THE IMPENETRABLE CASTLE OF MÉRTOLA
On a promontory located between the right bank of the Guadiana River and the left bank of the Oeiras river, stands the town of Mértola. Located in the Portuguese region of Baixo Alentejo. This town has managed to keep its regional traditions intact while preserving traces of the many peoples that have inhabited it throughout its history. All these cultures found in Mértola a perfect place to settle precisely because of its advantageous geographical location. The Guadiana River was key to the trade of all these peoples. Moreover, the fact that it is situated on a promontory always gave the settlement a strong fortress-like appearance.
If it was already intimidating that the town was built on a hill, the fact that it was crowned by a fortress increased its defensive possibilities and made it impenetrable. Thanks to ancient descriptions that have been preserved, we know that in the I century, the Romans erected a stronghold on the top of the promontory, which they called Myrtilis Iulia.Centuries later, under Muslim rule, the city took the name of Martulahand an Arab citadel was built on the ruins of the Roman stronghold.
Arab rule continued until 1238, when, during theReconquista(Reconquest), Mértola fell under Christian rule and became part of the kingdom of the monarch Sancho II of Portugal. In 1292 the construction of the mighty Castle of Mértolabegan thanks to the work of the Knights of the Order of Santiago, who raised it above the old Muslim citadel.It was then that the crenellated Keep Tower and five other towers were built on the different angles of the sturdy wall that surrounded the trapezoidal fortress. The fortress we see today is the result of many remodelling works carried out throughout history.
Once in the Castle of Mértola, its mighty Keep Tower, which rises 30 metres above the steepest slope, makes an impressive sight. On the opposite side stands the Carocha Tower, which has a staircase leading up from the battlement walkwayand was the castle´s prison. Although the climb up to Mértola Castle is a physical effort, it is worth it for the sensational views that the fortress offers. From here you can enjoy a great panoramic view of the city, the serene flow of the Guadiana River and the magnificent bridge that crosses the banks of the Oeiras at a dizzying height.
But the surprises don´t end there! The interior of the keep houses a very interesting museum which exhibits a large collection of architectural material dating from the VI to X centuries. Spectacular views, a journey into the past and a lesson in architecture in the same visit!
Castle of Mértola 7750-338 Mértola, Portugal
THE BEST BREAD IN PORTUGAL!
The Alentejo region, to which Mértola belongs, has a very traditional but at the same time highly imaginative gastronomy. The great creativity in its recipes based on seasonal ingredients is due to the harsh conditions that this region has had to endure in the not so distant past. Despite the agricultural and livestock richness of Alentejo, for some decades of the XX century there was a significant poverty in this region, as a consequence of a specific political context. The oldest people in the area say that at the time, due to the scarcity of resources, a single sardine was shared among several people at mealtimes...
The gastronomy of Alentejo is based, above all, on pork and lamb. Stews, casseroles and soups are the main recipes of this land. It is very common for these dishes to be seasoned with aromatic plants that grow wild on the banks of streams or are cultivated with care in vegetable gardens. Herbs such as coriander, mint, pennyroyal, oregano or laurel and seasonings such as olive oil, onion or garlic are the perfect ingredients in Alentejan recipes. But all these recipes make absolutely no sense to the locals if they are not accompanied by the undisputed star of every table in the region: Pão Alentejano (Alentejo bread). Whether as the main ingredient in a dish, as toast or as an accompaniment to a meal, Alentejo bread is one of the symbols of the local gastronomy.
Nicknamed "the Land of Bread", Alentejo region has always been a great recipient of influences from the different cultures that have inhabited it. The origins of Alentejo bread date back to Roman times, but the Muslims also left their mark on the consumption of this product. Thanks to the Arabs, the tradition arose of soaking bread in a broth sprinkled with olive oil to which vegetables or meat could be added. This was the origin of the famous açordas, the bread soups of Alentejo. The secret of Alentejo bread is that it is a long-fermented bread made from natural yeast. It has a subtly acidic aftertaste.
It is a rustic bread with a compact crumb and a thick crust. Both its flavour and texture would be impossible to achieve if it were not for the long fermentation or if the yeast used wascommercial rather than natural. It is a bread made without haste, with a lot of patience and love. The locals show great respect for this bread culture. This place is even considered to be the birthplace of bread in Portugal. Alentejo bread, present on every table, will make you enjoy the gastronomy of the region even more.
