The Guadiana River defines the border between Portugal and Spain for much of its roughly 830 km course. Its source is in Spain and initially separates Extramadura (Spain) from Alentejo (Portugal) and nearer its mouth, Andalucia and the Algarve. Sailors have been visiting the Guadiana with the first likely being the Phoenecians in about 1000 BC. They established a fishing port at Vila Real de Santo António and trading posts at Alcoutim and Mértola. Later the Romans, the Visgoths and the Moors all plied its waters.
In addition to its value as a trade route, several important military fortifications were established on the Portuguese side of the river at Castro Marim, Alcoutim and Mértola. All of these imposing castles are open today and make a visit to the area even more enjoyable. A copper mine operating in São Domingos shipped ore through the riverside village of Pomarão but was closed in the 1960s. Today there is no commercial traffic on the river but many recreational boaters enjoy the beautiful and tranquil lower reaches of the river.
Last fall, looking to explore a different area of the Algarve we spent three days enjoying the river and its surrounding towns beginning at Castro Marim in the estuary to Mértola which is in southeast Alentejo. In addition to the stunning natural beauty of the area we discovered peaceful villages, quaint (and quiet) towns, imposing castles and welcoming people. It is a far cry from the bustle and commercialism of some parts of the Algarve.
Our first stop was Castro Marim which is located in the estuary of the Guadiana and is well-known for its castle, salt production and varied bird life. A couple of hours, a picnic lunch and some walking through the marshes provided a wonderful way to begin our Guadiana adventure.
North from the imposing Guadiana International Bridge which links Portugal with Spain there is a good highway, the IC27 which follows inland from the river for about 70 kms to Mértola which was our destination for the second day. We left the IC27 at Odeleite and chose the secondary roads along the river. These are all well-marked and provide some beautiful viewpoints at many spots along the way as they wind their way along the riverbank. There are several good birding opportunities along this route as well.
We were taking our time on this trip wanted to check out a local inn that was highly recommended. The Piasagem do Guadiana is located near the village of Odeleite along the shores of the river. It is a small motel with great views across the river and into Spain. One of the most common comments we saw was that it was so quiet you could hear the fish jump. This was entirely true and we enjoyed an evening cocktail on our balcony as the sun sank in the west, but sunrise the next morning was outstanding. Clean rooms, a very pleasant hostess and great food make this a wonderful choice in the area.
The next morning we continued our drive upriver, stopping to visit Roman ruins in Laranjeiras and great viewpoints along the way to Alcoutim. An impressive 14th Century Moorish castle, quaint streets, laid back vibe and a nice river beach all made this a beautiful stopping point. We could easily have stayed there overnight. There is also a zip line across the river from the Spanish town of Sanlúcar de Guadiana which we are definitely going back to try out next time.
In the afternoon we continued northward out of the Algarve into Alentejo to the impressive hill town of Mértola. This is an historic town dating well back into the Classical Antiquity period, inhabited by Phoenicians, Carthaginians and then the Romans. It retains part of the old city walls, the castle dates from the 13th Century, the stunning 11th Century church was originally constructed as a mosque and the town is also home to the most important museum of Islamic artifacts in Portugal.
We were very pleased with our choice of accommodation in Mértola. The Hotel Museu also operates a small building of rooms next door called Beira Rio at 40€ per night. We had a small room overlooking the river, but there was a nice shared kitchen and balcony available for all guests. An excellent full breakfast can also be purchased for €6 per person. To top off our experience we took a 2 hour sunset boat tour for €10 each, arranged through the motel as well. This gave us some exceptional views of the town and surrounding countryside.
Through bad luck (or poor planning) we were in Mértola on a Monday. In Portugal many attractions are closed on Mondays. This is something to keep in mind, particularly if you have a short period for a visit in a particular area. For us retired folk living here we can work around it, but we spoke with a young Portuguese couple that were very disappointed as it was the only day they had to visit.
We were content to walk the old narrow streets, enjoy the views from the walls and have a coffee in the quiet squares and plan our next visit. We returned to Portimão via the smaller roads and through some of the beautiful Alentejo countryside and finally over the hills to the Algarve on the IC1 – the main non-toll road.
We brought back some very pleasant memories of a slower and less visited part of the Algarve and would highly recommend anyone with a car to make the trip along the shores of the beautiful and historic Guadiana River.