Iberian Peninsula History as well as Silves and Portimao in Portugal

May 6th, 2008 at 7:15 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We had an early wake-up at 6:30am Portugal time, which was 5:30am Morocco time, had breakfast, and then attended a presentation by the on-board historian, David Barnes (who sadly had to leave today, Tuesday, for another Lindblad trip), about the Iberian peninsula and the clashes between Christianity and Islam as well as Judaism, or more accurately the followers of each of those three mono-deistic religions.

While much of the Iberian peninsula (which is where Spain and Portugal are now located) was Muslim for hundreds of years, a crusade formed in the Christian northwest of the peninsula under the flag of St. James – who was referred to as Santiago Matamores (“death to the Moors”), even though he had lived and died some 1400 years before the crusade was even initiated. The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, which we will be visiting in a few days, are said to contain the remains of St. James, and it is the third most popular Christian pilgrimage site in the world, after Jerusalem and the Vatican in Rome.

Another fascinating point David brought up was the history of why one can see the famous Iberian ham shanks at the entrance to most bars and restaurants in Spain, as well as displays of wine. Apparently, after 1492, when the last Moorish stronghold, Granada, fell to the crusade led by Ferdinand and Isabella, Muslims and Jews were told they either had to convert to Christianity or leave the peninsula (or face near certain death for being infidels). The Spanish Inquisition then would assert that converts had falsely converted, and they would be tested by being forced to eat pork (which neither devout Jews nor Muslims would eat) and drink wine (which devout Muslims would not do). Hence the start of the tradition that evolved into tapas – namely that of offering a small plate of ham along with a cup of wine to those entering a bar or similar establishment to weed out false converts to Christianity.

Amazingly, while the effort to weed out “false believers” has faded, the practice of hanging smoked hams and showing wines has lived on and become a part of Spain’s culinary culture.

David’s presentation was fascinating, but short, due in part to a video promoting the partnership of Lindblad and the National Geographic as well as a scheduled presentation on photograph techniques with digital cameras following his presentation. We’ll miss David’s interesting insights and witty commentaries.

While we had been sleeping and watching lectures the ship had made its way to Portugal, and was nearing Portimao, our destination for the day.

We had an early lunch before boarding buses to visit the historical city of Silves (pronounced “Sihl-vihsh”), the site of a Moorish fortress and old cathedral. We were apparently supposed to visit the village of Alte too, but I suspect the whole upset in our cruise schedule contributed to that stop being skipped.

Silves was a village surrounding a rather steep hill upon which a fortress known as Xelb sat, overlooking the town and river below. Xelb, which is now referred to as Castelo Silves, started as Roman fortification that was then later absorbed into a Moorish structure. Directly beneath the fortress was a Catholic cathedral, locally referred to as See of Silves, built sometime in the latter half of the thirteenth century. Parts of the cathedral collapsed during the massive Lisbon earthquake of 1755. This earthquake, incidentally, had a huge range, destroying whole towns and buildings as far south as mid-Morocco, and was felt as far away as Jamaica (presumably as a result of a tsunami generated by the earthquake).

We walked up the hill to the fortress, which is going through renovation/restoration in the courtyard and garden area, so our visit was limited to walking the top of the rather extensive walls. Great views of the surrounding area, but we felt a bit saddened to see how much modern building sprawl there was everywhere, destroying, at least in our minds, the quaintness and atmosphere of antiquity that some parts of the village still showed as we walked uphill through it. Sadly though, many of those older homes appear to be in a state of disrepair, so we have fallen antiquity battling well kept modernity, and the former will likely lose out as people continue to disregard community history in exchange for great personal comfort.

Bas tries to move the sword of a statue in Silves, Portugal
Bas tries to move the sword of a statue in Silves, Portugal

After our circuit of the fortress walls we visited the cathedral and marveled at all the relics and burial markers – a number of people are buried under large marble slabs in the floor of the cathedral, as has been the tradition with older cathedrals for centuries. The newer part of the cathedral, rebuilt after 1755, was noticeably different in structure and tone from the older part that had withstood the great earthquake.

We made our way down to a café where we were treated to ice cream, and then returned to Portimao, stopping at the Mirador of St. Catherine, a small chapel dedicated to St. Catherine surrounded by fortifications. This structure had a great view of the nearby beaches and ocean, but again was surrounded by modern construction.

Lindblad's National Geographic Endeavour in port at Portimao, Portugal
Lindblad's National Geographic Endeavour in port at Portimao, Portugal

Back on board the ship we dressed up for the Captain’s cocktail party, had a nice dinner, and collapsed to bed, still somewhat tired and sleep deprived, but did finally sleep pretty well.


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