Moreover, it is the perfect ally for enjoying those aromatic sauces that bathe its tasty recipes. Yummy!
THE BEES´ GOLD
When we arrive in Mértola, a tourist sign welcomes us to the town, informing us of its attractions. Among them, it announces that Mértola is the The National Capital of Haunting and that it is renowned for its traditional products and gastronomy. Of course, if there is a perfect place to check out the gastronomic goodness of the city, this is the Mértola Municipal Market. Let´s go and explore! It is a simple market, we will not deny it, but it offers regional products of excellent quality at great prices. Strolling among the stalls is a delight and will also help you to get to know Alentejo much better through the products offered by the region.
Alentejo is a region of Portugal made up of gentle hills with an abundance of cork and holm oak trees, cereal fields, olive groves and vineyards. Agriculture and livestock farming in Alentejo are the main features of the regional products sold at this market. Let´s review the most important ones so that you can fill your basket... In many market stalls you will see an abundance of tomatoes, as these vegetables are the star of Alentejo orchard due to their great quality and flavour. For this reason, one of the most typical dishes of the region is gazpacho alentejano, a refreshing tomato-based salad that is soaked in water, olive oil, vinegar and other condiments. This healthy delight helps to mitigate the suffocating summer temperatures of Alentejo.
As Alentejo also abounds in vineyards and olive trees, other typical regional products include excellent wines and an extraordinary olive oil. Don´t forget to try the local olives on offer at the market´s pickle stalls. We must not forget the region´s signature product, the Mel do Alentejo(Honey of Alentejo).In Portugal, honey production is vital to the country´s economy and Alentejo plays an active part in this as it is the second region in the country in terms of number of hives. There are twelve Portuguese regions recognised as excellent honey producers and Alentejo is one of them as its honey has won several international competitions. The type of honey varies not only according to the bee, but also to the geographic area, the type of flower and the climate of the location where the nectar is produced.
The honey of Alentejo has not of a specific taste, as the different varieties depend on the predominant pollen used in its production. That is why you will find Eucalyptus Honey, Rosemary Honey, Orange Honey or Multi-flower Honey. All these types have something in common that makes this product linked to humanity since prehistoric times... Honey is the natural food that provides us with the most energy, and it is a product for everyone. Consuming honey only brings benefits, as it achieves a great improvement in the biological process of the organism due to its balanced amounts of vitamins, amino acids, minerals and bactericidal substances.
This thick gold will leave you with a sweet memory of Mértola!
Mértola Municipal Market
Rua Doutor Manuel Francisco Gomes
THE UNFORGETTABLE "MOSQUE" OF MÉRTOLA
Get your cameras ready and open your eyes wide because in Mértola an unparalleled monument awaits you. It is a temple impossible to forget for its beauty and singularity. Even its name is striking, it is calledIgrejaMatriz which means“Mother Church”, and its history makes it even more memorable.In the centre of Mértola, between white houses and steep streets, there is an enigmatic cruzeiro,or cross, that shows us the way to follow to reach the Mother Church of the city. By the time we realise it, we have before us an imposing temple, beautiful and white, but different from those we have seen so far. What makes it so unique? It is undoubtedly a Christian church, as is pointed out by a small Christian cross in the niche on the façade, and by another cross on the top of the bell tower. But there is one thing that may come as a shock.
This Christian church has the layout of an Arab mosque!The Igreja Matriz, also called The Church of Nossa Senhora da Anunciação, has been listed as a National Monument since 1910. Its beauty and importance lies in the fact that it is a Christian reuse of the former Arab mosque of Mértola. In the times of the Reconquista(Reconquest), when a city went from Muslim to Christian rule, its Islamic religious buildings were usually demolished and later Christian temples were built on the same plots of land. In the unique case of the mosque of Mértola, its sculptural beauty saved it from being torn down. The Arab mosque dates from the XII century and was built on the site of an earlier Roman structure. It is an elegant squared temple whose white façade is crowned by original conical pinnacles.
It has powerful buttresses and decorative battlements that give it the appearance of a fortress. Due to the geo-strategic situation of Mértola, its buildings used to have this defensive look.When Mértola came under Christian rule in 1238, the Knights of the Order of Santiago consecrated this temple so that it could hold the celebration of the Christian rite. After the first liturgy, it went from being an Arab mosque to being a Christian church, maintaining the same structure but adopting a different religion.Its interior is a delight. It is made up of five naves separated by stone columns that support arches which in turn support a vault that covers the naves. This combination of columns, arches and vaults, the result of the modifications made to the church in the XVI century, completes the interior with Gothic and Renaissance art.
