Listen to the podcast: Portuguese home for African storks
The first Arab capital of the Kingdom of the Algarve welcomes you with the view that’s quite unusual. A medium sized city, surrounded by hilly countryside of green lush vineyards and orange tree orchards, pops in the middle of it all.
When entering from the N124-1 you will want to go right, after you cross the Rio Arade. The reason for it is simple – driving through this town is how I imagine hell. Or perhaps inferno ‘cos here somehow you still can work your way out of it all in the end. But I am telling you, Dante himself would find perhaps even more than 10 levels on the steep ways between the top of this town, that’s crowned with a fortress, and the street I am on about now.
While driving along that surrounding road a few things will draw your attention. Passing pretty cafés to your left, a huge graffiti depicting Moors suddenly appears in front of your eyes and right above it, at the top of the town, a tower of a 13th century Cathedral called Sé. Beside it, a gigantic Almohad fortress, and all that sprinkled with storks flying around, looking like confetti on the blue background of the cloudless sky.
Storks in Silves have their nests everywhere, on the roof tops, on tops of palm trees, on remaining walls of derelict houses, which there are very many by the way. Literally everywhere. And while the parents circle around in the sky, the young cegonhas sit in their cosy nests waiting for the worms to arrive.
Locals think these birds are herons. When we asked for the Portuguese name for the stork, they said garças. Shaaaame!
Majority of the stork subspieces live in either Asia or Africa, although the only continent they really seem to mind is Antarctica. They are long-distance migrating birds that breed in many European countries. On the below map, you can see their winter habitat marked in blue, which spreads between Sub-Saharan region even as far as to South Africa. They take weeks to fly up north where they breed in the areas marked green, between northern Africa, Iberic Peninsula, which is easy for them to reach due to the Gibraltar – this way they avoid long and dangerous cross Meditterean route, and as far as to the parts of even northern Finland. The red arrows mark their unbelievable migration routes.
Those that winter in the Indian subcontinent, usually migrate to breed in either northern Africa or southwestern Asia around Kazahstan.
In Poland storks are sang about in children’s songs. A picture of a stork holding a little green frog in its beak is a classic that every child will throw your way when asked to describe this bird.
I mention it not for no reason. White storks are carnivorous! They eat anything from insects, through fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals as well as even small birds. I recall watching floks of them in my childhood. Standing tall among the grass on one of the long red legs, usually white with black patches on the wings, that by the way can span for up to even 90 cm.
I could watch them forever, standing like that, moving slowly, observing the area in search for little pray and clacking their long beaks in this unusual storky way. Sometimes you could see a black one. These are considered lucky, so make sure to dream a dream next time you spot one like this.
Stork nests fascinate me. They are huge, built by the pair from large sticks and can be used repeatedly for many years. Each of these nests weigh usually around 400 kg. This is an estimated avarege weight – the lightest recorded one was 70 kg and the heaviest, a whopping 1250 kg. Yup, over a tonne! The reason behind such weight is that they are not built only with branches, but also with the use of manure, which covers the threshing floor.
Ornithologists from the Polish Society for Protection of Birds, four years ago, when moving 88 nests onto specially built poles, decided to weigh them and based on received numbers they have discovered a corelation between the weight of the nests and their height. It can be assumed that a nest with a height of 0.5 m weighs about 300 kg, and a nest with a height of 1 meter about 700 kg.
Some storks build their nests on the rooftops of inhabited houses. This of course poses a true risk to the structure of these building. Traditionally, people would allow for such nests to be a part of their houses, as naturally they bring luck, however in the late summer, after the birds departure for Africa, people would reduce their nests.
This time, the scientists managed to locate a few that have never been reduced by humans. It allowed them to assess how much material per stork nest is added on average each year. As it turned out, these birds bring to the nest more than 60 kg of building material, which is almost 20 times their own weight.
Of course such nests are home to various mites and lice but this does not stop the babies to hatch and grow happily until ready to fly the crazy lengths between the continents.
Each year the stork lady can lay one clutch of usually four eggs, which hatch within the next 34 days, however asynchronously. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and both feed the babies. The young leave the nest within roughly 60 days after hatching, and continue to be fed by the parents for a further 1-3 weeks.
Storks allegedly do not pair for life, but thanks to the places like, for example, the European Stork Village in Tykocin-Pętowo in the region of Poland called the Lungs of Europe, we can tell that many of them do in fact stay together in life-long relationships.
