Silves in Portugal is situated inland some 15 minutes from the Algarve coast, more or less in the centre of the Algarve. It was once the capital of the whole region, which was still being referred to as the “Kingdom of the Algarve" in the 19th century. The origin of Silves can be traced back as far as 1000 BC and there is evidence, which shows that it was already a notable town in Roman times.
However, it became of even more importance during the Moorish occupation in the early 11th century when it was named “Xelb. " It became the cultural centre of learning for the whole of the Iberian Peninsular and was ruled from Seville by Al-Mutamid. Many battles took place in and around Silves Castle between Christians and Muslims throughout the 12th and 13th centuries and in 1189 Portugal’s King Sancho finally took back the city with the help of the Anglo-Norman Crusaders.
It continued to be an important city, especially in terms of trade, until the 15th century when the River Arade became silted up and the city lost its access to the sea. Silves sits on top of a hill with the remains of the castle overlooking the city and the River Arade. The castle is believed to have been cited on top of late Roman Visigothic fortifications dated from the 4th or 5th century and was started around 715 by the first Moorish occupants. There is also an old Roman Bridge (Ponte Romana), which crosses the river. The city’s Gothic Cathedral (Sé Velha) was built in the 13th century on the site of a Mosque with the Chapel of João do Rego built to the right of the main entrance in the 15th century. Silves is also built on top of one of the largest underground aquifers in southern Portugal, the Querença-Silves aquifer and is the largest orange growing areas in the country, a fruit that was introduced by the Moors.
So, that's the history lesson over. What is Silves like today? Well coming from any big city or town in Europe, Silves will seem more like a large village and like the rest of Algarve is lost in a time warp. Shops still shut for 2 hours at lunchtime and after 1pm on Saturday and all day on Sunday. There are lots of small businesses: stationers, tobacconists and haberdashery type shops, rather old-fashioned shoe shops and boutiques, and shops which sell everything from brown masking tape to wheelbarrows. These are called “drogarias. " There are also many cafés dotted around.
The streets of Silves consist of smooth, shiny calçada, which together with the fact that many of them are very steep can make excursions around the town rather difficult and slow going, especially in the heat of the summer. Silves has very little nightlife, although, if you know were to look, you will find a number of bars that are open late into the night. However, it does have a number of very good restaurants, notably the seafood restaurant, Rui’s Marisqueira. Recantos dos Mouros (very good black pig; “porco preto"), Café Inglês (specialising in pizza and usually a very good pasta dish of the day) and Casa Velha are also well worth a visit.
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