Despite the various works, the interior still retains traces of its Muslim past. Witness to this is the mirhab, the unplastered niche behind the altar, which was the ancient element that indicates the direction for Muslim prayer. Don´t forget to visit the Igreja Matrizof Mértola, a true survivor of the Reconquista, worthy of being the main feature of our photographic memories.
Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Anunciação.
Rua Dr. Manuel Francisco Gomes 3, 7750-354 Mértola, Portugal
THE VIGILANT HERMITAGE OF THE SNOWS
If you arrive in the town of Mértola after crossing the vertiginous bridge over the Oeiras River, you will see a small building on the top of the hill to your left. Standing soberly on the hill surrounded only by the blue sky, it is striking in its whiteness, its linear architecture and its solitude atmosphere. With a sturdy and watchful appearance, it is surprising to know that it is a chapel with a beautiful name: the Ermida de Nossa Senhora das Neves (Hermitage of Our Lady of the Snows). Let us learn about the history of this solitary chapel of such an icy invocation set in a land where snow is conspicuous by its absence. In a previous section we have read how the Arab mosque of Mértola became a Christian church.
In fact, in the past, even civil or military buildings were converted into religious temples after their corresponding sacralisation.This shift of functions was a wise way of taking advantage of obsolete buildings and of having another place where the Christian rite could be celebrated. This is what happened to this hermitage. It was originally a building built by the Muslims on the top of the hill with the aim of being a watchtower. With the passing of time it became a Christian chapel. The Arabs chose this strategic place to raise their tower because of its altitude and the excellent angle of view it offers to watch over the four cardinal points. Furthermore, it is located in the northern part of the town, right where the Christian attacks came from.
This original military function explains the total absence of ornamentation and its appearance similar to a defensive cube. But what about the name, how do we explain the existence of a Lady of the Snows in the heat of Alentejo? The custom of praying to a specific Virgin comes from the traditional invocations made in ancient times to Mother Nature. In the case of this hermitage, the Virgin who dwells there is Nossa Senhora das Neves(Our Lady of the Snows). Tradition has it that the places assigned to this Virgin are always on high places where she is invoked to ask for snow, or in other words, water. In fact, thanks to the oldest locals, we know today that the people of Mértola have always gone to this Our Lady of the Snows to ask for water during the hottest months when drought affected their fields.
This peculiar hermitage can be seen perfectly from many parts of Mértola, and can also be reached on foot as it is only about 200 metres from the centre of the village. However, you have to climb a small hill to reach it and it is almost always closed. If you want to see it up close and enjoy its excellent views, just take the dirt road that follows the Rua de Timor. It´s worth it!
Ermida de Nossa Senhora das Neves (Hermitage of Our Lady of the Snows).
Continuation of Rua de Timor
347, N122 14, Mértola, Portugal
A MUSEUM TREASURE HUNT
The town of Mértola is known as the City Museum due to the large number of museums it houses on a wide variety of subjects. The town itself can be considered a museum, with its cobbled streets, its whitewashed terraced houses, its archaeological sites and its imposing geographical location at the confluence of the Guadiana and Oeiras rivers. The numerous museums in Mértola can form a real museum treasure hunt in which we challenge you to participate from these pages.
All these exhibition centres make up the so-called Museo de Mértola(Museum of Mértola),which groups together different centres scattered around the city and which can be accessed either through a global entrance fee of 5 euros, or through an entrance fee of 2 euros per centre. At this point we are going to talk about five of these museums, but there is not a specific route to follow, everyone can choose the museums they prefer to visit, although the more the better!
We will start with two museums that are very close to each other: Arte SacraMuseum (The Religious Art Museum) is located inside the old Misericórdia Church and houses a magnificent exhibition of religious statuettes, chalices, processional crosses and beautiful altarpieces that date from the XVI to the XVIII centuries and come from different temples and castles in the area. Just 30 metres away is theIslamic Art Museum, which has an impressive exhibition of Arab tombstones that still bear their inscriptions, as well as a collection of jewellery, ceramics and glassware dating from the IX to the XIII century.
