Getting to Know the Silves Área
São Bartolomeu de Messines
Situated in a long, fertile valley, some of São Bartolomeu's streets - such as Rua do Remexido, which is spanned by an arch - retain the charm of a typical Algarve town. The poet João de Deus (1830-1896), whose reader "Cartilha Maternal" was widely used to teach reading and writing at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, was born here. The two houses in which he lived are indicated by plaques.
The original church was built in the 16th century, in a transitional style between Manueline and Renaissance. To this was added at the beginning of the 18th century a baroque façade, which makes a powerful visual impact thanks to the contrast between the white of its walls and the stonework in red sandstone, set off by the spacious churchyard and the pillared entrance which is reached by a flight of steps.
The interior is made up of three naves with round arches supported by solomonic pillars. The triumphal arch of the main chapel has non-twisted triple columns. The retable is carved and gilded (18th century).
The two collateral chapels have rimmed Manueline vaults, while the arches of the side chapels proper already show the influence of the later Renaissance style. There are fine gilded and carved retables (18th century) and the bas-relief polychrome pediments, with their markedly baroque decoration, are worthy of particular attention. At the top of the side naves are two panels of 17th century polychrome tiles depicting the Eucharist and Nossa Senhora da Conceição (Our lady of the Conception). Also dating from the 17th century are the tiles that cover the inner sides of the three side altars.
The elegant pulpit with its stone staircase is made of local marble and is a small masterpiece of workmanship (beginning of the 18th century). Other objects in the church, including the table and basin in the sacristy and the font, are fashioned of the same marble.
The church also boasts a fine collection of 16th to 18th century statues, pride of place in which goes to the pieces dedicated to the Virgin Mary: Nossa Senhora da
Conceição (Our Lady of the Conception), Nossa Senhora da Glória (Our Lady of Glory) and Nossa Senhora da Saúde (Our Lady of Salvation).
A number of small rural chapels, known as "ermidas" or hermitages, evoke the holy figures who were the object of religious devotion in the past: São Sebastião (St. Sebastian) and, on the low hills that surround, Santa Ana (St. Anne), São Pedro (St. Peter) and Nossa Senhora da Saúde (Our Lady of Salvation), on one of the walls of which is a cross made up of 17th century tiles.
In Search of Menhirs
The area around São Bartolomeu de Messines is rich in traces of the past. Prominent among these are menhirs which bear witness to the Algarve's thriving Megalithic community in the 4th to 3rd millennia B.C.. The menhir at Monte de Alfarrobeira was converted into a decorated stele during the Bronze Age, while the Cerro da Vilarinha, Gregórios and Abutiais menhirs have since toppled over. The Rocha Sanctuary, in Vale Fuseiros, which consists of small hollows carved in the rock over a distance of almost 100 metres - approx. 333 ft -, dates from the same period.
Verdant orange, fig and almond trees surround this village, which still retains a few old houses with prettily decorated chimneys and modest whitewashed hermitages.
Displaying the architectural simplicity of the 18th century on the outside, this church has within it a number of art treasures, ranging from the 17th century tiles that cover the walls and ceiling of the baptistery and some of the walls to great artistic effect and the gilded, carved retable in the "rocaille" style that adorns the Capela do Santíssimo (Chapel of the Most Holy), to the retables on the two collateral altars (18th century) and the statues, which include two processional representations of Christ dressed in a kilt.
Granary of Monte da Piedade (Mount of Piety)
This building belonged to the old mutual association which would support its members with help in the form of loans. The entrance was possibly built using stone work from the 16th century. In addition to a plaque bearing the date 1704, the façade has a decorative circular window and a cross made with patterned polychrome tiles (18th century).
Hermitage of Nossa Senhora do Pilar (Our lady of the Pillar)
Sited on top of a hill, this country chapel is a good place from which to view the surrounding landscape. The small altar achieves a striking harmony between the carved retable, the pediment and the tiles (beginning of the 18th century). There is also a triumphal arch with decorative paintings depicting the Stations of the Cross (18th century).
With its whitewashed walls, Alcantarilha's church dominates a village of modest houses scattered prettily across the hillside.
All that remains of the original 16th century structure is the Manueline main chapel, to which an 18th century carved and gilded retable has since been added. The baptismal chapel has a tiled ashlar (17th century) and in the sacristy is a fine chest above which there is a niche decorated with acanthus leaves (18th century).
Adjoining the church is a grisly Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), its walls and ceiling clad with approximately 1,500 skulls.
Misericórdia (Mercy) Church
Unremarkable from the outside, inside this church the statue and carved, gilded retable on the altar are worth seeing, as are the banners used in processions (18th century).
Medieval in origin, the castle was built to defend the population of Alcantarilha and the surrounding villages front marauding Moorish pirates. Rebuilt in the 16th/17th centuries, it now stands in ruins.
