Travelling through the patchwork quilt that is Portugal, woven together by the Romans, the Phoenicians, the Arabs and the Lusitanians, PDV meanders along the Guadiana river, near the Spanish border, south of the country.
Nestled between the hills, the Guadiana and the Oeiras rivers, Mértola is a small oasis of prosperity. Streets lined with orange trees and creeping whitewashed houses overlook the river, hiding a glorious past behind the serenity of daily life. Standing at the top of the walls, it is not difficult to imagine a time when Phoenicians traded gold, copper pyrite and iron for food. The ancient architecture of the urban space works like a leisurely time warp, as is not unusual in the Alentejo, the most peaceful part of the country.
This vision is just an excuse to travel back to the days of the Roman conquest that made Mértola one of the four Lusitanian municipalities that would later be home to the Suevi and the Visigoths. However one of the biggest milestones in its history was the Arab invasion in 712, commemorated every two years with the Islamic Festival (the next edition is scheduled for May 2013).
Today, Mértola, is one of the most visited “museum towns” in Portugal. The last flood – in 1876 – led to the discovery of countless historical artefacts that are now on display in several museums dedicated to the civilisations that once inhabited the region. After the closure of nearby São Domingos mines and the Guadiana river routes to then kingdom capital Lisbon, culture is what saved the town from losing its prestige.
Some of the most delightful places of interest include the castle, a national monument built according to Arab structures after the Christian reconquest from the Moors in 1238. Right next door, archaeological excavations of the Roman and Arab occupation of the citadel are ongoing. A little further down stands the unusual Matriz Church of Moorish origins with its almost quadrangular structure. Refurbished in the second half of the 12th century, it has retained its original mirhab (Arabic altar facing the east) and doors with iron arches.
Down the road towards the walls, there is a picturesque studio crafting contemporary jewellery inspired by Arab design. It makes a good shopping stop but its opening hours are irregular. The core of Islamic Art is further down, featuring bone and metal pieces, decorative objects and housewares found in the region, and the Sacred Art centre, with images and liturgical vessels collected by the county.
A stop at the Weaving Centre completes the tour. This is where artisans spin wool and weave socks, cloths and beautiful blankets in the inherited tradition of the Arabs (probably the only ones in the county to do so). Most of the pieces on display are for sale.
Flavours of the earth: the best bread in the world
After walking around town, we set off towards the mountains and the village of São Miguel do Pinheiro some 27km away to find out about the flour grinding process. Visits to the restored windmill – and the Bread Circuit – must be booked in advance at the local town hall (tel. 00 351 286 485 448). On the road to Almodôvar, we pass a total of two derelict cars and a shepherd. The hills are abandoned farmland, and if it wasn’t for the beauty of the spring meadows, they’d conjure up a strange sense of desolation.
Turn left onto Alcaria Longa (a ten minute drive), follow the directions to the village. The many mills in ruins are testament to the village’s baking past, producing the kind of exquisite bread only available in the Alentejo. After learning about the mysteries that turn grain into flour, we meet with Manuela Bonito, a youngster who chose to stay in her home village, and whose wood fired oven yields the most sought after bread and “costas” (a brioche-like confection) in the area every Friday and Sunday (available by booking on 00 351 96 416 9077).
With snacks now safely tucked away in the boot of the car, it’s off to Pulo do Lobo, less than half an hour drive where wolves and smugglers were rumoured to cross the Guadiana in one jump. Forced through a narrow geological bottleneck about three metres wide, the hurried Guadiana jumps over a 15-metre-high waterfall to form a natural lagoon. The rocky and rugged terrain offers two artificial platforms that double up as safe observation points. This is where we stay until the evening cools down and it is time to make our way to the nearby Estalagem de São Domingos.
São Domingos: the unique landscape of the old mine
The day dawns on a serene and sunny São Domingos, as is usual in the Lower Alentejo. In the summer, the beach alongside the river attracts hundreds of holidaymakers, but in June, all you can hear are the cicadas. We reluctantly leave the pool, the century-old library and the games room of the inn to go explore the nearby village and the mine that brought it to life two centuries ago (from 1862 to 1967).
The village consists of a church and a few rows of tiny whitewashed houses where the miners and their families once lived. A tennis court, a garden and a bandstand bear witness to the presence of the British – once responsible for the exploration of the mine – unable to give up their lifestyle, even in the middle of nowhere.
What’s left of the mine is reminiscent of a moonscape that would not be out of place on any Spielberg or Lucas film set. The skeleton of what used to be one of the most important mineral exploration sites in the Iberian Peninsula, it has been abandoned to the curiosity of random lone travellers and storks. Sinister and enigmatic, the place is also fascinating for being the silent keeper of the stories – often dramatic – of the thousands of men who used to chisel out tonnes of ore.
Remnants of that time can be seen about 18km south in Pomarão where wagons loaded with pyrite used to arrive from São Domingos to be emptied onto large vessels. The town, little more than a street, is the first trace of that period. The second is the remains of the tracks that crossed the mountain in a challenge unique on the Old Continent. At the moment, Pomarão stays alive because it is the last navigable point of the Guadiana, serving as a port for some yachts and small cruisers. Every March, it also holds the Fish Festival – a real feast for lovers of river fish stew featuring lamprey eel.
Where to sleep
Estalagem de São DomingosRua Dr. Vargas Mina de São Domingos 7750-171 Mértola, Tel. 00351 286 640 000, www.hotelsaodomingos.com
Located in the old mansion that housed the headquarters of the São Domingos mine and a five minute walk from the river beach, this 4-star inn offers luxury service and facilities at the heart of the lower Alentejo. It has a nice pool and garden, library, meeting room, cafeteria, restaurant and even an observatory where, at weekends, you can look at the stars in the company of astronomers.
Where to eat
Famous for its game dishes, with panoramic views over the region. Ideal for a quiet dinner.Monte S. Louis, Mértola Tel. 00 351 286 612 660.
Regional restaurant, very affordable, decorated to perfection with artifacts evocative of life in other times by owners Cesário and Rosa. Serves Alentejo specialities and the service is fast and friendly.Rua Grande, 3 Moreanes, Mértola Tel. 00 351 286 655 133
How to get there
From Porto (503 km):
Take the A1 motorway to Santarém then take the A2 towards the Algarve. Exit when you see a sign indicating Beja e Ferreira do Alentejo. Continue on the IP8 until you reach Mértola.
From Lisbon (228 km): Take the A2 motorway towards the Algarve. Exit when you see a sign indicating Beja e Ferreira do Alentejo. Continue on the IP8 until you reach Mértola.
From Faro (120 km): Take the A22 motorway towards Spain and exit at the Beja sign. Take the IC17, through Alcoutim, until you reach Mértola.