Mértola sits on a wedge of rocky land at the confluence of the Guadiana and Oeiras rivers less than 15 kilometres from the Spanish border. In Portugal’s Alentejo region, an area known for its distinctive cuisine and heavy red wines, this quiet walled town has a rich history.
The high level road bridge over the Guadiana provides you with an opportunity to see why Mértola had clout in bygone days. Its dominant strategic position meant only determined armies would have even a chance of taking the fortress at its centre.
The natural defences provided by the ravine on one side and river on the other were also barriers to Mértola’s expansion, ensuring it retains a village-like feel. The centre of the old town, the home of 3100 people, has narrow cobbled streets and white painted houses with wrought iron balconies and colourful borders of blue, yellow or green.
José Pedro Calheiros, of the walking group SAL, leads tours in this area. In his view Mértola is “the gateway to many civilizations, many cultures and insights into this part of Portugal.”
Mértola was under Islamic rule for more than 500 years and is the site of Portugal’s only surviving medieval mosque. Sancho II, the Commander of the Order of Santiago, led the reconquest of the town in 1238 and the mosque was consecrated as the Igreja Matriz, dedicated to St. Mary.
With a squat bell tower and now painted white, the exterior of the church resembles many others in this region.
Remarkably, the mosque’s mihrab, marking the direction of Mecca, has survived along with the minbar, the ornate space in which the imam’s pulpit would have been stored. The building still has doorways with rounded arches dating from the time of the Almohad dynasty, whose empire straddled the Mediterranean. The building is a national monument and one of the reasons why Mértola has been described as “the most Arabic town in Portugal”. Every two years the Mértola Islamic Festival is held. The next will be in 2015.
Under the castle walls a statue of Ibn Qasi sits on an Arabian horse. Wearing a helmet and ready for battle, Qasi looks out over the town he ruled in the mid-12th century. An inspirational leader, great warrior and influenced by Sufism, he led Mértola to independence from the Almoravids, governing as the head of an independent state.
Archaeologists have uncovered a wealth of artefacts in the town. Outlines of walls and doorways, known locally as the ‘Muslim village’ are visible on ground between the castle and the Guadiana. Pottery and other finds are displayed in the town’s Islamic Art Collection, arguably the most significant in Portugal. Exhibits include practical pottery, such as jars, and colourful al-Andalus ceramics depicting flora and fauna. Some have geometric patterns.
“The most impressive thing about Mértola, for us Portuguese, is the sheer number of remains of the Muslim settlement. Most other towns of that time developed in the following centuries and therefore remains of Muslim buildings were destroyed or built upon. That was not the case with Mértola,” says Aquiles Gomez, a walker interested in Portuguese heritage.
Older civilisations also interacted with this region; the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans left their marks. They were drawn by the region’s mineral wealth. Gold, silver, tin and later copper were all mined here.
The Romans knew the town as Myrtilis Iulia and settled the area now occupied by the castle. You can see exposed mosaics, depicting animals and hunting scenes, from raised viewing platforms. The remains of a villa are displayed in the basement of the town hall, as part of the Roman House museum. One of the most obvious signs of the later period of Roman occupation is the Torre do Rio, the riverside tower that defended the ancient port.
Geographers may take issue with the description of Mértola as “the most westerly port in the Mediterranean” because the Guadiana actually flows into the Atlantic, at the Gulf of Cadiz. Yet the town did have important connections with the great civilisations of the Mediterranean and benefitted by trading grain and minerals. During the Middle Ages the river silted up and Mértola’s significance declined.
A few decades ago, the mining industry was a major employer. Copper ore and pyrite was extracted from the São Domingos Mine until 1960. The region’s population halved over the next decade. Today, bikers and walkers tend to explore the concrete shells of the abandoned mine buildings.
If you have time venture into the Guadiana Valley Natural Park. Covering 70,000 hectares the park has a variety of habitats, including scrubland, rolling woodland and quartzite uplands. One of the most popular spots is the waterfall at the narrow, swift flowing area of river known locally as Pulo do Lobo (Wolf’s Leap).
In summer the temperatures here rise into the high 30s, sometimes beyond. The long hours of sunshine helped make the area a major exporter of grain to Portuguese settlements in North Africa in the 1600s. Windmills still stand in Mértola’s hinterland, their sails once turned to grind the flour used to produce Pão Alentejano, the popular off-white bread that’s often served in a basket when people sit down in restaurants.
Nearby Serpa produces one of mainland Portugal’s most distinctive cheeses, a blend of sheep’s and goat’s milk that’s famed for its flavour and creamy texture. It’s common to snack on cheese, bread and olives while choosing the main course.
From October to February locally hunted game appears on menus. In addition to the succulent prime cuts, often served grilled, game stew is a popular dish. Migas—a filling but inexpensive staple created from bread, garlic and olive oil—is at its most delicious when served with local lamb, soaking in the juices of the meat while on the plate. If you enjoy strong flavours try açorda a alentejana, a traditional garlic-coriander soup.
Exploring Mértola’s heritage is best done at a leisurely pace, yet understanding the Alentejo means ending the day with a hearty meal.
Statue of Ibn Qasi, in Mertola, Portugal.