryside strewn with lemons and orange groves bordered by wild flowers and herbs. At the right time of year, the smells are just amazing as the orange blossom tantalises your nostrils. It’s a bit of a steep hike up to the windmill, although the views from here are just amazing. From the town it’s only about 45 minute walk, although lovely none the less.3. Cycle to Arade Reservoir
Equally rewarding is the 12 mile return cycle ride that takes you through rural villages who survive on their agricultural trade up to the source of the Arade river. The reservoir offers gorgeous views of this water scape and to sit beneath the pine trees and take in the vista or cycle some more around the plentiful footpaths, will certainly while away an afternoon.
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Where to stay and eat
As we travel in our campervan, staying at Silves is easy. There’s two great little Aires, one either side of the town. Parque do Castelo is an excellent and well run Aire for €9.50 which includes EHU and free wifi. Showers are extra – 50c per person and washing machines €4. You are within walking distance of the town and the Windmill from here.
The second official Aire is beside the river on the other side of town (37.185115 -8.445415). I’m unsure of the prices or services.
If you wanted to go wild, then you can stay outside of Silves some 6 miles away, by the Arade Reservoir I mentioned earlier. There are two spots; one just beneath the reservoir (37.236863 -8.378789) and another at the top of the hill in a small parking area that has some views. Neither have services, although these are available in Silves for a small fee.2. Accommodation
If you are looking to stay in a hotel or Air BnB, then check out these options with Booking.com3. Somewhere to eat
We love France’s style of Plat du Jour – often a canteen affair with basic food cooked well for a phenomenally cheap price. Well Portugal has these too. We were recommended to go to Casa Velha, which is opposite the Town Hall in Silves. They offer, every day a three-course meal for just €7.50, including wine/beer/port. Just asking for the ‘Camping Menu.’ Whilst the food is never going to be gourmet we thought the ambiance of the place and their service was great. Their fish dish was amazing – Portugal seriously knows how to do fish.
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Our conclusions on Silves
On our travels we continue to love heading inland to experience the heart of a country and its rural culture. It is here we find hidden gems that seem to only fall to the cutting room floor and not make the glossy magazines. We feel that way about Silves. Charming, characterful and full of charisma and most definitely worth the detour for a day or two. Walk the cobbled streets and listen to the chattering storks whilst knowing that somewhere, somehow Muslims, Roman and Christians placed their feet upon the same stones as you.