These days, the town of Silves is an attractively sleepy place, all cobbled streets and historic buildings. Jump back a millennium or so, and it was a mighty Moorish capital known as Xelb (or Shelb), rivalling Lisbon in influence.
But as the river started to silt up, its position as a strategic port was also lost, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that local cork and dried fruit trades revitalised the town’s prospects once again.
Which might not have been so enjoyable for the inhabitants of the town over the centuries, but is perfect for visitors today. Because what’s left, overlooking the orange roofed hillside homes, is a beautifully preserved fortress.
All chunky red battlements, the sandstone structure dates from between the 8th and 13th centuries, mixing Islamic and Christian influences. Today, you’re greeted by a towering statue of a Crusader, while inside you can walk the walls around the open courtyard.
Although the original Moorish occupants were unlikely to have been doing much lounging around water features, it does make you think of other palaces across Iberia and North Africa – as does the very welcome cold mint tea.
There are also regular exhibitions – currently one on pirates until November – for an extra fee. Children under 10 can enter the castle for free, while it’s 2.50 Euros for adults. Don’t expect audio guides or detailed signs, but that makes it all the better to let your imagination run wild.
For younger children, a baby carrier is a better bet than a buggy, unless you’re happy to carry it up and down stairs.
From the battlements, you can also look down onto the cathedral, or Se, a relatively unadorned but striking church with some interesting Crusader tombs.
Built in 1189 on the site of an earlier mosque, it has been repeatedly rebuilt and restored over the centuries thanks to the ongoing battles of the Reconquista and the catastrophic earthquake of 1755. Entry costs 1 Euro for adults.
We didn’t get chance to check out the Museu Municipal de Arqueologica – an archaeology museum not being high up the list of interesting attractions for a toddler and a two-year-old – but you can see prehistoric, Roman and Moorish antiquities.
I can imagine, when Silves celebrates its Medieval Fair every August, that 12th century costumes don’t seem too far out of place.
Images copyright Cathy Winston