From the earliest of times, the green River Arcade was the route into the interior of the Algarve via the sea. Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians were drawn to and prospered upon the riches of copper and iron mined in the west of the region.
Silves owes its existence to its strategic point on the top of a hill dominating a broad plain and bordered by the navigable river. Romans may have established it and finds from a deep sunken well within the old city are an evocative testimony to a Classical civilisation, but it was the Moors who brought long years of prosperity and development.
As newcomers to Portuguese history we learned with fascination that Silves was the first capital city of the Moorish Algarve, part of the wider Al-Andalus.
By the 11th century it had surpassed Lisbon for size and splendour and was a cultural centre of poets, chroniclers and lawmakers. Moorish irrigation and agricultural systems brought sustenance, and science and medicine enriched local life.
However, as the Muslim world of the 12th century rocked internally and politically, factions fought each other for control of the city and the Portuguese catholic King Sancho 1 took advantage. He besieged Silves in 1189 and won it from the Moors in a long and cruel act of starvation and the slaughter of its citizens.
Sancho’s army was assisted by crusaders from the north of Europe heading onwards to Jerusalem and in declaring victory over a decimated population he first used the title of ‘King of Silves’.
Sancho’s rule was shortlived. In 1191 a devastated population was reclaimed by the Almohad dynasty in a military campaign run by the Caliph himself.
Silves remained Muslim until the Christian occupation of the lands of the Algarve from 1242 – 1249 which ended the ‘reconquista’ in Portugal. Modern-day Andalusia in Spain would continue to flourish under Moorish rule for another 250 years.
Silves fortress is still intact in outline, as are some of its Moorish defence walls. Built in red sandstone and cemented with ‘taipa’ – mud mixed with lime and small stones – the fortress covers an area of 12,000 meters squared.
Polygonal in shape it has eight flanking towers, two detached towers and two enormous gates. Their names are romantic: ‘tower of secrets’, ‘tower of women’, ‘gate of betrayal’.
The foundation walls of Almohad palatial houses are still clearly visible and show central courtyards and wells, bases of columns and flights of steps to upper living accommodation.
Beneath ground a huge vaulted hall is the old water cistern which had the capacity to hold up to 12 million litres – enough fresh water for more than 1,000 people to use and drink every year. It was functioning for the modern city until 1990.
After the reconquest, Silves’ fortunes fell fast. With the loss of trading links to the Moorish kingdoms in Africa and a silting up of the River Arcade it lost its economic power and importance. As its influence waned, the coastal towns of Faro, Lagos and Portimao rose in ascendancy. Nature played her part in Silves’s decline too.
Earthquakes and a devastating fever caused by the swamp that had formed where the river once flowed almost finished the city. The coup de grace was the decision by the Catholic church to transfer its Episcopal See to Faro, with the result that Silves shrank from history for three hundred long years.
However, the 19th century brought an economic boom in dried fruit and cork processing. Silves resurged as an inland Algarve town with a rich historical heritage.
Even today, walking around the winding street pattern of its old Medina, we saw Moorish carved decorations on one storey houses and admired Moorish-inspired graffiti.
As the sun set, we joined the locals at a festival of ‘corn and folk music’, known locally as Mostra de Papas de Milho.
Women stirred large bubbling hot pots of polenta and water, flavoured with chorizo or clam meat while men prodded at barbecues of pork and chicken.
A lot of people were eating a lot of caracoles, small snails boiled and served in plastic dishes with wooden picks to hook out the slippery meat. Frankly, we needed a small glass of Super Bock beer to get over the sight of it.
As we parked up the bikes, a rather bizarre ‘ethnographic dance group’ from coastal Quelfes began to entertain the crowds and snail eaters, whilst dressed as elderly peasants. Where on earth were we?
The young-ish dancers shook, limped and cavorted their way through a series of songs played by an accompanying band on guitars, accordions and tambourines.
It was boisterous, if a little uncomfortable, watching the imitation shaking and tottering which went on for at least half an hour. One particular chap, who appeared to be the leader, repeatedly grabbed his crotch – you can see him in the image above. He held that position throughout.
We did enjoy their finale which was a hand-clapping and rousing melody from Fuseta!
As the mournful tones of the night’s main act, a Fado singer from Lisbon, held sorrowfully in the air, we cycled along the riverbank back to Bertha with views of the floodlit and party-hosting fortress above us.
It was to be a very long night waiting for some peace in which to sleep. At 4am on a Monday morning, silence fell in Silves…. just for a few brief and precious minutes before the noisy bill-clattering of nesting storks heralded a new day.