Mértola - Portugal

Located in the heart of south-eastern Portugal, Mértola is a fascinating old fortress town with a heritage unlike any other place in the country.

Built at the confluence of the Guadiana and Oeiras rivers, it has been shaped by many civilisations over the centuries, with emphasis on the Roman Age, Late Antiquity and Islamic Period.

Once a flourishing fluvial centre on the River Guadiana, the town catered for a regular flow of Phoenician and Carthaginian vessels sailing upriver to transport fruit and locally-mined minerals to Europe and North Africa.

The Romans (who called it Myrtalis) subsequently shipped wheat, oil and wine, and traces of the original quay are still visible today.

Granted its charter in 1254 by Paio Peres Correia, Master of the Santiago Order, Mértola (indicated on the Google map below) is a place of monumental interest with some of the most important archaeological remains in the whole of southern Europe.

Mértola’s historic centre comprises many key sites, most notably the parish church which was originally built as a mosque between the 12th and 13th centuries. Almost entirely unaltered, it has several unique Arab features, including the five-nave layout (the only one in Portugal), four horseshoe arches and a mihrab (prayer niche) facing east towards Mecca.

Prominently silhouetted against the deep-blue Alentejo sky, Mértola’s imposing fortress castle is another of the town’s top tourist attractions. Virtually impregnable, its keep was built by King Dinis in 1292 following the Christian reconquest and was once the headquarters of the Knights of the Order of Santiago before they moved to Palmela, south of Lisbon. The castle walls are also of Moorish origin, with the added bonus of some original Roman stonework.

Mértola is a true paradise for people interested in archaeology because a succession of digs have uncovered several important sites in and around the town, unveiling the lives and times of its many Roman, Islamic and Christian inhabitants in days gone past.

Where to go in southern Portugal

As a result of these excavations, a number of innovative sightseeing centres have opened in recent years to serve the growing number of curious visitors from all over the world. These include a sacred art museum, Roman villa (located in the Town Hall basement), blacksmith’s forge, Islamic art gallery and a rare castle keep collection dating back to the 6th century.

The cobbled streets of the town’s historic centre offer visitors the chance to step back in time, particularly in and around Largo Luís de Camões, Mértola’s main square and a true urban oasis lined with orange trees and the impressive Town Hall building on the west side.

Mértola is very well situated for travellers looking to explore this enchanting part of southern Portugal, thanks to the N122 main road which connects the town with several places of immense tourist interest.

About an hour’s drive north lies the magnificent city of Beja, whose centrepiece is its striking castle built upon Roman foundations in the 13th century.

Continuing north-east takes you to the Great Lake of Alqueva, the largest man-made reservoir in Europe that covers some 250 square-kilometres in total and is now a major international boating and water sports destination.

One of the main attractions south of Mértola is Alcoutim, a charming town nestling on the banks of the River Guadiana overlooking neighbouring Spain.

The road south goes directly to the Algarve, one of Portugal’s top holiday hotspots with dozens of idyllic beaches, championship golf courses and warm, year-round sunshine.

Need more sightseeing ideas for your next visit? Listen to the Portugal Travel Show, the podcast for people planning a trip to sunny Portugal…