Silves Cruise - by banana boat!
We'd heard about a 'Silves cruise by banana boat' when visiting Portimão previously, so when we stayed there during September 2005, we were keen to try it for ourselves. After all, even a sun-and-sand nut like me can't spend all her time languishing on those tempting Algarve beaches!
Planning the Silves Cruise
The Silves cruise is advertised, but among the welter of posters and whatnot aimed at attracting the attentions of tourists, it's easy to miss this one or that.
We walked down to Portimao harbour one hot afternoon and found plenty of sandwich boards advertising shark fishing cruises and coastal grotto cruises... And yes, there it was! A banana boat cruise to Silves.
What we couldn't see was any evidence of a banana boat. We chatted to a friendly gentleman who was relaxing on his small 8-seater vessel, that did cruises to Silves (or anywhere else you fancied, it turned out). But his craft looked too small, too unstable and generally too risky for a poor sailor like me.
While we were strolling further along the harbour side, we heard a sudden burst of loud music and looked around to see...
... the unmistakable shape of a banana boat returning from its afternoon cruise. The music was jolly as well as loud, and the passengers looked to be having a fine time. So we hung around until it had docked and discharged its merry passengers, then enquired as to the timing of the following day's cruise...
Silves was once the capital of Algarve and an important trade centre. Until, that is, the river Arade began to silt up and the merchant craft could no longer negotiate the passage. And even small craft like our trusty banana boat are subject to tidal timings that dictate when a trip to Silves can be undertaken.
Next day, at the appointed time, we were back at the harbour, but there was no sign of a banana boat...
... Only, what was that moored out in the middle of the river Arade? Ah yes, our gaily-adorned craft. The start time we had been advised came and went, and we began to worry. Had the trip been cancelled? Would it be too late to start off?
But no, it was just that things were happening at an Algarve pace, that's all.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later, the boat had pulled up alongside the landing stage, and we all piled on flourishing our tickets.
Once seated, I took my travel sickness pill - and then we waited...
One can only assume that the crew (of two) were hoping that latecomers would sprint up to the boat and flourish Euro notes in order to be allowed to occupy the spare seats.
When they were sufficiently resigned that this would not happen, we set off.
Leaving Portimao for Silves
On leaving the dock, we chugged past the line of vessels moored on that side of the Arade river, whereupon the loudspeakers on board began to blare out cheerful music!
As best we could understand it, this is an unsubtle form of advertising. Certainly, lots of people along the harbour stopped and waved, and we waved back. So what onlookers see is a banana boat full of waving, happy passengers, which presumably makes them likelier to enquire about taking the cruise themselves.
The river police didn't seem to mind our booming musical output
Since we, too, had learned of the cruise by word of mouth, this seems to be a banana boat version of viral marketing - only cheaper!
Once properly underway, we made sure we had sufficient shade beneath the striped canopy then settled back to enjoy the sights, sounds (and smells) of our river cruise.
It was interesting to pass beneath the bridges that span the Arade.
First, you pass under the rail bridge, seen here behind a shadowy Nev.
Then comes the elegant white span of the road bridge that carries the EN125 traffic.
Finally, there's the nondescript bridge where the A22 major arterial road spans the river (of which I don't seem to have taken a photograph)...
... On we sailed with the music playing (but toned down so as to permit normal conversation).
First stop was at a sacred grotto dedicated to the locally-revered saint, Antonio (or Antoninho, as he's known to fond locals).
As saints go, he's a bit of an all-rounder, being credited with influence in such widely divergent matters as souls in Purgatory, lost property and animal welfare, and also with blessing happy marriages (which is rather nice, you must admit).
The shrine is located in a riverside cliff decleft and the boat has to swing around a full 360 degrees to allow everyone a view. The music at this point had changed to classical, but reverentially muted.
Nev didn't think the shrine was much to look at, but then, he can be something of a heathen.
Once underway again, we were back to party mood.
Most of the passengers seemed to be British, apart from a couple of Americans, who were 'doing Europe' and this was part of their whistle-stop of Algarve... Good choice!
Our music-emitting transport chugged its merry (if less than ecologically-sound) way upriver, disturbing wildlife as it went. Surprisingly, the animals we saw didn't seem at all inured to the spectacle of a water-borne musical extravaganza. Despite, enduring it, presumably, about 6 days a week during the tourist season...