The next two museums that we suggest are a tribute to the rich artisan heritage of Mértola: The first is the so-calledForja do Ferreiro(Blacksmith’s Forge), an old blacksmith´s forge that was converted into a museum when its last owner died at the end of the XX century. In this workshop-museum all the secrets of the hard but beautiful art of forging are explained. And from iron we move on to textiles: the next museum is the Cooperativa Oficina Tecelagem(Weaving Workshop), a weaving workshop located right next to the tourist office.
This old loom pays homage to one of Mértola´s oldest traditions: the art of weaving woollen blankets. Not only is the machinery and materials used to create this craft on display, but it can also be considered a living museum, since inside there are usually three artisans weaving and showing the art of their work live to the public. A real delight! Finally, we recommend the Paleo-Christian Museum, which stands on the site where the great Paleochristian basilica stood between the V and VIII centuries, as well as the adjoining cemetery, later used by Arabs and Christians. This museum exhibits spectacular Paleochristian funerary stelae (estelas funerarias) showing, in addition to the epigraphs, beautiful engravings of hearts, crowns and birds.
Enjoy the Museum of Mértola, a great treasure hunt of history, art and craftsmanship!
Arte Sacra Museum
Largo da Misericórdia 57750-353, Mértola
Museum of Islamic Art
Rua Doutor António José de Almeida 27750-353, Mértola
Museum of Forja do Ferreiro
Rua Elias Garcia 187750-356, Mértola
Weaving Workshop / Cooperativa Oficina Tecelagem
Rua da Igreja 357750-338, Mértola
Paleochristian Basilica Rossio do Carmo square
A FOUR-LEAF CLOVER!
As we already know, Mértola is located in the Alentejo region, a large Portuguese territory made up of rolling hills, large meadows with cork oaks and holm oaks, extensive cereal fields, vast vineyards and large olive groves. The end result of these different fields is a gentle, placid, very flat landscape, which is dominated by warm colours, winding roads and a flat horizon in the distance. This is a region that reaches very high temperatures in summer and where it is difficult to find good shade to alleviate the rigours of the heatwaves. But within Alentejo there is a green oasis that breaks completely with its natural landscape.
It is a lush and extensive natural park irrigated by the waters of the Guadiana river, with high hills and deep valleys, winding paths and a very distinctive flora and fauna. It is the Guadiana Valley Natural Park, a green heaven in the heart of which lies Mértola. And, as this park is the gateway to Mértola, you will be able to admire many of its treasures comfortably seated on the bus both when arriving and leaving the city, but also during your visit to Mértola itself. As you enter the park, you will notice that the environment becomes increasingly lush and wild, like a leafy universe within the uniform Alentejo. Even the Guadiana River becomes wilder within this park and loses its characteristic serenity. Its waters rejuvenate within this oasis, becoming more playful and even offering us the occasional waterfall.
The park is a popular tourist area as it has good walking and hiking trails and even has hermitages and prehistoric remains. It is also an important corridor for migratory birds and a great place for birdwatching, as the area is home to rare or endangered species such as the black stork, the Eurasian eagle owl, the grey kite and the Bonelli´s eagle. As for the flora, among the lush Mediterranean scrubland, a strange species camouflages itself: The hairy four-leaf clover! Also known as Lusitanian Water Clover. The Guadiana Valley Natural Park is one more monument of Mértola, a monument of nature delimited in 1995 with the aim of protecting the wildlife surrounding the Guadiana River. During your visit to Mértola, we recommend you to take the opportunity to explore its most untamed side.
The banks of the Guadiana River are easily accessible and there is a promenade where you can admire the might of the region´s landscape. Moreover, as the size of the town of Mértola is not very large, it is easy to get out of the urban environment to discover its wilder surroundings.
Remember to raise your eyes to the sky to observe the majestic flight of the Bonelli´s eagle, but above all, look carefully at the ground in case you find a four-leaf clover... We all know that they bring good luck!
Rúa Dom Sancho II 15, 7750-350. Mértola, Portugal.
A STROLL THROUGH THE ROMAN MYRTILIS IULIA
How would you like to travel back in time to twenty centuries ago without leaving Mértola? Our exciting plan can be carried out by visiting the Roman vestiges that are preserved in three different parts of the town. This way, while we travel back in time, we will discover Mértola on a wonderful walk. This walk is about 500 metres from the starting point to the end, so we can cover it in about 15 minutes.We will walk from top to bottom, starting our walk at the highest point of the three: the Roman Acropolis.