Storks always liked it in there. On the farm of the Toczyłowski family for instance, there are over 30 nests that are lovingly maintained by the entire family. They even renovated one barn to create a unique Bociania Galeria – The Stork Gallery, to meet the demands of the growing numbers of visitors. Photos of storks taken by professional photographers can be marveled over in there. You can also find posters, postcards, leaflets, books, albums and other items dedicated to these birds. A special 12-meter stork observation tower, with a covered platform, was erected too. From it you can comfortably and safely put your nosy nose into the family business of the storks.
In 1991, a strong storm broke the tips of the trees in the Pętowo area. Storks were only happy to build a new village there. Unfortunately the structure wasn’t strong and the poorly fixed nesting spots were replaced by the North Podlasie Society for Protection of Birds that built special nest platforms for 23 pairs of storks in the village.
The title of The European Stork Village was received by Pętowo in 2001 from a German, pro-ecological organization Euronatur. Only one place in a given country can be granted this prestigous title which testifies to its exceptional ecological values.
Apparently every fourth stork migrating from Africa spends summers in Poland! This only proves I’m not a stork….
Chloè and I had big plans for that day. We wanted to visit not just the city but also do a little tour of the local vineyard and maybe drive through the mountains that pop just in front of it.
We took the road around the base of the town hill on the way to the fortress in hopes to find a parking spot at the castle. We even passed a few parking spaces along the way but truly believed there would be enough room for our Fiat Tipo somewhere higher up. Sadly, no. Everything around the Cathedral and the Fortress was taken and as much as I wished to be able to reverse and go back, the streets there were so freakishly narrow, even though all two way pretty much, with good part already blocked by parked rows of cars, and majority of them are some 75 degrees slopes. Reversing would have been lethal, I’d say.
The choice was one, drive ahead and down. Of course in the hopes to reach that ring road at the bottom and start all over. But driving on the clutch and break praying for the mirrors to remain where they belong was worsened by the suddenly appearing residential access only streets! Could it get any worse? Well, daaaa. Sure it could. But we decided to take the risk, drove down the residential route and…. needed to stop. I could not believe that the turn around the corner of the building in front of us was even possible. Just in case, I ran into the souvenir shop and asked whether it really was the right way to go. I mean, silly question because there was no other way to go!
I got back to the car and seriously holding on to my entire soul and concentrating the last bits of my mind, I decided that the sharpest of corners that happenned to be sticking out in front of me would not get into the side of the car we were in. Some German or Dutch tourists who were clever enough to stick to walking, looked at me as if I was Niki Lauda to say the least. Adrenaline-wise I actually did feel a bit more like WRC driver for a second. Only for the speed, close to none….
We finally found ourselves in a nice parking lot. Stopped there for a split second and within that second, someone already managed to shout at me that I was not supposed to park there. Hmmm… So I got out of the car and in my typical way, either English or Spanish, I asked the Portuguese locals to explain what the heck it means I cannot park there. All I got was – no, you cannot park here. So I looked around and saw some cars that seemed to belong to some sort of city services. Given that the parking was located between a pretty building and the medieval city wall, I decided it may be some municipal office hence we moved on.
Thankfully, this time we found ourselves on the straight that led us to a little square with a little church on it. Parking spots were 3, out of which one for the disabled. They were tiny and hard to fit in, but we finally made it and happilly gathered ourselves together and decided to walk back to the top. Crazy or not here we came.
We first tried to get some coffee and pastry in a little coffee bar on the square but card payments are hardly accepted anywhere in Portugal and because parking is free, we never carried any change. No coffee or pastry then.
A stork sat on the monument on the square. Fun. We then noticed a big nest with a little one in it, just on the wall of the ruined house next to the coffee bar.
Walking up the hill was not so bad after all. Little colorful houses on both sides cheered us up along the way. A bit higher we noticed that medieval wall and that pretty building with the parking area, only this time, from the front. I was right, it was a City Hall. Built in 1891, with 2 crocheted oranges the height of my Daughter in front of the main entrance 🙂
Of course we needed to walk inside. Not just to pee. No! The interior is beautifully decorated with aluzejos obviously. The staircase and it’s ceiling are literally mindblowing, lined with pinkish tiles.
The walls of Almedina hence the city walls of Silves date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. They were protecting the area of about 6.5 hectars inhabited at the time by approximately 3200 people. Built out of the same material as the castle, taipa, it cosisted of 17 towers and 3 gates: The Gate of the City (Porta da Almedina) – as the name suggests, it was the main gate, The Gate of the Sun (Porta do Sol) and The Gate of Azóia, which translates as the Gate of Exaggeration.
