Castelo Silves


Five months we had been in Algarve and our first guests had arrived from England. They had never been to Portugal before so we planned a day in Silves to show them the old capitals splendid castle. We had never explored its interior so it was a first for us too.

After an early lunch we set off on the Algoz road towards Silves. As we drew near the level crossing at Poco Bareto the small stout figure of the "railway lady" appeared from her track-side cottage. She made her way to the counterbalance weight of the gate and pulling it upwards lowered the gate down into its position. We then knew that we would have to be patient and wait for oncoming train to pass. It was a good ten minutes before we heard the "chug chug" in the distance and our hearts were in our mouths as daring young bike riders, too impatient to wait, defied danger by ducking under the gate and sped across the line!

The rail-lady waved her red flag to approaching driver and when he'd passed, she again raised the gate. As we drove over the track I saw her go to washing hung near her cottage and after gathering it in her arms she disappeared inside.

Nearing Silves, the curve of the road opened up to a wide expanse of vibrant blue summer skies that provided a cobalt backcloth to the majestic red sandstone walls of the castle. The castle crowns the hillside, dominating the shallow green valley of the river Arade spread below. We pulled over and for a few minutes sat on the grey stone balustrade that edges the road and from there take in every aspect of this wonderful setting.

The crusaders had experienced a similar scene over eight centuries ago though from a completely different angle. Their ships had sailed along the Arade from Portimao to anchor here on the outskirts of Silves. There is written confirmation that those soldiers of the 3rd crusade were stunned by Silves' sparkling beauty; with its skyline of minarets, terraces and white-façades houses it was totally Arabian in appearance; add to that its verdant pastures, fruit orchards of almond and fig, plus lemon and orange groves, it was truly a splendid place to behold and overwhelmingly Moorish.

Silves lay before them in seeming innocence of the bloody pursuits that were about to take place. Its inhabitants unaware of the Crusades intent aided by King Dom Sancho of Portugal, to drive out once and for all, what they saw as The Infidel, The Moorish masters of El Gharb (Algarve), in that brutal summer of 1189!

The hot July sun beat down unmercifully on our head and shoulders as we dragged weary feet up the steep steps, past the cafe Inglese, finally reaching the cool dry shade of the castle walls and we entered the main south side gate. The cool flagstone courtyard gave pleasant relief to our hot feet and we wandered the interior gazing up at the soaring height of the walls that surround us. I remember we gave a collective gasp as a huge figure cast its giant shadow over our small party. Then a sighing relief as our looming "Goliath" turned out to be a large, lifeless bronze statue of King Dom Sancho. The benign gaze of this bearded giant masks the savagery that took place under the "mantle" of Christianity over 8 centuries ago. The dimensions of the metal king are enormous; at least 4 metres high with mighty hands resting on massive sword; a weapon so lethal, if real, that it would have taken 4 heads at one blow!

We then carefully took the the narrow steep steps that led to the walkway encircling the crenulated battlements. To one side there was a sea of red-tiled rooftops, interspersed with cobble streets and small courtyard gardens. But on the far side vertigo is induced as we peered timidly over the edge and flinched at the sheer drop of maybe 50 metres and more that plummets down to the winding road far below; in the summer of that blood-soaked battle there was no road. As Christians and Muslims alike were hurled from the battlements their bodies were crushed and broken on the rocks and finally a watery grave in the murky waters of the moat that existed long before a road was ever built.

We climbed down from the giddy heights to the cold stone floor and were shown 2 gigantic cisterns that stem from Moorish times.
One is the "Cistern of the Moor Girl". Who is said to haunt the castle at midnight on St Johns Eve, June 24th. She floats on the waters of the cistern, in a beautiful silver barge with golden oars and waits for her Moorish prince to rescue her and so break the spell she is under. Locals have said that her cries and sighs are heard throughout the castle on that one particular night.

The second cistern is that "of the dogs" and is so deep that a dropped stone takes at least 10 seconds to hit the waters surface far below. The access to this water supply was blocked by the crusaders and caused the Moors to surrender. For despite their staunch fighting to hold the castle, it was "thirst" that finally caused them to capitulate. The crusaders were merciless in victory. They stripped the Moors of every possession, including the clothes they wore. Then they completely sacked the city of Silves.

But King Dom Sancho and his army were angered by this action and declared the crusaders had gone too far. So he and his army drove them out of Silves, back to their waiting ships on the Arade. They then sailed on to their destination-Jerusalem!

In time all the Algarve surrendered to King Sancho and Portugal became one country under his rule.

We drove home to Lagoa and to refreshing cups of afternoon tea, but with the battle for Silves still raging in our heads!