The view from the boat as it passes up the river valley was engaging. There is much surrounding greenery and marshy, grassy areas.
The power cables strung between pylons on either side of the river droop impress-ively over some extended spans. Nev muttered something about needing a rubber mat to sit on if one of those cables snapped. Symptomatic of the joys of vacationing with an engineer!
Some of the riverside villas that perched on rock outcrops further upstream were rather desirable, and I wondered how easily they are accessed by their owners. Are there tarmacadam-ed roads in such semi-remote places, or do inhabitants need to bump along unmade tracks? (Like we had to, when we lived in a Scottish farmhouse).
The sun was fierce whenever the shade of the canopy left us, and the breeze generated by the boat's velocity was welcome.
The first mate passed among us, offering cooled drinks of white wine or water - and some strangely-shaped biscuits on which to nibble. We opted for water, as I don't travel well even when sober, while Nev (like the old colonialist he should have been) never resorts to booze before sundown.
We were treated to a few sightings of herons along the way. Without exception, these large birds flew off, stately but stiffly, so we were left in little doubt as to what they think of rubbernecking tourists!
A power boat passed us, towing a water-skier, heading downstream, and its long-lasting wash made me fear an attack of nausea, but my travel pills had kicked in, and all was well. Whereupon...
... We turned a bend in the river and saw our first glimpse of Silves, brilliant white in the strong sunshine against its lush green surroundings. Quite a sight to lift the spirits!
It seemed ages after that before we arrived, by which time we had negotiated some extremely shallow stretches of the river. My heart missed a beat every time I felt the keel drag along the sand or silt or whatever. But, apart from being requested to transfer to the front of the boat for a short while (to keep the propeller out of the muck?) all went well.
Docked at Silves, the next precarious bit was disembarking. We had to step from the boat onto a fairly steep climb of worn, stone steps that led up to road level. The less athletic passengers managed this with some effort and alarm, but eventually we were all safely on terra firma.
There's something of a faded grandeur about Silves, but its archaeological heritage has been rescued and well preserved for inspection by the interested visitor.
Most rewarding is undoubtedly the castle, but the facades of some finely detailed buildings usually attract the attention of the snapper in me.
The captain had asked us to reconvene in 75 minutes, otherwise it would be too late to return safely over the Arade's shallows. But that still gave us enough time on a warm afternoon to catch a few of Silves' sights and sounds.
We managed to stroll over the Roman bridge just before we returned to the boat. This bridge is pencil narrow, and must have allowed only one-way traffic even when it bore only donkey carts.
Nowadays, it's for pedestrians only and leads over the river to a hotel restaurant which provides a fine Arade view for its terrace-dining customers.
Back Aboard the Banana Boat
The return journey was also fun, and the first mate regaled us with some un-selfconcious dancing that was not strictly ballroom (perhaps he was merely celebrating that all of his charges had made it back to the boat unscathed and without apparent loss).
More wine and water was offered, along with those distinctive biscuits - and we hardly noticed the ominous scraping sounds as we traversed the shallows.
I made sure I got a last fleeting glimpse of Silves as we rounded that last bend...
An evening breeze had picked up by the time we were nearing Portimão, but the first mate had circulated with some warm shawls or blankets beneath which to huddle.
There was definitely more slap of waves agains gunnels (or whatever) but my pills were still working, so I just enjoyed the sensations and long shadows of an early evening Algarve river scene.
Once we were near the harbour, on went the loud 'notice me' music and we were stared at - and waved at - until we docked.
It's certainly an enjoyable afternoon out, and it's on my 'do again' list. I was tired, but elated that I had enjoyed the afternoon with no hint of motion sickness.
Even Nev cracked a smile, but I suppose it could have been that early evening sunshine making him squint.
The Silves cruise is a fun experience, but hardly the way to learn much about the town itself, as your time there is so fleeting.
On another day, I might be tempted to spend longer in Silves and perhaps catch a bus back to my start point...
But that would rather miss the fun of joining in with the banana boat crew!
It's a strange thing, Algarve magic. A simple cruise such as this would probably strike me as 'a bit naff' almost anywhere else. But the easy charm of the crew, the delicious changes of scenery and the gentle pace of the proceedings made it a most rewarding way to while away some 'vacation time'.
I hope you've enjoyed reading about the Silves banana boat cruise. Perhaps you'll be tempted try it yourself, if you're ever in Portimão...
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