There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 29 September 2017

Mértola and Alcoutim, Strongholds by the Guadiana River


Faro to Mértola

As last year, no sooner had we arrived in the Algarve than we set about leaving it. After negotiating the huge queue for car hire, we headed north from Faro airport, paused for coffee in São Brás and continued up the N2 as it rose steadily to Barranco do Velha, the road lined with stripped cork oaks. Here we turned northeast on to the N124 which twisted and dipped, but mostly climbed. The cork oaks gave way first to eucalyptus, and then, beyond Cachapo to stone (or umbrella) pines (pinus pinea).
Freshly stripped cork oaks
By Martim Longo the road had levelled out. Though still in the Algarve we had reached a southern extension of the Alentejo plain, the land scattered with newly planted pines, and every rise crowned with the stump of an old windmill. Modern windmills abounded too, far larger than the giants Don Quixote charged 400 years ago and 400 miles to the northeast, but with fewer arms, while other fields were planted with solar panels, their shiny faces staring vacantly at the blazing sun.

Faro to Mertola
Our aim had been Alcoutim for lunch, but having risen at 2am for our 6 o’clock flight we now found tiredness creeping upon us. I pulled over, we tipped back the seats and had a zizz

Partially refreshed, we decided to leave Alcoutim for tomorrow and took a short cut along country lanes to join the main road along the Guadiana valley north of Alcoutim and 30km south of our destination, Mértola.
The Algarve ends and the Alentejo starts at the gorge of the River Vascão, though in late September the Vascão is a linear arrangement of puddles rather than a river.

Arriving in Mértola

We reached Mértola across a narrow bridge over the River Oeiras, another small river with an impressive gorge, but at least the Oeiras (just) maintained the integrity of its stream. High to our right was the curtain wall and impressive tower of Mértola castle. The pull-off to the left of the road, I decided, would be perfect for photographing the castle on our departure. Sadly, I had not thought it through, the morning sun directly behind the tower turned it into a silhouette so no picture - though I do have one of the pull-off from the top of the tower!
The pull-off by the bridge from the top of the castle tower (it would have been better the other way round), Mértola
And also of the castle from the riverside.
Mértola Castle from the road down to the river
It was too early to check into our riverside hotel, so we parked beside it and climbed the steps to the old centre below the castle in search of R&R (rest and rehydration), quickly encountering a suitable café. I have not always been kind about Portuguese beer, but on a hot afternoon, cold Sagres hit the spot very nicely - and on this shady terrace a caneca (40cl) cost €2.50, 30% less than at the beach-side cafés of Carvoeiro.

Suitably refreshed we checked in, caught up on some sleep and took a walk round the 'newer' part of the town past the neo-Moorish cinema-theatre, built in 1917 and still in operation, before returning for a shower.
Marques Duque Cine-Teatro, Mértola 
The evening found us at Tamuje, a tiny restaurant recommended by the hotel receptionist. Eating out in the Algarve usually involves fish or seafood but meat is more important in the inland Alentejo. After bread, olives and a glass of white port Lynne chose the legendary porco negro, the Iberian black pork I waxed lyrical about last year, while I went for wild boar. That was all it said on the menu and that apart from a salad was pretty much all we got, Lynne's pork loin lay beneath a scattering of thinly sliced fried potatoes while my boar was moistened with the rich garlicky cooking broth and sprinkled with the same potatoes. Both dishes were simple, rustic and utterly delicious. Eschewing the cheap carafe wine we splashed out (though Є12.50 is a small splash) on a bottle of Touriga Nacional from the local Herdade dos Lagos; although classified only as Vinho Regional Alentejano, it was a deep, dark, brambly and tannic, a wine which made us both pause after the first sip and say 'wow'. The meat tamed the tannins while the wine spiced up the meat, a perfect combination. [Herdade dos Lagos is a German owned farm between Mértola and Beja producing organic wines, olives, carobs and honey. Winemaker Carsten Heinemeyer has adopted the best of Portuguese tradition]
Lynne, Porco Negro, Javila (wild boar) and a bottle of Herdade dos Lagos, Tamuje, Mértola  
We rolled back down the hill, took several photos of the floodlit castle and went to bed tired but satisfied.
Mértola Castle after dark - the best of several.