As you already know if you follow my articles, Moorish occupied Iberic Peninsula for 8 centuries. Silves was the Moorish Capital City of Algarve in the 11th century, which is also when it thrived and experienced the biggest growth. Its excellent location close to the two water courses was its vital advantage. It is also squeezed in between the mountains and the sea and this is its sort of an advertising slogan: Silves da Serra ao Mar.
Next to the main entrance you can find a bronze sculpture representating King Sancho I, a monarch who in 1189 conquered for the first time, with the help of the Crusaders, the city of Silves to the Arabs.
In 1249, King Afonso III, finally managed to take the city over and made it a part of the Christian Portuguese Kingdom. Following the Christian conquest it became the Episcopal capital of the province of the Algarve until 1577. Since then, the importance of the city declined as the coastal towns gained more relevance in the period of the Portuguese expansion to Africa and India. However in the 15th century it did play its part in the Portuguese maritime discoveries and conquests.
It was around a century later, when the seat of the bishop was moved over to Faro, that started the real decline of the city which lasted up until the end of the 19th century when cork production revived its economy a bit. 20th century brought in citrus production and trade and now it has also added the production of wine.
Silves Castle is the ex-libris of the city of Silves. It is one of the most remarkable works of military architecture that the Arabs have left among us. It is more than a thousand years old and in a large part remains unchanged.
This fortress that occupies an area of about 12 000 square metres, forms an irregular polygon, surrounded by a strong wall in taipa (mud mixed with lime and stones), coated with the typical to the area red sandstone. It has 8 flanking towers and two albarra – detached towers. Together they connect the oval of 388 linear meters. Sadly numerous earthquakes devastated it and it required many restoration works.
I found it very sad that the tickets to the Portuguese tourist attractions are so cheap. In Ireland it is hard to find any etrance fee lower than €12 and children also usually pay. On one hand it is a bit expensive and could be lowered but Portuguese tickets are €2 per adult. Kids usually go free. And those places trully deserve a higher price for what they are and what they bring into our culture and even more, taking into account the restoration requirements and costs of their preservation.
The two of us paid €3.90 for the entrance to the castle as well as the nearby Archeological Museum. It is insulting almost given that this place kept us mesmerised for an entire day!
Access to this citadel is through a double door with atrium, surrounded by two towers. We walked in and went straight onto the walls. The views from them are outstanding. Vineyards and orange and peach orchards cover the pretty mountains that in this part of Portugal look like individual mounds, like volcanos really with rounded tops. Very similar to the Chocolate Hills in the Phillipines.
Walking along on the walls allows you to absorb the inside of the fortress which these walls protected. Aljibe is one of the main things to see. A part of the water supply infrastructure that can always be found in Islamic fortresses. A large rectangular cistern, dug into the rocky substance and covered with what is now a ground level. At 20m long and 16m wide its ceiling is seven metres above and is closed by four cannon vaults, placed side by side to facilitate water aeration, supported by six central and six additional columns. Its capacity is 1’300’000 litres which would supply 1000 people with water for a period of one year. This significant part of the city in fact supplied the upper town with water until as recently as 1990s.
Inside of it, note it is at the underground level, there is currently an exhibition relating to the Iberic Lynx, which sadly is in the process of extiction. It used to live all over Portuguese and Spanish mountains in the vicinity of humans. Due to growing development of the cities and agricultural demands, their natural territories were being reduced over the last 100 years. Many were killed by cars, others may have been shot by people. Portugal is trying to bring them back into the old habitat areas.
Not many animals can be compared with the Lynx’s beauty. I am a great lover of the Polish Lynx but the Iberic ones are a lot prettier I have to admit.
There are ruins of the walls of the palatial houses left within the walls of the castle. Chloè noticed a cat sun bathing on one of the board paths among them. Of course, unable to stop herself, she ran over to take some photos. Poor kitty, clearly had some human attached to it as there was a pretty collar on its neck, but either due to that human’s negligence or perhaps the age of the poor thing, the cat looked miserable. It may have been either very sick or straight after fight as there was a huge patch of fur missing from its back and his little nose was bloody and looked as if a tiny peace of it was actually missing too….