In the streets around Pêra's church many of the houses are typically Algarvean in appearance, with whitewashed walls and coloured borders.
The outside is of little architectural interest The carved and gilded woodwork of the retables in the main chapel, the side chapels and the chapels of Nossa Senhora do Rosário (Our Lady of the Rosary) and Sagrado Coração de Jesus (the Sacred Heart) are representative of art in the Algarve at the time (18th century). The side walls of the main chapel are decorated with tiles depicting the four evangelists framed with baroque mouldings, while the dome spots tiles representing different figures (18th century). There are several statues dating from the same period.
The church's holy treasures include vestments and a finely-crafted silver monstrance.
The churchyard affords excellent views of the surrounding fields and the sea.
Church of the Ordem Terceira de São Francisco (Third Order of St. Francis)
The modest architecture of the façade conceals a main chapel with a carved retable whose fine design is evident in its columns and tabernacle (beginning of the 18th century). From a later period and in the "rocaille" style are the decoration on the walls and ceiling and the carving on the canopy over the tribune. The church also contains paintings by the Algarvean artist Rasquinho (18th/19th centuries).
A Long and Pretty Beach
Armação de Pêra was for centuries a fishing village, a focal point for fishermen attracted by the abundance of fish, especially sardines and tuna, which was salted and sold in the south and centre of Portugal.
To defend the settlement against raids from pirates and corsairs, a small fort was built in the 17th century at the initiative of a prosperous boat-owner. On the walls of this old fortification, with a doorway and above it the royal coat of arms, still stands on a slight elevation overlooking the sea. The chapel inside, which is dedicated to Santo António (Saint Anthony), dates from the same period.
These days, the fishermen's nets are still to be seen on Praia dos Pescadores (Fishermen's beach). But it is to the tourists who come for its broad sands and warm waters that Armação de Pêra now owes its lively, cosmopolitan atmosphere.
Between Orange Groves and Hills
The vast triangle defined by Silves, São Bartolomeu de Messines and Armação de Pêra is a land of fruit trees and vegetable gardens, of small villages where the houses have whitewashed walls, with doors and windows picked out in blue, and ornate chimneys that resemble a more solid version of lace. A walk through this region is a chance to appreciate the glowing colours of oranges and pomegranates, the pale green foliage of almond trees, the broad crowns of carob trees and the dramatically twisted trunks and boughs of fig trees that are often bent right to the ground.
To the north lie the hills, smooth and round as pebbles, covered with typically Mediterranean vegetation consisting of evergreen oaks, arbutus-berry trees, cork oaks, cistus and gorse. In addition, many other species of flora that have adapted to the poor schisty soils and harsh climate are interesting from a botanical point of view.
In a landscape of heat and light, the Arade and Funcho dams open like coal windows and the scattered white houses of villages like São Marcos da Serra offer welcome relief from the near-desert conditions in the hills.
The area as a whole is home to a variety of animal life, including approximately eighty species of nesting birds. The Serra is a particularly good place to observe birds of prey, including sparrow hawks, falcons and various types of eagle, as well as woodpeckers, larks, wild doves, thrushes, blackbirds, nightingales, goldfinches and many other species.
Crafts Past and Present
A number of traditional crafts are still carried on in the municipality: in Silves there is a craftswoman who makes delicate bobbin lace, while in the surrounding hamlets women still weave wicker and coarse "esparto" grass to make useful domestic objects. More in line with contemporary tastes are the tiles, pottery and miniatures of typical Algarvean houses made in Silves, the quilts and cushions fashioned out of scraps of brightly coloured linen, also in Silves, and the jewellery and other decorative objects made in the village of São Marcos da Serra up in the hills.
In places near to the sea, fresh fish is understandably the star attraction at the dinner table. Sardines, horse mackerel, sea bream, snook and many other types of fish are caught and served grilled with a slice of lemon - delicious! Sea food, including lobster, shrimp and clams, is also abundant. And for those who want to try traditional fishermen's recipes there is Aunt Chica-style fish stew, sardines dipped in flour and fried and baby horse mackerel with lime.
Further inland the cooking has a different slant. Corn mush, orange juice and pork are among the ingredients favoured in the intermediate zone known as the "Barrocal" and the hills of the Serra Beyond.
As far as sweets and puddings are concerned, Silves is famed for its "morgados", which are decorated with leaves and flowers made of sugar, and its "lesmas", which are filled with a sweet eggy paste, while in Messines "folhados" are a speciality.
Ta round off a meal, nothing beats the oranges, tangerines, pomegranates, figs and grapes grown in the fertile orchards that cover much of Silves municipality, followed by a generous measure of the arbutus-berry brandy distilled in the villages of the hills. The local bees make honey from wild rosemary and the fruit of their labour is not to be missed either.