The Menires do Lavajo

After breakfast we set off for Alcoutim, retracing our steps to and over the River Vascão. Near our destination we spotted a sign to the Menires do Lavajo and despite Trip Advisor suggesting they were underwhelming decided to drop in.
We followed a lane to the little village of Afonso Vicente where a further sign directed us down a narrow stony track winding through stone pines and scrub. Mostly it was in reasonable condition but on one steepish descent round a sharp bend, the lose stony surface was deeply rutted. Taking it very slowly with my foot on the brake and letting gravity provide the motive power we descended without mishap.
The stony track from Afonso Vicente
The menhirs were a short walk uphill from the parking area surrounded by a high metal fence, presumably to keep out animals as the gate had no lock. The three menhirs (only two are in situ) are territorial markers or religious structures dating from between 3,500 and 2,800BC. The smaller stone looks sad and shattered; its larger brother is allegedly covered in carvings, though we could not make them out.

Menires do Lavajo, Alcoutim
As we descended to the car park, a camper van arrived from the opposite direction. Should we go that way, we wondered, or stick to the devil we knew?

Close up of the larger Menhir. I cannot see any carvings, though they are alleged to exist
Menires do Lavajo, Alcoutim
Adhering to the familiar demon worked well until we met the rutted uphill stretch where the wheels buried themselves into the stones and forward movement ceased. I let gravity move us down and tried again gently, and then again robustly but to no avail. Reversing to a nearby turning point seemed the best (or only?) way out. The road was narrow, and with a sharp turn so Lynne got out, stood in front of me and whirled her arms round in an instructional manner. I obeyed and quickly became entangled in the trackside vegetation. 'No,' she yelled, whirling her arms around more emphatically, and again I made it worse. We were facing each other so one of us, I realised, was mirror-imaging while the other was not. After further shouting and scraping through tough, dry vegetation, we extricated ourselves without, remarkably, any damage to the paintwork, though I was glad there were no witnesses to this epic display of incompetence. Returning to the menhirs, we followed the camper down the track the other way which quickly returned us to tarmac.


Alcoutim, a pleasant little whitewashed town, sat basking in the sunshine beside the sparkling Guadiana River. The river here is 200m wide and Sanlucar de Guadiana on the other side is in Spain.
Parking at the little harbour we climbed some steps to a café. At 11 o'clock, as we sipped our coffee, the church clock in Sanlucar, 300m and one time zone away, struck 12.
Sanlucar de Guadiana from the Alcoutim café
Refreshed, we continued upwards to the hilltop castle. Visitors have complained at the €2.51 entry fee (€1.51 for us old gits), not because it is too large, but because the odd cent means the kiosk often runs out of change. Fortunately we had two 1c coins and appreciated the rare opportunity to spend them!

The site of a late Neolithic castro, Alcoutim’s hilltop has accommodated a long series of ever grander fortifications. Most of the current structure dates from the reign of Manuel I of Portugal (1469-1521) though I doubt he ever imagined the interior would one day become a garden.
The interior of Alcoutim Castle
The castle museum, built over recent excavations, traces Alcoutim's long history. Around 1000BC Phoenician traders developed a river port, transporting the produce of the interior to the outside world. A Greek settlement came and went (or assimilated) and the Romans came and stayed. The port prospered until the Alans ousted the Romans in 415AD and initiated 300 hundred years of decline. The Moors re-established civilization in 715AD but the town remained a backwater until 1240 when the Reconquista made Alcoutim castle an important statement of Portuguese sovereignty, staring across the border at the rival Kingdom of Castille.
Lynne in the castle museum, Alcoutim
The museum also contains Lavajo’s missing third menhir.
The remains of Lavajo's third menhir
Another building contains an exhibition of Islamic games, with fragmented boards and descriptions of the games. I had always idly assumed that Nine Men's Morris was of English origin, but not so. It was played here in Islamic times and similar boards of similar antiquity have been found right across Europe.
Fragment of a Nine Men's Morris board, Alcoutim Castle
Walking round the walls allowed us to look down over Alcoutim, its roofs in good repair, houses freshly whitewashed and narrow streets clean and litter-free. The Algarve was very different when we first visited 35 years ago, but this is now typical…
Looking down from the castle onto the tidy little town of Alcoutim
…and across to Sanlucar de Guadiana.
Looking across to Spain from the castle battlements
The younger Spanish town and its castle were built after the Reconquista. Relationships were not always cordial between Portugal and the Kingdom of Castile but although the castles may have looked daggers at each other across the river (there was even a brief artillery exchange during the Portuguese War of Restoration (1640-68)) the two towns have enjoyed friendly relations. Isolated settlements in their own countries and with a combined population of only 2,000, cross river trade - and marriage – have bound them together. It is still a 70km road journey from one to the other, but a water taxi will whisk you across the river in minutes. It is even possible to travel from Spain to Portugal by the world's only international zip wire - no we did not try it, we are far too sensible (for which read 'old').

