The dark red of mighty castle walls that loom over the city and the surrounding countryside. The interplay of stone and light in the architecture of a gothic church. Vestiges of the Moorish presence in the city's history. Streets of white houses that reflect the sun and the blue sky. Herein lies the appeal of Silves, where the past merges with the present to make every visit an enduring memory.
Sé Velha (Old Cathedral)
Built out of the region's fine red sandstone, possibly on the site of the old mosque, it was begun in the second half of the 13th century or the beginning of the 14th. Work continued into the middle of the 15th century after part of the structure collapsed. A number of architectural alterations were made in the 18th century.
The man façade is dominated by the gothic doorway spanned by a backdrop which ends in a veranda held up by corbels with gargoyles. The only other elements surviving from the original building are the circular window and the two buttresses, as the rest of the façade and the towers are baroque. Also of note on the exterior of the cathedral are the big ogival window with four small columns next to the steps and the fine ensemble that makes up the high altar of the church.
The interior consists of three naves, with plain pillars and ogival arches. The beauty of the transept and the apse makes them a good example of gothic art.
The main chapel is flanked by recesses with a ribbed vault. On the main altar is a statue in jasper of the Our Lady with the Infant Jesus (15th/16th century?). On the floor are headstones, one of which denotes the former resting place of King João II (1455/1495), who died in Alvor and whose remains were later transferred to the monastery at Batalha. There are side chapels of the Santíssimo (Most Holy) and Nosso Senhor dos Passos (Our Lord of the Stations of the Cross) containing statues from the 18th century. Next to the main entrance is the doorway to the gothic chapel of João do Rêgo, situated under the bell tower, which contains two tombs under monumental thrones excavated on the walls. The artistic heritage of the Old Cathedral includes two large paintings depicting São José (St. Joseph) and Santa Bárbara (St. Barbara) (18th century), the renaissance retable (16th century) in one of the side chapels and the marble tombs of João Gramaxo (1516) and a bishop, with a relief of a crosier.
Time and man have done much to change the Moorish and Christian city which was once the chief city of the Algarve. Silves does however retain much of its former charm in the streets of the old "almedina", which are still laid out as they were in medieval times.
The buildings that extend from the city walls to the river are, in many cases. fine examples of the bourgeois architecture of the end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, testimony to the new prosperity brought by the cork business.
Much of the city's past can be glimpsed to this day in the patterns of its streets and its architecture. What is now Rua da Sé used to be known as Rua Direita and was where the most important merchants had their shops. The Jewish quarter was situated between Rua da Porta de Loulé and what is nowadays the parish hall, while the synagogue was outside the city walls. Access to the synagogue was thus by way of the Porta de Loulé (the Loulé gate) more or less to the east of the city, near to the castle. And. as was the case throughout Portugal, the conquered Moors had their houses outside the city walls also - in the Moorish quarter, or "Mouraria" - which occupied a site that corresponds approximately to the area delimited today by Rua Samora Barros and Rua Francisco Pablos.
Misericórdia (Mercy) Church
This building dates from the 16th century and its Manueline origins are apparent from a highly decorated side doorway, positioned above ground level, which was possibly the former entrance to the church. The main façade has a portico of classical design. The interior consists of a single nave. The main chapel has a ribbed vault and a Renaissance retable (16th century) with paintings from a later period. The church has a collection of mercy banners that are still used in processions.
Chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Mártires (Our Lady of Martyrs)
Located outside the old city walls, it was built initially in the 12th century to receive the remains of the Portuguese soldiers and crusaders who died during the first campaign to conquer Silves. It was rebuilt in the 16th century and again later in the 18th
The main façade is in the baroque style while the denticulate decoration in the main chapel belongs to the Manueline period (16th century). The main chapel has a painted vault finished with Crosses of Christ and religious and military symbols. There is a 16th century retable. The chapel also contains two carved and gilded retables originally from the Cathedral (18th century).
A symbol of municipal power, this stone monument has been rebuilt from 16th century remains. Commonly found in towns elsewhere in Portugal, it is the only such structure in the whole of the Algarve.
