Mertola, also called museum-village, is a peaceful riverside walled village located on a cliff over the Guadiana River. Located in the Beja district, Alentejo, it was once one of the most important river ports in the Mediterranean. Because of that, to visit Mertola is to make a trip towards the past… on our way to discover remains of the presence of great civilisations – Romans, Visigoths, Muslims, Christians.
Far away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities, Mertola invites us to take calm walks through its streets and alleys. This is where we will find, among the white houses, its corners full of history. “Crowning” the village, we have the Castle of Mertola, proudly dominating the surrounding landscape and challenging us to an exploration.
Down by the Guadiana River waters, we are tempted to go on a boat trip to remind us of ancient routes. Quite a refreshing experience on hotter days!
Visit Mertola – brief history
The origins of Mertola go back to the Neolithic period. Later, it became an important trading post visited by Phoenicians and Carthaginians, thanks to its strategic position on the last navigable section of the Guadiana. This river makes up a large part of the Alentejo frontier between Portugal and Spain.
During the Roman period, Mertola, Mirtylis Iulia by then, was an important river port. There was intense trade with the main ports in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Still today, we can identify the Roman remains in the Cryptoporticus, the Torre Couraça (“Shield Tower”), the Roman house and Roman roads.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths occupied the village of Mertola, leaving behind architectural remains of their presence. Examples of that are the columns and pilasters, which we can see on an exhibition in the Castle Donjon.
After the Muslim invasion, in the 8th century, Mertola, which started to be known as Mārtulah, was the last port further West in the Mediterranean. Because of that, it maintained its commercial importance. This was the time with the most economical momentum, resulting in the growth and peak of the village. It even became, during a short period of time, the capital of a small Islamic independent emirate, the Taifa of Mértola.
The importance of Mārtulah is very clear in the riches of its Islamic heritage, discovered after two decades of archeological excavations. Today, we can visit this patrimony in the Islamic Art section of the Museu de Mértola (Mertola Museum).
At the time of the Christian Reconquest, the Moors lost Mertola, in 1238, to Paio Peres Correia (Order of Santiago), during the reign of the Portuguese King Sancho II. Later, in 1512, King Manuel I gives the village its charter. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the port gains a new momentum with the export of cereals for the Portuguese occupations in Northern Africa.
In late 19th century, with the finding of the mineral deposit in the small village of S. Domingos, Mertola sees a new age of prosperity. For that reason, there was a large increase in population. By the end of the 1950s, the mining operation started to decay and, in 1965, the mine was finally shut down.
What to visit in Mertola
With such a diversified and important past, no wonder it’s so exciting to visit Mertola. The village owns a very rich architectural patrimony, of great historic and cultural value. The obvious highlights are the castle, Main Church, Convento de S. Francisco (a convent), Torre Couraça (“Shield Tower”) and Torre do Relógio (Clock Tower).
Present-day Mertola Castle, built in the medieval times over old Roman and Muslim fortifications, suffered multiple transformations throughout history. King João Fernandes, Master of the Order of Santiago, ordered the build of the donjon in 1292. Inside, we can see a museum and, from the top, a privileged view over the village and the whole surrounding area. Not to be missed.
Mertola Main Church
Located just below the castle, the Main Church (Igreja de Nª Srª da Anunciação), was previously a mosque, built during the Muslim occupation in the Iberian Peninsula. In the 13th century, during the Reconquest, Christians converted the mosque into a church. However, it maintained the structure of the old Muslim temple, in particular, four horseshoe arch doors and the mihrab (the place indicating the direction of Mecca).
Convento de S. Francisco (convent)
On the canon Diogo Nunes de Figueira Negreiros’s initiative, the Convento de S. Francisco lies on a rocky hill since the 17th century. Consequently, it has a stunning view over the historic centre, the Ribeira de Oeiras (stream) and the Guadiana River. The highlights of this convent are the single nave and the fresco in the altar area.
Today, it is a cultural centre. Inside the church, concerts, exhibitions and other events take place. In the garden, it is possible to see a set of artistic installations which constitute an outdoor water museum. The convent still offers its visitors a botanic garden, an ornithology reserve and an art gallery.
