Silves & the Monchique mountains
Between mountains and the sea
Silves, a historic metropolis
Silves, once capital of the Arab province of Algarve (Al-Gharb), is wonderfully situated between the cork and almond trees as well as the carob trees known to the region. You will also find numerous lemon and orange groves. In his heyday, when Silves was still known as the most beautiful city in Arabic Spain, Silves was a magnet for scientists and poets from Mauritania and legislators or philosophers from Yemen.
Xebb, as this world city was then called, was conquered by the Portuguese in 1189 with the help of the crusaders. Three years later the city fell under Moorish rule again and it was not until 1240 that Silves became permanently in possession of the Portuguese crown.
The castle of Silves is a good illustration of the splendor that the Moors have built up in the Algarve. The Al-Moravian Arabs built this castle in the 11th century. It was erected at the site of the 4th century Roman settlement and has remained the best preserved (and most visited) castle of the Algarve today. In 1910 it was therefore classified as a National Monument.
This impressive building, built from red sandstone of the region, sits on top of a hill and is surrounded by a curtain of walls and eleven towers. The massive front door overlooking the Medina (Arabic for city center) is protected by two towers and a watchtower. A small door has been carved into the north wall. Because one can leave the castle directly through this door, this door is also called "the gate of the traitor".
Through this gate Dom Paio Peres Correira stormed the castle in 1242 to recapture it for the Christians. Inside there is a vast garden. Here you will also find access to the underworld of the castle: under the entire castle grounds are subterranean vaults that can be reached via small openings on the ground floor. Here you can also visit the 10m high Moorish Cistern with its four-columned ceiling and its 60m deep, beautifully Moorish-style well.
In short, you should not miss a visit to the castle of Silves during a visit to the Algarve..
In the old city center of Silves, a visit to the Gothic cathedral Sé can not be missed. This cathedral, built in the 13th century, also known as "Sé de Silves" was once the seat of the diocese of the Algarve. In 1580 this honor fell to the Episcopal Palace in Faro. Gargoyles in the apse and also some tombs of crusaders are a number of sights, which can be visited in this cathedral.
A little south of the cathedral, in the middle of the small streets of the old Medina, is the municipal archaeological museum of Silves. Here the showpiece is most likely the 12th-century Arabian well, accidentally excavated in 1980. A staircase leads 15m down into the pit (not accessible to the public). The museum provides an overview of 8,000 years of human presence in the region.
The old pillory is not far from the castle of Silves. This stood for the symbol of provincial power. The decorative crown and the four cast iron dragons that stick out make this a unique item in the Algarve.
In the summer months, many bars always opened in the Fabrica do Inglés. There were daily concerts and dance performances and the famous "beer festival" took place here every year. There was also the Museu da Cortiça, or cork museum, in this old cork factory. However, the building was confiscated by the tax authorities in 2010 and has been waiting for a new owner or destination ever since.
The Monchique mountains
The Serra de Monchique, seen by the Algarvians as "their" mountains, is a chain of wooded hills separating the Algarve from the Alentejo region.
In the area north of Silves you will find a dense forest with magnolia bushes, chestnut, pine and cork trees. More monocultures of eucalyptus trees were also planted, but the recent forest fires in 2017 and 2018 are being abandoned more and more. Eucalyptus burns in explosive form which accelerates the spread of a possible forest fire.
Due to its unique location, the Monchique region is also an ideal retreat for many animal species. The drive to the village of Monchique offers you spectacular views over a fertile and varied region. The natural and cultural landscape is totally different from the coast. For example, the houses here have white walls with colored beams around the doors and windows. While typical for the whole Algarve, the chimneys in "skirt form", and therefore called "Saia" (Portuguese for skirt), are quite unique and different.
The center of the mountain village Monchique is characterized by its narrow, cobbled streets where there are many cafes and restaurants. The central square has benches, trees and even a Moorish water wheel. The village of Monchique is a very quiet place and therefore a welcome change from the crowds on the coast.
A very well-known product from the Monchique region is the Medronho. Medronho is a liqueur made from the fruits of the strawberry tree (arbutus unedo). The strawberry tree is an evergreen tree or shrub and occurs mainly around the Mediterranean Sea. The fruit itself has little taste, but can be used in many products such as soap, cream, honey and therefore also in liquor. Choose for Medronho, which is traditional, and therefore not available in supermarkets, but be careful. Especially the manually made Medronho is a very strong drink and you quickly have one too much. Also the local honey is exceptionally good and is used in the most delicious local cakes and desserts. There are many cafés and Pastelarias in Monchique where you can taste this!
Monchique was once known for weaving wool and other sturdy linen fabrics. Nowadays, tourism and handicrafts (often for tourist sales) are the main sources of income. Typical for Monchique are also the 'scissor chairs' (named after the way they are folded). These scissor chairs are probably an invention that still comes from Roman times. They are made and sold in all sizes.
The ruin of a Franciscan monastery (Nossa Senhora do Desterro) is not far from the city square. It was severely damaged by the earthquake in 1755 and never rebuilt. From Monchique you can also walk to Foia on foot via an increasingly steep path through the woods. It is of course also possible to take your rental car to Foia.
Foia is the highest point on the Algarve with 903m. In good weather you have a beautiful view over the entire Algarvian coastal strip in the south and southwest. Towards the north and only when the weather is very clear, you can even recognize the "Serra da Arrábida", a hilly area south of Lisbon.
If you drive from Silves towards the village of Monchique, you will first see the smaller, but very picturesque village 'Caldas de Monchique'. The Romans were convinced at the time that the hot spring water had a healing effect in rheumatic diseases. It would also help against skin ailments.
Nowadays, Caldas de Monchique is a renowned spa town, ideally located between the pine and eucalyptus trees. Until today, the spring water is not only used for various treatments in the spa center, but also sold as excellent mineral water in the shops.
The village itself is located in a narrow valley and is surrounded by tall trees that are often older than a hundred years. The houses and buildings, very different from the typical houses in the Algarve, date from the late 19th and early 20th century.
The small chapel 'Santa Teresa' is located at the end of the village and from there a path leads to a wooded park. There are benches where you can quietly enjoy your picnic, with only the sound of a small stream in the background, and in the shade of large trees.