To visit it, we will head towards the ascent to the castle. In the middle of this slope we will find the Forum of the ancient Roman city of Myrtilis Iulia. There we will see a large artificial platform built into the wall that allows us to walk over the remains and observe them up close. The remains of the cryptoporticus, a 30-metre long and 6-metre high underground Roman gallery that served as a food store and later as a cistern, are still preserved today. The platform is full of explanatory signs and interesting drawings showing the layout of the original houses. There are also remains of post-Roman cultures, such as some multi-coloured Visigoth mosaics that formed part of a palace and a baptistery both dating from the VI century, as well as remains from the Islamic period.
After the visit to the Roman Acropolis, we return to the Iglesia Matriz from where we start to descend through narrow cobbled streets until we reach the Guadiana River. Almost on its banks, a hidden treasure awaits us in the basement of theCity Hall. The consistorial building of Mértola was built on the site of an ancient Roman house. These remains appeared during the reconstruction of the building and it was decided to erect the new structure on top of the vestiges, respecting them. The archaeological remains that make up this Roman house were the first museum to open its doors in Mértola, inaugurated in 1989 under the name of Casa Romana (Roman House).
During your visit you will be able to admire part of the impluvium of the house as well as pieces of pottery and metalwork from the Roman period. A real delirium for the senses... We continue our walk until we reach the last point on our little route. These are the remains of a Roman tower resting on the banks of the Guadiana river very close to the town hall.
It is called the Torre Couraça, also known as "Shield Tower”. These ruins demonstrate the great importance of the river port in the times of Myrtilis Iulia,as this tower was the defensive structure that protected it and the boats in times of war. The tower also served as an access to the river so that the inhabitants could get water. The remains of the Torre Couraçathat have survived to the present day are true survivors that have withstood the numerous floods of the Guadiana.
We hope you enjoy this tour of Myrtilis Iulia!
Acrópolis Romana de Mértola (Foro Romano)
7750-328 Mértola, Portugal
Casa Romana (Roman House)
Luís de Camões Square 7750-351 Mértola, Portugal
Torre Couraça (Shield Tower)
Rua dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra 14
7750-351 Mértola, Portugal
THE GUADIANA RIVER CLOCK
If there is one thing in the world that inspires serenity, it is watching the slow flow of a placid river. In Mértola there is a perfect place in which to enjoy this kind of peace. It is a spot dominated by a very special small tower to which all the calm and serenity of the wise and millenary Guadiana River reaches. From the top of this tower, we can enjoy the flow of the river. To really enjoy the experience it is important to know the relationship that Mértola has always maintained with the Guadiana River, a true love story that we will witness from the Clock Tower. As we have already seen, Mértola is located on top of a rocky hill at the confluence of the Guadiana River and its tributary the Oeiras.
From this elevated position, the city has always been able to control the course of the river. If we add to its strategic location the fact that the Guadiana River is navigable from here to its mouth in the Atlantic Ocean, the result is that Mértola is the perfect location for a river port - and that is precisely what the Phoenicians built! After the Phoenicians, this river port was extremely important in both the Roman Myrtilis Iuliaand the Arab Martulah,and its relevance continued for centuries after the Christian conquest. To give you an idea of the importance of Mértola as a river port, until the first decades of the XX century, communications between Lisbon and the Algarve were made exclusively by road to Mértola and from there, down the Guadiana to Castro Marim and, eventually, to its mouth at Vila Real de Santo António.
The Guadiana River is born in Spain and, when it reaches Portugal, it begins a meandering course, flowing between Portuguese lands and stretches which mark the border between the two countries until it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Its border mouth is about 70 kilometres south of Mértola, the distance of its navigable section. Now that we know a little more about these waters, let´s enjoy their slow flow from the top of the iconicClock Tower. This white tower was built at the end of the XVI century on top of one of the towers of the wall of Mértola in an area full of buildings that represented the different municipal powers. Its original clock was replaced at the end of the XIX century by the current one.
Take a good look at it, because it is quite unusual... It shows the time with only one hand! Climbing the Clock Tower is a balm for the senses as the serenity of the river that has left such a mark on this city reaches us. As if this was not enough, the lower part of the tower has some stairs that allow you to go down to the river promenade to feel the history of this millenary river up close.
Torre do Relógio (Clock Tower)
Rua Dom Sancho II 15
7750-350 Mértola, Portugal
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