From the castle we walked down to the Igreja Matriz (Mother Church) of São Salvador. In 1755 a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed most of the Algarve’s major buildings, but Alcoutim, in the far north east was spared the worst, so its 14th century church (with extensive 16th century make over) is one of the best examples of Early Renaissance architecture in the Algarve…
São Salvador, Alcoutim

...though its interior is very plain by local standard.
Interior, São Salvador, Alcoutim

Leaving Alcoutim, we returned to Mértola.

Mértola Castle and Environs

The café where we rehydrated yesterday was overrun by a bus tour. SAS training is required to compete with the sharp elbows of Portuguese pensioners on a jolly so we repaired to a tiny establishment round the corner.

Despite many visits, our Portuguese remains limited. It is difficult to speak Portuguese on the Algarve coast; anyone so addressed replies in English and as their English is invariably better than my Portuguese, I always give in. But Mértola is different and I not only ordered beer and ham and cheese sandwiches in Portuguese, but dealt effortlessly with the follow-up question - com manteiga ou sem manteiga (with or without butter). My resulting glow of satisfaction was, perhaps, out of proportion to the minimal achievement. The tiny bill caused further surprise and satisfaction -  90c for a 33cl bottle of beer!
Like Alcoutim, Mértola (pronounced MER-tuh-luh) thrived as a river port and defensive bastion, the Romans building the first city walls. Its exceptional defensive position gave it great importance and the castle was rebuilt and strengthened after Sancho II wrested it from the Moors in 1238.

Mértola city walls
However, north of Alcoutim the border zigs east while the Guadiana zags west so at Mértola both banks are in Portugal. Not being a border castle, interest in Mértola waned and it remained small and relatively isolated.

The Guadiana at Mértola
Walking up from lunch to the castle we stopped at the Church of Nossa Senhora da Anunciação. Istanbul has several churches that became mosques after the Ottomans destroyed the moribund Byzantine Empire - Haghia Sofia being the best known. By contrast very few mosques were repurposed as churches after the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, this being one of only two in Portugal.

The remodelled south entrance, Nossa Senhora da Anunciação, Mértola
Despite the main entrance being remodelled in Renaissance style, its position at the south means the church is much wider than its long – an arrangement common in mosques but rare in churches. The niche behind the altar and statue of the Virgin and Child was once the mihrab - the directions of Mecca and Jerusalem being indistinguishable from western Europe.

Altar, Statue of Virgin and Child and Mihrab, Nossa Senhora da Anunciação,Mértola
Several side chapels entrances are also of Arabic design, but this may be a later whimsy.

Arabic styled doorway, Nossa Senhora da Anunciação, Mértola
Little remains of the Moorish castle above, though it is not always obvious who built which wall. The current structure is mainly the work of the Knights of St James of the Sword, enthusiastic participators in the Reconquista, though their existence as a heavily armed military wing of the church contradicts Jesus' message on the one occasion a sword was drawn on his behalf (Matthew Ch26 vs 50-52).