Cross of Portugal
Located next to the old road that used to constitute the link with the north and with the kingdom of Portugal (whence perhaps it takes its name), the exact date of its construction is not known (15th century or beginning of the 16th century).
It is one of the most beautiful crosses in Portugal and has on one side a representation of the crucifixion and on the other the Mater Dolorosa. The base dates from 1824.
The biggest castle in the Algarve and the most beautiful military monument to the Islamic period in Portugal, it has its origins in the ramparts built around the town during the Moorish occupation, probably on the site of late Roman or Visigothic fortifications (4th 5th centuries). Its eleven towers, two of which are barbicans - joined to the ramparts by a supporting arch that holds up the walkway - and thick walls enclose an area of approximately 12,000 m2 (4.62 square miles).
The double entrance gateway is defended by two towers and the opening of the "traitors' gate" in the north-facing walls still remains. Four of the towers, which were mortified at the time of the reconstruction work carried out in the 14th or 15th century, have gothic doorways, vaulted halls and stones bearing the marks of medieval masons.
The castle once sheltered the old Moorish "alcáçova", immortalised as the "Palace of Verandas" in poetry of the time. Remnants of the "alcáçova", which was the residence of the lord of the city and its highest dignitaries, have been found in the course of boring work at the site. The castle itself contains a deep well - approximately 60 m (approx. 200 ft.) -, a large water tank with four vaults supported by tall columns, and spacious underground silos that were used to store grain.
Its towers and ramparts afford magnificent views over the surrounding countryside.
According to a description left by a crusader who took part in the conquest of Silves, the town's defences consisted, in addition to the castle, of three lines of ramparts.
All that remains of these defensive walls are a few stretches built of red sandstone and "taipa" - a mix of clay, rubble, sand and lime - and a number of towers which once protected the residential area, or "almedina", of Silves. A little more than 1 kilometre - approx. 0.7 miles - in length, they encircled an area of seven hectares (approx. 17.5 acres).
Of the four gates to the "almedina" all that remains is the Torreão da Porta da Cidade (the Turret of the City Gate). This consists of a barbican, built in the 12th or 13th century, which gives access, by way of two corridors, to the city. Inside the tower are two rooms and annexes which were for centuries the home of the Municipal Council and which, since 1983, have housed the Municipal Library. The tower is entered by way of an external stairway built at a later date and two high walkways which are original.
Bridge over the Arade River
Dating back to the Medieval period, until only a few years ago it was this structure that connected Silves to the coast.
With its back to a section of the city ramparts, this building contains a well-tank of Moorish origin (11th century) dressed with stone and "taipa" that is 18m - approx. 60 ft. - deep and 2.5m - approx. 8.5 ft. - across. Steps lead in a spiral down to the bottom. The well was blocked up in the 16th century and the house which now contains the museum was built over it.
The museum's collections include archaeological finds from throughout the municipality, including a particularly interesting collection of Moorish ceramics from digs conducted at the castle.
Silves and the Voyages of Discovery
Silves played a role in the first phase of the discoveries, the daring voyages of exploration inspired and orchestrated by Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), who established the Algarve as a centre of maritime know-how.
The first voyage of reconnaissance to the islands of the Azores was made by a certain Diogo of Silves. João do Rego, Knight of the Household of Prince Henry, and Gastão da Ilha, whose name is linked with the settling of the island of Madeira, are buried in the Old Cathedral. And a bishop of Silves funded a caravel to explore the African coast.
Yet by making the ports of the Algarve coast the focus of political and economic power, the discoveries ultimately contributed to Silves's decline.
Sailing down the Arade River
For thousands of years boats from the Atlantic and Mediterranean alike have sailed up and down the river and to follow their route down to the sea is to take a trip through time. The journey begins in Silves, and then rounds the old peninsula on which once stood the factory and fortress of Cerro da Rocha Branca. Further downstream are the remains of a medieval lookout tower and, on Rosário Island, vestiges of the Roman presence. It was on this stretch of the river that the crusaders landed their boats when they captured Silves for the first time. Before that, in 966, a Viking fleet which had come intent on plunder was surrounded and partially destroyed in the same spot.
Continuing downstream you reach Portimão and the sea, and the fortifications that defended the bar at the mouth of the river.