Well, we left him be and moved to look at the remains of the living quarters of the Moors. Structures of a dwelling from the Almóhad Period (1121 – 1269), which would be made up of two floors, an interior garden and a bathcomplex. Believed to be a Palace, once home to high Muslim dignitaries, it was inhabited for just over a century as Christians found it not livable and abandoned it. Later it was also damaged by a fire.
Some of the towers expose archeological exhibits found within the fortress.
In the northern part of the wall, you can find a Porta da Traição – The Betrayal Gate. It was not used to betray the ruler who was within the walls but to trick the attackers. In olden days additional suport, amunition or food could have been delivered through such hidden entrance. Of course perhaps was also used as an escape route.
Another element you can find here is the Cistern of Dogs, a well more than 40 meters deep where several fragments of medieval ceramics, namely alcatruzes of the period of Islamic occupation were found during the archeological works. This and the previously mentioned Aljibe allowed for long term storage of both cereal and water assuring years of resistance and autonomy for this military fortress, if required.
We settled at the Tea Room situated within the complex. Chloè caught free Wi-Fi and attacked Roblox between swollowing huge bites of an even huger baguette, flashing it all up with freshly squeezed orange juice. I enjoyed bits of sunshine. It was a windy day otherwise, especially on top of the hill. But some sun appeared once we settled at the café. Could not think of anything more enjoyable.
Just outside the Castle walls you have the beautiful 13th century Old Cathedral called Sé, and opposite from it, the Misericordia Church.
Sé can be visited only during certain hours and at a fee of €1.50 you can marvel over wonderful Gothic and Baroque architecture with some amazing examples of wooden altars I have ever seen within the stone built churches. The main nave is very representative and, as any Gothic structure, it is tall. On a heavier note however when comapared to the most typical French Gothic examples with the lace-like structures. I guess the use of a local red limestone has a lot to do with that as well as the local architectural influences.
The cathedral is built on a Latin cross floor plan with an ogival roof. A beautiful and huge in size main entrance with a stepped portal will take you on a journey among tall columns all the way into the very simple presbytery with a cross vault and practically no altar. There are two side naves there though and the one on the right has the most wonderful original ceiling frescos and the floor tiles with mosaic dating back to the 14th century.
The lack of ornamentalism here is due to the many earthquakes which haunted the region over the centuries. The mentioned wooden altars built into the niches in the walls on both sides make up for this eclectic style.
Two small rooms, left and right, just after you enter, will draw your attention. In the former one you will only find a stone babtismal font, wheares in the latter one, some pretty aged tombs of the bishops and prominent citizens of Silves.
We walked out of the Sé and planned to head back down in search of our car however just after crossing the road, we noticed that the previously closed Misericordia Church was now open. So we climbed the few stairs and found ourselves inside a one room place with an exhibition of the photography, free to visit.
The single nave is topped with a cradle voult and remains an empty space whereas to the opposite site from the main entrance an elevated presbytery is located with a wooden altar and an even more elevated choir on the right hand side. An unknown artist commited this carved and painted masterpiece some time in the mid 17th century.
Believed to be one of the oldest churches of Mercy in Portugal, this one comes from the beginning of the 16th century. On the right side of the building, facing the entrance to the Sé Cathedral, you will find the door and window of the addorsed Dispatch House and a Manuelin style door with a very unique shape and round arched bell on the trim, sort of… hanging there 50 cm above the pavement level.
We walked out and headed right, hopefully in the direction of our parked car, but also taking a different road to be able to see some of the city yet along the way. A bunch of random tourists barked at us like dogs. Not sure how this illness is called but sadly I have seen it being done already before and after… A rather disturbing thing to experience I have to say.
Anyway, seeing them go their way, we went our way passing rows of pretty white washed houses until we finally reached a micro square with a statue of some dude and a neverending street made out of stairs. Thankfully they were all leading down, at least looked at from our perspective…
A guy renovating a house listened to some shockingly squeaky tunes.
We walked down until we reached the main road, which seemed familiar. And at the end of it, indeed there was a little square with a church and a micro bar on the corner.
Next up was the windmill we saw from the walls of the castle which in fact was very easy to find. But that, after we squeezed ourselves out of the town’s centre back onto that ring road along the river.
Our magical car could not take the 70% slope with a stony road. No way. So after getting half way through the mountain, we decided that sadly it was not our desitny to see that windmill which, when looked at closely, happened to be derelict and probably closed for visits.
It took us good 10 minutes to reverse back that stony spiral road. There was no way of turning around. But once we got down to the bottom of the hill, sound and safe we set out on the way to the seaside.
So… truly from the mountains to the sea.
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