There is little inside the castle (free entry) except the sturdy tower which looks so impressive from the road into Mértola.
Castle keep, Mértola
Inside (small fee) is an exhibition of finds from recent excavations, a display about the Knights of St James of the Sword and a brief video. Best of all you can climb to the top and look out over town, the river and the Alentejo countryside, parched at the end of a long, hot, dry summer...
Mértola from the castle keep
....and over the excavations of late/post-Roman Mértola. Mértola perhaps escaped the worst of the chaos following the Roman collapse. The partly rebuilt baptistry in the fully excavated area appears identical to the Byzantine baptistry we saw at Stobi in (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia. Another baptistry of similar date has been uncovered by the newer excavations, suggesting that either two distinct Christian communities lived here in the 7th century or they had separate baptistries for males and females (other imaginative solutions are welcome).
Excavations, Mértola, with the partly rebuilt Byzantine baptistery in the centre
Beside the Roman excavations is the modern cemetery.
Mértola's modern cemetery
Lynne likes a good cemetery so we walked round the very typically Portuguese necropolis, some burials in family mini-mausolea, others in niches in the wall.
The dead up the wall, Mértola
All had photographs of the deceased, but we wondered why families invariably chose such unflattering portraits of their loved ones.

The afternoon was hot and we were flagging, so this ended the sightseeing.

We spent the evening in Migas, a restaurant just below the castle, enjoying the warm evening air on a terrace overlooking the river, though it was invisible in the dark. Migas is named for the traditional Alentejo favourite of bread steeped in olive oil. I enjoyed it last year, but found it extraordinarily filling so gave it a miss this time. Lynne selecting rabbit with thyme while I chose bochachas, pigs cheeks stewed in red wine; I loved the firm, wine-dark slabs of porkiness, while Lynne suggested her bunny had reached a State of Grace, though the accompanying fries would have benefitted from hotter oil. A litre jug of tinto may have lacked the personality of yesterday's Herdade de Lagos, but it cost little and being a wine for swilling rather than sipping it was pleasurably swilled. A few more customers would have improved the atmosphere, but the bill came to €30 so it would be churlish to complain.
Rabbit and bochachas, Migas, Mértola

Mértola - City Wall and the Roman Riverside

We had stayed at the Hotel Museu (museum), a comfortable mid-range hotel by the river housed in an ugly concrete slab of a building. Construction work uncovered the remains of buildings of the Almohad (late Moorish) river port, archaeologists were called in and the results of their labours have been preserved as a feature of the hotel.
Remains of Almohad port building, Hotel Museu, Mértola
Before checking out we climbed back up (Mértola's pedestrians climb many, many steps) to below the castle and followed the top of the city wall. Perched on the wall is a late16th/early 17th century clock tower...
Clock tower on the city wall, Mértola
...where a one-handed clock tells the correct time twice daily.
Clock Tower, city walls, Mértola
Mértola has a modern commercial centre in the north where the N124 traverses the town, an older centre below the castle and we now found ourselves heading into yet another centre, the sign suggesting this was once the heart of Moorish Mértola.
Along the wall, Mértola
A mark on the wall shows the height of the water during the great flood of 1876. It stands at a truly mind-boggling height above the river, even allowing for the current drought. 40 miles north the Alqueva Dam holds back one of Europe’s largest reservoirs, so flooding should be a problem of the past.
Municipal offices cluster round a small square studded with orange trees. Here a steep path descends towards the river giving a good view of the Roman River Tower,...

Roman river tower, Mértola
....though the trees ensured that only at river level could we see the arches that connected the tower to the main fortifications. From the shape of the bases the river was obviously expected to run much higher than it presently is. From such towers the Romans generally slung a chain across the river which the sentries lowered to permit access.
Arches by the Roman River Tower, Mértola
After our riverside stroll we set off for the holiday beaches of the Algarve.
Mértola is a fascinating little town and well worth a visit. Elaborately protected for most of its 2,000+ years’ history, it is now completely unfortified yet the residents sleep more securely in their beds than ever before. Cheer up, the world really is becoming less violent.
Alentejo Posts

Évora (2016)

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