History always starts with bigger or smaller details. Before we see the whole image of the story, pieces of puzzles have to connect into one. That way, it’s possible to reveal their connections and meanings and see a sharp picture of the place.
When it comes to Mértola, there are countless pieces that, while connected together, give a spectacular image of a little town that now, calmly and unbothered by anything, stands on the slope of one of the many hills that rise above the Guadiana river.
Mértola was an important port during the ancient era. First, it belonged to the Phoenicians, then it was taken by the Romans who significantly enlarged it. The settlement’s hilltop location was a perfect place to guard the area. And there was a lot to protect.
From the mines nearby, precious minerals including silver, gold and tin were extracted. Also, fertile fields of nearby villages produced a wealth of agricultural goods.
From the top of Mértola, it was easy to control transport through the Guadiana river. For a long time, those waters were carrying boats filled with all kind of goods. They were heading towards Southern Spain and the Mediterranean Sea.
Remains of this ancient spot, which are regularly uncovered within the town, confirm that the Romans turned Mértola into a flourishing commercial centre. The town even minted
its own coin.
In 711, Moors came to the Iberian Peninsula, declaring most of the lands, including Alentejo, as their own. For over 400 years they ruled Mértola. Even after the invasion, the work of Mértola’s fluvial port didn’t stop. Although the languages and cultures of the people who lived there were so different, the boats full of precious cargo were heading towards Al-Andaluz and Northern Africa.
The remains of Islamic culture can be found in architectural details of the buildings. Located near the castle is a church, which used to be a mosque. Little towers, previously minarets, decorate the building and remain one of the most visible witnesses of this culture in Mértola. The temple is also the only preserved medieval mosque in Portugal.
The era of stagnation, and moment to be reborn
When the Reconquista hit the territory of Alentejo, the mosque was turned into the Church of Nossa Senhora da Anunciação. King Sancho II took over Mértola and with that the town’s economic importance vanished.
For centuries, the signs of life of this previously vibrant place remained frozen. A sad stagnation and economic dullness covered the town with a veil. Mértola became one of those places that could experience an old glory, passed on in local legends.
The castle, located on the middle of the hill, serves to represent the transition between the Moorish empire to a Christian kingdom; both cultures influenced the
style of the small castle that within years turned into a picturesque ruin.
For a while, Mértola became forgotten by the lords. Maybe it was a calmer time for its residents, when they could deliberately lead their quiet lives, no longer doomed to the grace of liege lords, but rather by the whims of the local nature, which could bring extremely hot summers and cold winters.
After some time, Mértola reclaimed its commercial glory for a few decades. When copper was discovered in the nearby mine of São Domingos in the 1800s, the commercial life abruptly exploded again, to die just as quickly in 1965, when there was nothing more to be taken from the ground.
The magnificent life of Mértola, with its once-luminous beating heart, started to die again, turning into one more dead town, hidden in the middle of nowhere. Without any prospects in a rural area, where the mine was just a blurred memory, people started to emigrate to the richest parts of the country and the world.
However, the almost forgotten history of this place once again brought life to Mértola. This time, in a totally different way. In the 1980s, archaeological works started the process of discovering remains of previous lives that for ages laid here silenced, covered with the dust of passing time.
Thanks to them, nowadays we can admire Mértola in its full splendour. Visiting the castle is a perfect opportunity to immerse oneself in the history of the place, but also to see the beautiful landscape of Mértola, surrounded by the river and hills.
The spirit of the city
Mértola is often called the museum town, Vila Museu. And considering its rich history, supported by the archaeological and historic studies that continue to take place in this area, this title seems to perfectly reflect what the ancient town is all about.
But as in each place, the spirit of Mértola is not created only by its historical past, but also by the surrounding nature and the people who live here. By the café, which is regularly visited by tourists, locals, and a little cat. By the old man who for half of the day sells roasted chestnuts. By someone who decorates a blue door with pots full of blossoming flowers.
You can get out of town to see Mértola from a distance. From the other side of the river, you can admire the place in its full splendour. It is a little borough, with white buildings that reflect the sun from their walls. while the old city wall embraces the structure of the place, providing a medieval backdrop to the river that passes by.
If you wake up early, on a cold morning, you might not see the town very well. Just a fairytale image, with a clock tower that emerges slowly from the coat of thick fog, that silently hugs during the night.
Mértola is a real gem of the Alentejo with its hill crowned by the remains of the castle. Where the pieces of history connect into a beautiful image that once again can blossom. The only thing it needs is curious visitors who want to admire it and listen into the stories that the old walls can whisper.
Words: Anna Zielanzy