Torre Couraça (“Shield Tower”)
Built during Roman Times, it resisted to many floods of the River Guadiana throughout the centuries. This construction gave the people of Mertola access to the water and provided for the defence of the port in war times.
Torre do Relógio (Clock Tower)
Located near the river, in the defence wall turrets, researchers believe that the Clock Tower in Mertola was built in late 16th century. A strong indication of that is the date “1593” engraved in the tower bell. In 1920, the Clock Tower gained a stairway to the pier. Go down these stairs and enjoy yourself walking on the river bank or taking a boat ride.
Mertola is called museum-village for a good reason. It has 10 museum nuclei! Nine are spread around the village. Some of these museums are in archeological sites representing the several periods of history. Examples of that are the Casa Romana (Roman House), Basílica Paleocristã (Palaeochristian basilica), Ermida and Necrópole of S. Sebastião and Alcáçova (chapel and necropolis).
The other nuclei are in buildings restored for that exact same purpose. These gather important sets of archeological materials from the distinct archeological interventions. Look for the following museums: Arte Islâmica (Islamic art), Arte Sacra (sacred art), Torre de Menagem (donjon), Forja do Ferreiro (blacksmith’s forge), Oficina de Tecelagem (weaving workshop) and Casa do Mineiro (miner house). This last one is in S. Domingos, outside of Mertola.
The entire historic centre of Mertola
Apart from the different buildings and monuments described above, the whole historic centre of Mertola, the old part inside the walls, is a maze. A maze of narrow streets which remind us of the Islamic occupation. The shade provided by the houses traditionally painted white protects us from the intense Summer sun.
The streets that go up and down the slope are a delight for those who like to discover nooks and small squares, finding the nice smiling people of Mertola along the way. In between chats, go up the defensive walls whenever you can. Look at the fields and hills that the protectors of Mertola watched for centuries.
Mertola outskirts – what to visit
Take the chance to explore the beautiful landscape of the Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana (natural park), its flora and fauna, as well as its chapels (where pilgrimages happen still today), mills and watermills. This is a wonderful area for walks, picnics, birdwatching, nautical activities, fishing and hunting.
Only around 11mi (18km) away from Mertola, the well-known waterfall Pulo do Lobo (Jump of the Wolf) is a big tourist attraction. This is one of the most dramatic stretches of the Guadiana River. A part so narrow that, according to legend, a hunting wolf can cross it with a single jump. José Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner in Literature (1998), even mentioned the location in the book “Viagem a Portugal” (Journey to Portugal).
Don’t forget to also visit the mining small villages of Pomarão and Mina de S. Domingos. Close to the latter, take a plunge in the Praia da Albufeira da Tapada Grande (river beach). What an idyllic spot to enjoy the interior of Alentejo, Portugal.
On a webpage about this magnificent village in Lower Alentejo, we have to mention its most emblematic event, the Festival Islâmico de Mértola (Mertola Islamic Festival). This festival happens held in May, every two years, to celebrate the Islamic heritage. Come experience the textures, colours, odours, sounds and tastes usually found only in the souks, the markets in North Africa.
Mertola – tasting the region
Situated deep down in the Alentejo and with some special features, Mertola is surely different from other parts of the region. One good example is in terms of its take on the Alentejo gastronomy, based in the production of the lands around the village. During your visit, feast with cheese; sausages and hams; Mertolenga beef, lamb, pork, game; river fish; gaspacho and tomato soup; asparagus, mushrooms and túberas (Alentejo truffles).
All the above mentioned dishes should go with Alentejo bread and, of course, a wine made with grapes from the river Guadiana slopes, where they have been grown for centuries. Try the sweet “costas” and “popias”, the jams, the rosemary honey. Don’t forget to savour the several infusions and aromatic herbs too. To taste in the village itself or to take home as a souvenir.
Because of all this and much more, Mertola invites you to venture in the Guadiana lands on an unforgettable trip to the past. Accept the invitation!